In Defense of Sermon Illustrations

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I just finished reading Craig Barnes’s fine book, The Pastor as Minor Poet. I agree with my friend who said it should be required reading for new pastors—so long as they agree to reread it every few years. This is one of those books that begs to be revisited.

Barnes’s book is a welcome counterpoint to the numerous blogs, articles and books out there that trumpet the pastor’s need to be an entrepreneur, fundraiser, change agent, CEO, family systems guru, social media expert, etc. Those skills are important, but Barnes’s book calls pastors “to continually search for the deeper, truer understandings of what they see–both in the text of scripture and in the text of their parishioners’ lives.”

In other words, our attentive study of the scripture and of the human condition isn’t superfluous. It’s our primary vocation… not least because we’re likely the only ones in our parishioners’ lives doing that.

As pastors, our job is to notice and to name. It’s just that simple and just that complicated.

One place where I quibble with Barnes is in the area of sermon illustrations. He seems pretty down on them, for reasons I partly understand. Stories within the sermon are tough to get right. Karl Barth used to talk about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I told someone recently that I also feel called to preach with the Bible in one hand and popular culture in the other, but it’s a tricky business. (Part of the reason I enjoy tackling it. Remember, I’d rather be wrong than boring.)

I’ve done sermons about gospel lessons in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, children’s literature, reality television, and comic book characters. On reflection, some have probably worked better than others. You have to bring people up to speed, and I can remember a few sermons in which I thought “this is requiring too much setup to get to the point.”

What I hoped all these sermons did on some level, though, is to model for people a faithful engagement with the world we live in: to sleuth around for the living Christ at work in (and/or standing against) those works of culture we consume every day.

Anyway, here’s Barnes’s critique:

There are two great dangers that accompany every sermon illustration. The first, and most common, is that the illustration will overpower the gentle revelation of Christ that the preacher is trying to hold before those in the pews. The second is that it will be only ornamentation that distracts the listeners from the pristine beauty of the message. This is not to say that preachers should avoid using illustrations. There are times, especially when preaching out of the epistles of the New Testament, when a good illustration is necessary even for the minor poet. But even then, it is important that the illustration not get in the way of the preacher, the congregation, and the Holy Spirit.

At this point it seems like Barnes isn’t against illustrations, just against bad ones. But he goes on:

The longer I preach, the fewer illustrations I seem to use. Mostly that is because I have learned to trust the incarnational nature of the biblical text. The vast majority of the Bible presents not abstract theology, but theology embodied in sacred stories. These narratives are profoundly compelling, and they don’t benefit from being interrupted with similar contemporary stories.

Did you catch that? Preaching without benefit of illustrations is a matter of trust. Do you agree?

I’ve heard it said (and Barnes intimates) that if people leave the service remembering the story you told more than the story you read from scripture, that you somehow didn’t serve the people well. I don’t think it’s that simple. What is the goal of our preaching? For people to leave with the scripture passage on their lips? One hopes so, and a good sermon can provide some biblical education, but it shouldn’t be the primary aim of our preaching. Rather, our hope in preaching is that the gospel message continues to live in the hearts of the listeners. Why can a well-told story not do this?

I find it peculiar, this idea that the gospel is somehow threatened by our stories, as if the illustration and the scripture are somehow in competition with one another. This is a false dichotomy. A good illustration doesn’t pull attention away from the text, it breaks it open further.

Preachers and listeners: what do you think?

~

By the way, you can read those Harry Potter sermons (and lots of other stuff) here.

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photo credit: Randy OHC via photopin cc The Word became flesh and lived among us. BOOM.

25 thoughts on “In Defense of Sermon Illustrations

  1. Marci

    I tend to agree with Barnes. I use illustrations from the news or culture. But I read too many sermons that use illustrations from commentaries or other preachers that feel like they have been added because the preachers were told in preaching class that they need illustrations in their sermons.
    I prefer, in most sermons, to just let the text inform the sermon.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Again though, that’s an argument against *bad* illustrations, not against illustrations in general.

      I agree that the text tells you what it needs in order to be preached effectively.

      Chuck Campbell’s question was always “where have you SEEN it?” It being the good news that the text is proclaiming.

      Reply
      1. Erika Funk

        Fantastic questions. Makes me wonder how we are defining “sermon illustration”. It is meant to illustrate or illuminate an aspect of the scripture text so we can understand it better. Stories from the paper or even a film can do that. Sometimes preachers do tell stories for the sake of telling a good story. Perhaps that is where Barnes sees a problem.

