Chapter 137

Illustrating with Integrity and Sensitivity

7 questions for staying above reproach

Several years ago I heard a sermon illustration I thought was great for demonstrating determination. I decided to use it. Here's the story:

On the last day of the 1956 Olympic Games, Austria had yet to win a gold medal. Its only hope was in a young Austrian named Johann who had entered the rapid-fire pistol competition. His teammates weren't disappointed. As he fired his last shot, he gave his country their single gold medal.

When Johann returned to his homeland, his country gave him a warm welcome and a huge parade in his honor. Tragically, only a few weeks later, his right hand, his shooting hand, was blown off in an accident.

But this didn't stop Johann. After his body had healed, he walked out the back door of his home one day with something stuffed under his shirt. His wife noticed the bulge and followed him to a place where she saw him loading a pistol, holding it between a tree and his leg. Shot by shot, he emptied the pistol with his left hand and reloaded. After months of this daily practice Johann became proficient. Almost miraculously, he went to the 1960 Olympics where his determination paid off for himself and his country as he won a second Olympic gold medal in the pistol competition.

Isn't that a great story?

If only it were true.

When I heard this story about Johann, I was so impressed I decided to learn more. In an Olympics book, I found, to my surprise, little of what I had heard in the sermon was accurate. The man's name wasn't "Johann" but Karoly Takacs. He wasn't Austrian but Hungarian. The years he won gold medals were not 1956 and 1960 but 1948 and 1952, years in which his country won not one gold medal but ten and sixteen, respectively. And his right hand wasn't blown off between the Olympic games but during World War II, after he'd won the European championship.

I was amused after I learned the truth about "Johann," so I called the pastor who had preached the recorded sermon and told him what I'd discovered. After we had a good laugh, he told me he had gotten the story from a well-known preacher, who in turn had received the story from a nationally known writer and pastor. Who knows how many people have been impressed and inspired by an almost entirely fictional man named "Johann"?

But telling half-true or untrue stories to our congregations can threaten our integrity. Accuracy is critical also because our listeners will remember illustrations far longer than our sermon points. I have created a checkup to ensure my illustrations stay healthy.

Am I inserting myself into someone else's illustration? A cartoon showed several church members giving three large volumes to their pastor. The caption: "Pastor, since you've been with us for a year now, we wanted to give you a copy of your biography that Mrs. Smedley has put together from all that you've told us about yourself in your sermons."

To take someone else's personal experience and make it yours is theft. If you find someone else's good personal illustration, don't say that it happened to you. Attribute it accurately, and it can still be effective.

In the illustration, is someone described as "a member of my former church"? This phrase may irritate present church members, who tire of hearing about people in "that other church." It also broadcasts this message: "I'm telling this story about something confidential a former parishioner told me. If you confide in me, I may tell your story at my next church."

Just say, "I once knew someone who … "

Should this illustration be checked for accuracy? Some illustrations are like investments: If they seem too good to be true, they probably are.

For years I've enjoyed using an illustration about the introduction of Coca-Cola in Korea, to show how easily we can misunderstand one another. I found the story in a sermon magazine, which said that when the soft drink was first introduced, the company wanted to use Korean letters and words which sounded as much like "Coca-Cola" as possible, so they used "Ko Ke Ko Le." However, sales were flat because that set of Korean words means, "Bite the wax tadpole." So Coca-Cola changed the name to "Ko Kou Ko La," which means, "May the mouth rejoice," and sales increased.

I planned to use this illustration recently, but because we have a number of internationals as members, I decided to confirm it. When I showed the two Coca-Cola names to a Korean member, she informed me that neither set of words means anything in Korean. On bottles in Korea, "Coca-Cola" is "Ko Ka Kol La," which means nothing but sounds just like Coca-Cola.

I won't be using that one anymore.

Will this illustration be sensitive to people in the congregation? It's simply good manners to be sensitive to gender, age, and ethnic group. The phrase "little old lady" will turn off at least some older women; so will "girls" when talking about women. One man in my church told me how offended he was when he read in our local newspaper about an "elderly man" who was listed as 65, just his age!

Will this particular congregation relate to the illustration? Do most of your listeners read Vogue or People? Do they watch professional wrestling or public television? Do they prefer jazz or country? Every church is different, so some illustrations will work better than others.

If you have a story about a king, you might make the character a CEO, a business owner, or a union boss, if the illustration can be adapted. Your listeners will be better able to put themselves into those stories than stories about people from another age and setting.

Relate also to local people, events, and places when possible. For example, if a member of your church has overcome cancer and gives permission to use the story as a sermon illustration, that will have great impact.

Is this illustration too detailed? Early in my preaching ministry, I thought the only good illustration was a detailed illustration. If I told about a day in May, I would describe the weather, the color of flowers, how much rain had fallen during the month, and more.

What adds impact, though, are relevant details. One of my favorite sports stories is about Glenn Cunningham, a student at the University of Kansas who set an American record for the indoor mile run in 1932. What makes him even more remarkable is that at age 8, his legs were so severely burned that his doctors said he would probably never walk again. Yet with hard work and perseverance, Cunningham became a winner.

The details make the story better than just, "A young man once won a record in the indoor mile run even though his legs were burned as a child and doctors told him he might never walk." Details do have an important place if they're the right ones and they aren't too numerous.

Am I clearly differentiating true and imaginative stories? Sometimes we add unsubstantiated details to true stories: "As David gathered the stones to fling at Goliath, he gathered the smallest from the stream, knowing that even one of these, aimed by God's unerring hand, would be enough to knock down the giant." These kinds of details can alter a story's substance (and make the story saccharine).

However, imagined details that don't change the substance of the story can help listeners. I recently heard a Bible teacher tell the story of Hosea buying back his prostitute-wife. The only biblical description of this incident is in Hosea 3:23: "So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, 'You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.'"

This teacher embellished the sparse story this way: "Imagine Gomer, Hosea's wife, standing on the auction block, about to go to the highest bidder. Dressed in rags. No makeup or pretty clothes to attract men as she had done before. Looking at the crowd of bidders and seeing the grinning faces of men who'd had her. But then among the crowd she sees the face of her husband she'd abandoned. Imagine how stunned she would have been to see him come for her, his rightful wife, to buy her back with all he had. All for one woman who had rejected him, left him, and been with her many lovers. How can he love me so much? she must have thought."

I liked this illustration, in spite of the license the teller took with the story. He has brought a simple transaction to life by dramatically portraying the important scene—yet he never presented his version of the story as if it really happened. He asked us only to imagine his version, and that exercise painted a beautiful picture of God's grace.