How to Ruin a Sermon Illustration
Every preacher is a storyteller. We build suspense, reveal twists and turns, and bring our listeners to a place. While trying to communicate God’s eternal truths, we often will tell a story to bring the point home. Often, these illustrations come from our own lives. We even sometimes share other people’s stories. There is both a good and bad way to do this. Here are some tips to help you not ruin your next sermon illustration.
Give Credit Where Credit is Due
Give credit when telling someone else’s illustration. In our day of podcasts, blogs, and books, we often come across incredible anecdotes from great communicators. And we will be tempted to just steal their story and pass it off as our own. Resist this temptation. When telling a story that someone else wrote, make sure to give credit to the storyteller. I have literally said aloud, “Billy Graham told a story once about….” and then I launched into the tale. This is being respectful of other people’s intellectual property. This is a matter of integrity.
Whenever possible, get permission to tell other people’s stories. If you are going to tell a story about a family in the church, you need to ask them first. This saves you and them from embarrassment, anger, or offense. One time, I told a powerful cautionary tale of a mentor. It was a story they had shared in a classroom, so I thought it was fair game. But a visiting family who knew this professor were shocked by the story and asked if I should be sharing their personal lives to my congregation. I reached out to this professor who said this story was one that involved others and shouldn’t be recorded or shared. I had to remove the sermon from our website and learned a very tough lesson. Ask people before telling their personal stories.
This is also true of your family. Many pastors will tell stories from home. They will talk about their kids and their spouses for dramatic and comedic effect. Be careful when doing this. I have known pastor’s kids who hated the times after Sunday services when complete strangers would approach them and tell inside jokes. Your kids have to grow up around these people. Protect them, don’t use them.
Lastly, be very wise when sharing about current personal struggles. I have seen pastors who use the pulpit as a therapist's couch. They talk through problems they may be having at home, about anger at another family in the area, etc. When I was a youth pastor, I had an argument with my wife on the way to Sunday School. We had not resolved that issue, and I used our fight as an illustration that morning! The kids laughed, and my wife had to sit there feeling exposed and dishonored. I have seen pastors share stories that their own families didn’t know, but they were working through it on stage. This is not the place to deal with your demons. There is not enough room on the pulpit for the Bible and your frail ego. Don’t bring the tender, unresolved issues of your life to be seen by all. It is not emotionally healthy, and it is not fair to those who are attached to you.
These are a few tips when telling true stories to a church on Sunday morning. Many stories involve more than just you. They require some forethought and consideration. Your family, your friends, and your integrity are not worth an emotional moment on a Sunday morning.