        Reply
  2. Peggy Haymes

    Seems to me a pretty good preacher named Jesus used lots of stories.

    For me, a good story reaches my soul in a place where words about The Story cannot. I don’t think the problem lies with stories. It lies with preachers who have not used them well enough (Spare me the Readers Digest story or the obviously made up story with the pastor’s name inserted.)

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    1. Bob Braxton

      Story is the key for me (as someone in the pew) — I agree – the point is not so much illustration or even illumination but (Walter Wink’s point) human transformation, which is where Story grabs me. Every Sunday as I listen to sermon(s) I wait for “where is the story?”

      Reply
      1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

        And I should add that Barnes talks about the importance of “images,” which he prefers to “illustrations.” He says, “Poets never use illustrations, but they often invoke powerful images.” Having taken The Preacher and the Poet, I get where he’s going, though I’d be hard pressed to define the difference. Seems to me an image (or a story) is simply an illustration that’s been skillfully woven into the sermon.

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        1. marci

          Maybe that’s what I was trying to say (not having read his book).
          Illustrations to me are those odious stories pulled out of sermon illustration books or lifted from published sermons.
          I’d much rather connect the text to the world around us in images. Not in canned stories.

          Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Ooh, now you’ve got me wondering how preachers of different denominations approach this.

      Barnes is very Presbyterian. Some Presbyterians insist that you read the scripture passage without any emotion or inflection, letting the words speak for themselves without the person getting in the way (as if that were even possible).

      In related news, sometimes I don’t feel like a very good Presbyterian 😉

      Reply
  3. Lee

    I think a lot about little stories and big stories – our lives are kind of little stories that fit into God’s big story. As a preacher, I think the task is to connect the two. Sometimes a good illustration can do that best. Also, I think good illustrations are culled from material that is already pointing to some truth, and the preacher is simply saying, look, this truth is like this other truth.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this – I have to preach again in two weeks after being out of the pulpit since April.

    Reply
  4. Paul Hooker

    There is something to be said for the power of metaphor–particularly metaphors that cross the dividing lines of media–in conveying truth.

    I notice that atop your post is the opening illumination from the Gospel of John in the St. John’s Bible. It strikes me that the image summoned by the haloed and cross-crowned figure in gold leaf stands as a kind of visual metaphor for the reality conveyed by the words of John 1:1ff. In a single image, I see a human-like figure, but one shining with golden divinity, who is both angelically haloed and surrounded with tiny prefigurements of the “throne” on which he will be crucified–are they stars-cum-crosses in the night sky? or the crosses awaiting those who will follow this golden one? In a sense, the entire thrust of the gospel is visible in that single image, and it conveys a kind of truth that requires a much larger verbal presentation to describe. It isn’t “true” in the sense that we equate truth with factuality or congruence with lived experience. But it speaks a truth neither fact nor experience can convey.

    The longer I preach, the more I seem to choose a single narrative or word-image that stands as metaphor for the text. I don’t “tell stories” or “include illustrations” so much as I tell the story in more than one way. I think I’m doing it as a sort of flank attack on the defenses we erect against the gospel, a useful approach when the gospel itself is too familiar to be successful in a direct frontal assault. Art–whether visual or narrative–has a way of persuading us to suspend our insistence on the conventions of our own reality and to surrender ourselves to the reality the art itself creates. Sometimes–maybe even most of the time–the best truth is told in that altered reality. Indeed, I wonder if the gospels, and perhaps even the whole of Scripture itself, is not best understood as a reality all its own, to which we surrender ourselves and by which we are shaped and normed.

    Reply
  5. Kelly Shriver

    For what it’s worth: I often find that This American Life or Wiretap or Snap Judgement preach far more than most pastors I listen to, *because* they tell a story and tell it well. It’s the gospel on display in life lived (be it fictional or “real”). If we take Barth seriously (and as a good Presbyterian, I try to), isn’t there something to be said about Christ being revealed in the word of scripture (yes), but also in the community of believers and the world we find ourselves in?

    It’s my observation that my people come to church to hear a story: both from scripture but also from the world they live in, because the two talk to one another. So, long live the illustration/story/image/icon/etc!

    On a related note: this is exactly what the column “The Real Word” tries to embody over at Fidelia’s Sisters: http://youngclergywomen.org/category/fidelias-sisters/real-word/ Those places where our lives/stories are changed because of scripture, or our reading of scripture is changed because of our lives/stories.

