The Big Idea: Engage People with Organic Illustrations
How much of your life should come out in your sermon?
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PreachingToday.com: You're writing a book on using "lived experiences" to illustrate preaching. What should preachers know about organic illustrations?
Joel Gregory: This has been on my mind a lot recently. The first question here is why we'd bring in extrinsic material to our exposition. For those of us who believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, why import something from the world outside the text? I think there are two main reasons.
First, people need it to stay engaged. Linear thought can be hard to follow, and people are losing the skill. I like to joke with my students that some people have all ADD and all people have some ADD. We're distracted. We're distracted because of the devices in our palms, and for a host of other reasons. I watch people when I'm doing expository preaching, and I would say there is a veil that falls over them about three or four minutes into careful word by word or thought by thought exposition.
When you talk about Ur and Mesopotamia and the difference of Abram and Abraham for three or four minutes, people check out. It's not that I want to encourage that, but I'm not preaching to an imaginary congregation of another era. I'm not preaching to Martin Lloyd Jones' congregation. They could take a 50-minute long exposition with hardly ever any lived experience in it. I'm preaching to the people who are actually in front of me, who in no other arena of life really have to give attention to discursive linear thought.
Like when I get a text. When I get a text message: Meet you at Starbucks, I don't have to parse that. I don't have to say, Hmm. Meet is an imperative verb, it's in the second person singular, and Starbucks is a 40-year-old brand. But Scripture's not like that. You have to sit and wrestle with it. People must do that. You spell relief in preaching by sharing an organic lived experience.
Second, the way Jesus spoke often moved from the lesser to the greater, or the lower back to the higher. So if I'm going to talk about Psalm 1 and the tree planted by the rivers of waters, I can expound that Psalm, the significance of that imagery biblically. But to connect with people today, I need to bring in another tree out of nature. Say, the little fig tree that grows in South Africa over the Echo Caves that has a 400-deep root, deeper than a football field is long. It goes down as far as it needs to go to get water and nourishment, and therefore that little tree can withstand almost anything. I move from nature to grace.
I interviewed Eugene Peterson once about his principles in producing The Message and he said that "everything in nature is illustrative of something in grace." I've found that to be true. Thus, there's a natural connection between life and the Scriptures that can bring wonderful color and depth to the text.
Can you have too many illustrations? What's a healthy ratio of "life" to "text"?
Thanks for asking that. The text must dominate the sermon. There's no question. Illustrations need to play a supporting role. Illustrations need to play the role of a streetlight and not a Tiffany lamp. You don't use a Tiffany lamp for bedside reading. You put it in the center of your living room so that everybody who comes in and looks at it says, Wow, a Tiffany lamp. But I've taken many nighttime walks, but I've never looked up at the streetlight and said, Whoa, what a gorgeous streetlight. It shows me where I'm going.
I'm looking for stories that have streetlight quality with reference to the text. I don't want them to wash over the text. I don't want anyone to leave, saying, Wow, what a story, rather than, Wow, what a text. Illustrations are supporting actors.
How much of yourself should you put into your illustrations?
Well, most people don't have enough stuff happen to them to be a natural fit to illustrate every text in the Bible. If you try to do that, you're going to get gratuitous and tell cute stories about you or your family or your dogs or things that have nothing to do with your chosen portion of Scripture. Because of that, I say preachers should use no more than one personal story per sermon, maximum. This helps squash laziness. It's a freshman mistake to grab something that happened to you on Saturday and preach it on Sunday. And honestly, I'd be hesitant to commend even one every week because it is unlikely, given the range of texts and biblical literature, that every week you're going to have anything in your personal life that relates to every text.
That makes sense, but isn't there a place for longer, more gripping illustrations? For example, your sermon on PreachingToday.com based on Jeremiah 45, "It's Good to Get Out Alive," uses a long, emotive personal illustration.
Preachers should do that only with real care, or they risk derailing their exposition. That example was an instance, rare in my preaching, that a relatively recent personal experience was almost a one-to-one match with my text—Jeremiah's oracle spoken to Baruch. My opener attempted to match the tone of the passage.
One of the problems in contemporary preaching is trying to make everything happy talk. I've got to be able to leave church at noon full of the pastor's happy talk and something pragmatic to do immediately. The problem is that not every text is like that. In this case, what I wanted people to leave with was Sometimes it's good to get out alive.
Does it ever work to use the Bible to illustrate the Bible?
Yes, it can work. There's no question. In fact, it works for some very good preachers. ButI'm not certain that those preachers have an average congregation of sermon listeners. They have a self-selected group, to some degree, who have the capacity to listen to sheer biblical exposition throughout a sermon. They have a familiarity with biblical story and imagery.
If you're in a big metropolitan area, with millions of people, there is room and more than room for an exegetical preacher who does that because to some degree the people will self-select who hear that and hear it gladly. If I'm out here on Route 3, there's not going to be that same degree of self-selection. So I think most people in the pew need some help from lived experience.
How about the use of humor in the pulpit. What can laughter contribute to a sermon?
It just depends. The young Spurgeon was criticized by Anglicans and Baptists for having humor in his sermons. Spurgeon's famous answer was, "If they only knew how much I hold back."
So there's that. But with that in mind, there is no room in the pulpit for gratuitous humor, or for humor that is foreign to the preached text. There are preachers who hear something on Leno or Letterman and think that their congregation needs that joke or two to warm them up before they preach. I just don't think that's worthy. It caters to all of our egos to make people laugh, but gratuitous humor lowers the moment of preaching.
I think humor works best if it's turned back upon the preacher. If you're going to use personal stories, it helps to use a story where you are the butt of the joke. A story that shows you in your humanity, your clumsiness, your ineptitude. I'm really not helped at the end of the day by preachers who let the congregation know, I pray more than all of you, witness more than all of you, my family is more perfect than your family.
My best personal stories have shown me when I was a klutz. When I didn't have the right thing to say. When I was the punchline.
Sometimes preachers can have the attitude that people in the pew just need to toughen up where biblical literacy or attention spans are concerned. What's your take on that?
Well, that view of preaching is very transcendent. But for most of us mortals, in order to communicate or to hear we have to bring in some relatable experience. Now, this can vary with the preacher's rhetorical gift—presence, persona, the whole package of the preacher. Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones in London could stand there for 50 minutes of almost lawyer-like or doctor-like diagnostic biblical preaching and hold 2,000 people in his hand. That was Lloyd. The man sounded like Richard Burton in the pulpit. He was a Welshman with a great capacity for language. We don't all have that. For some of us, the only way we're going to hold people's attention is by putting lived experience in sermons that is always, always subordinate to and grows organically out of the text.
If you need another opinion, just look at Jesus. He pointed at pigeons and said, Look at those birds. The Greek is an imperative. They were probably right over there where his audience could see. Look at them. He didn't stop preaching when he did that. It was organic, woven into the very image that he was preaching.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Professor of Preaching at Truett Seminary, Distinguished Fellow of Georgetown College in Georgetown, KY, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.