Sidestepping Illustration Dangers
Maintain your credibility by avoiding two types of illustrations.
Illustrations not only expound the text but also expound the pastor. Pity the preacher who does not realize that illustrations draw pastoral integrity, sensitivity, and sensibility to the foreground of the message. We need to avoid several cliffs along the path to illustration if our character and the sermon's message are not to become casualties of pastoral negligence.
The best illustrations have a strong identification factor. Listeners believe they can know or do what a preacher is explaining because they see the truth in a world familiar to them. Jesus' own preaching should make it clear that illustrations that touch the most hearts rarely come from references to "perfect" saints or superspirituality. Illustrations from the lofty clouds of spiritual idealism ultimately destroy listeners' willingness even to hear what a preacher has to say. J. Daniel Baumann explains why:
Of course, we are to use the lives and examples of extraordinary men and women of faith to inspire others in their Christian walk today. But to present such examples as normal or readily mimicked cheapens the significance of these saints' lives and denies most ordinary men and women the hope of ever taking similar paths. Were the events and the examples not extraordinary, we would have no record of them. Preachers who do not have the good sense to see how exceptional are these illustrations (or instructions) can hardly expect practical people to have the poor judgment to accept them.
The inappropriate self-reference
You may appear to be patting yourself on the back if you are the occasional hero of your own illustrations or the too frequent focus of many of them. Such illustrations appear self-serving and undermine a congregation's confidence that the pastor has its best interests in view.
Some instructors in previous generations forbade preachers to make any personal references in sermons. This overreaction led to aloofness in preaching that denied people real access to the humanity of their pastor. Contemporary preaching has recovered the vital biblical teaching that listeners be able to identify with a preacher if they are to believe that the sermon has meaning for the realities of their lives (see 1 Corinthians 9:22-23; 1 Thessalonians 2:8). But when preachers are the heroes of their own illustrations, this identification becomes impossible.
No one wants to identify with a braggart. I once heard a minister begin an illustration by saying, "As you know, I have resolved never to go to bed without witnessing to at least one lost soul that day." He hardly had the words out of his mouth before the man in the pew behind me muttered under his breath, "Another notch on the gun belt for ol' Wyatt Earp." In this parishioner's mind, the pulpit broadcast of personal piety did not elevate regard for the pastor; it lowered him to the level of a swaggering, spiritual gunslinger. Preachers who want to tell of a personal spiritual success should be cautioned, at the least, to confess that the victory was a result of the Spirit working beyond their own weakness.
Too much personal focus also can give illustrations, and the preachers using them, a bad name. Name-dropping one's noteworthy acquaintances in illustrations is a silly ploy for attention. Citing one's own accomplishments, degrees, or library acquisitions will undermine authority rather than establish esteem. Preachers can also make their hobbies, personal interests, or families too frequently the object of their illustrations. Lehman writes, "if, ministering to the same group of people, one consistently tells about himself, his wife, his children, his parents, his friends, and his dog, he may provoke a scream of resentment: 'Doesn't he ever talk about anything but himself and his family?'"
The Bible, history, news accounts, the experiences of others, and personal experiences are all excellent sources for illustration. While accounts of personal experiences usually carry the most powerful audience identification characteristics, such illustrations must be balanced with material from other sources to avoid accusations of personal preoccupation. Every sermon does not need this balance, but the scope of a ministry does.
Another type of inappropriate self-reference occurs when the pastor begins to use the pulpit as a confessional. A confident vulnerability in which the pastor occasionally presents himself in difficult, awkward, or weak moments will help persons identify with the preacher and convince them that the gospel is not only for Moses and his kin. I never felt more failure as a minister than when a young mother prayed about my wife and me at a prayer meeting asking the Lord to bless us "even though they don't have problems like the rest of us." I knew then that the image I had been presenting to her was one of personal perfection that put the aid of the gospel beyond her reach. The preacher's humanity is part of the message that illustrations should convey, but if a preacher too constantly illustrates with personal sin, weakness, and doubt, then the gospel itself comes into question. People wonder what good the gospel is if it cannot even help the preacher. Illustrations that present the pastor's own vulnerability should, at least, point to the victory the gospel yet offers.
As is true of so many features of the ministry, the key to effective, nonoffensive self-reference in the pulpit is balance. "The preacher's self-disclosures from the pulpit should reveal a balanced person," writes Deane Kemper. Such a person is familiar enough with people not to be self-serving or self-preoccupied, familiar enough with life to acknowledge personal struggle, and familiar enough with the gospel to indicate how it may help others because of where it has rescued the preacher himself.
Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.