    Reply
  6. Casey FItzGerald

    This is Casey-bait! 😉 I must say that since I began telling the biblical stories I use fewer non-biblical story illustrations…though I would not throw them out altogether! Storytelling, biblical and otherwise, can get at deeper truth.

    I do wonder if, in our generally biblically less-literate state, it is best to stay focused on the biblical stories at hand–which are so rich on their own. I would offer that the greater risk is not telling a story that is somehow better than the biblical story, but telling a story that detracts from the depth/meaning of the original story…but we risk doing that every time we preach…regardless of our inclusion of “illustrations”!

    Reply
  7. Mary Beth

    I think in stories, and I think of the world and what happens to us as story. And, therefore, I want story in a sermon. Not a preacher, but a careful and dedicated listener.
    (Note: I do not appreciate sports jokes in sermons. Ugh.)

    Reply
  8. Wendy

    Like Bob above, a congregation member, I also appreciate a brief, illuminative story as part of a sermon. Completely. It’s one of the things I like best about my pastor’s sermons (and I know she has read “Pastor as Minor Poet”). Wandering, too much background and summary, yeah, “bad illustrations”–there’s not much worse. Most of us are too concrete for the kind of abstraction described above.

    I will add, if one has a multi-aged congregation, Carolyn Brown advocates including some illustrations from popular culture that younger people will now. I know it’s becoming overdone, but when my Pastor started talking about Elsa in her sermon a few weeks back, my 7-year-old perked right up and was totally engrossed in what was being said–and not just about Frozen.

    Reply
  9. Chelsea Cornelius

    People remember stories. Though in advising others on this topic, I’ve given the advise, “Tell a story, but don’t tell too good of a story.” We ought to tell stories that ultimately allow people to remember the text and the message, not stories that stand alone.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      I get where you’re headed, but I also think it sounds weird. “Don’t bring your A stories. Just use your B and C ones. The good news of Jesus Christ can’t stand up to the A ones.”

      For Christians, there’s no story better than the gospel story. If an illustration overshadows it, the problem lies not with the illustration, but with something else entirely.

      Reply
  10. George Love

    Canned stories – set pieces – brought in just for spacing aren’t very useful. But illustrations drawn from news, experiences in the life of the congregation, popular culture I’m all for. Sermons are typically better if someone hears them. I think a good illustration hits a sticky spot in some listener’s minds and gives the sermon a chance it might not otherwise have had a being heard. I had an illustration involving the World Cup two weeks ago that I kind of liked but when I was done I thought it didn’t really advance the point and was very close to cutting it. Then I thought of two middle school boys who would be sitting on the second row in front of their parents and in front of me that Sunday morning. Both play soccer and both are very much into the World Cup. They are usually very attentive and would have been fine without it, but I left the illustration in knowing that for a minute or so I’d be talking to them. And, just going on visuals, it did seem to perk them up for that mornings sermon. They always listen, but that morning they leaned forward a bit more. That’s what I think an effective illustration does – engages us – makes us lean forward a bit more.

    Reply
  11. Diane Roth

    I use fewer illustrations the more I preach, but I do still use stories. (I like story better than illustration. are they the same? are they different?) I hate the canned illustrations, for a number of reasons. one is that they often don’t feel authentic. I also like image and metaphor. A long time ago I referred to “Zero” from the movie/book “Holes” to talk about the power of names, and I saw one young girl in the congregation sit straight up! And when I connected Jesus walking on water with the olympic gymnast (many years ago) who jumped even though she was injured, and asked the question about both Peter and the gymnast, “should they have jumped?” a little girl from my congregation said it was the best sermon she had ever heard.

    Reply
  12. Emily Rose Proctor

    To me, Jesus’s response in Matthew 13 to the question of why he speaks to the crowd in parables is relevant to this question. Granted, it’s different from his response in Mark, but it seems to me like his reason (at least in Matthew) is that the people have become hard of hearing and dull of heart. Tom Long speculates in his WBC Matthew Commentary that perhaps Jesus begins speaking in parables at that moment in his ministry because they are a higher level of teaching and he’s stopped concerning himself quite as much with the crowds–that the parables are more for his disciples’ sake. But I wonder if he doesn’t switch to parables to make it easier for the crowds to hear what he is saying, and to remember it long after he is gone. If the stories, illustrations, images we connect to the Kingdom of God are things we encounter often in our every day life, then it can have the effect of making the profane sacred (something from reading Eliade in Religion 101 has apparently has stuck after all these years), as well as continually reminding us of God/the good news.

    Reply

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