[ 4 minutes to read ]I heard an old preacher say … Illustrations can be fun, illuminating, interesting, inspiring, and memorable. People will remember a really good illustration long after they’ve forgotten the sermon. I guess good illustrations are like grandma’s homemade meatloaf; it’ll stick to your ribs. It’s no wonder preachers love to get a hold of a really good illustration.
But, what about when illustrations go wrong? Or, how can illustrations go wrong? I can think of a few ways I’ve seen illustrations bite the hand that feeds them. It’s a problem when an illustration takes prominence over the exposition. When an illustration becomes the main point of the sermon, the cat is serving its owner. Illustrations are problematic when preachers spend more time searching for illustrations than searching the Scriptures for understanding of what God has actually said. But, I want to focus on perhaps the most crucial way an illustration can go wrong.
Prepare to be Shocked
When a preacher preaches to a congregation, they generally expect him to be telling the truth and take what he says to be the truth. In other words, a preacher usually gets the benefit of the doubt. One of the worst train wrecks of illustrations is when they are not true. I realize illustrations will sometimes come from fictional stories to illustrate a point. Generally, that is fine as long as the preacher is not trying to pass it off as some true account. I’m thinking, here, more along the lines of semi-biographical stories that happened to you or someone you heard about. I am also thinking about illustrations from history. Let me illustrate.
Several years ago I was listening to a sermon online and the sermon crescendoed with an illustration drawn from the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. It was a remarkable story well-delivered. It’s funny that I don’t remember what the sermon was about, but I do remember this illustration. The preacher stressed certain details, as they were important to the point he was making. I listened with great interest, though I must confess it was more historical interest than biblical interest. I was only vaguely familiar with the history of this battle and the story was fascinating.
Whenever I hear a story like this, I immediately wonder if it’s true. As frequently happens to me, I was plunged into a lot of reading about the Alamo to understand the history. The key details and, in fact, the crux of his illustration are unconfirmed historically. There were very, very few survivors from within the Alamo, so establishing exactly what happened there was difficult. Though some of the details he shared were new to me, I discovered they are a part of the common mythos of the battle. So he didn’t just make stuff up, but was likely retelling what he had heard or read somewhere. Even though it was likely unintentional, he repeated a story that was untrue, or at least suspect and unconfirmed.
This may seem a minor point. Some would say it’s no problem since the point he was making with the illustration was true. We have to have a higher standard for the pulpit than that. I would hope preachers would never want to lie intentionally, but I equally hope they do not want to lie unintentionally either. If we play fast and loose with the facts of a historical account, how can we be trusted with the facts of Scripture? You will lose credibility by stretching the truth with illustrations.
Let’s Have Tall Standards Not Tales
I recently listened to another sermon online featuring a powerful illustration. In fact, it became apparent early on that the entire sermon was built around this particular illustration. The illustration was also a historical event, though not as well known as the Alamo. He started the illustration by saying he heard this story from an old preacher.
Like I often do in such situations, I listened to the account with interest and immediately wondered if it was true. I had never heard of it before, so I searched to see what I could find. Immediately, I saw that this illustration had been used by a wide variety of preachers for a number of years. I found it used in articles and devotions online. This fact tells us a couple of things right away. First, if the illustration has been used a lot in sermons, it’s probably best not to use it. At the least, it makes your sermon stale and it could be worse. Second, if the illustration has been used extensively by unorthodox preachers, you will be associating yourself with them in some ways. That would be undesirable.
Not only did a search find numerous retellings of this particular story, but comparing them yielded widely varying details of the story. This is a red flag for the veracity of an account. Searching also revealed that quite a number of people had obviously been trying to verify this story, another bad sign. I searched around for a while and could not find any substantial verification for this story. I didn’t find it on Snopes, but my initial conclusion would be this story is a cultic urban legend. It probably has some kernels of truth it began with, but has been so exaggerated and embellished that it hardly bares any resemblance to the original.
Once again, the preacher has lied to people, though it was probably unintentional. With the technology we have today, there is really no excuse for not verifying your illustrations from history. If you are going to use an illustration from history, at least make sure it is a reliable account. More could be said about this instance, but it teaches us another valuable lesson. Just because you heard an older preacher tell a story, don’t assume it’s true and use it in your own sermon. If it’s a story that’s supposed to be true, you need to verify it before using it or don’t use it. Again, we have to have a higher standard for the pulpit than a motivational speaker who doesn’t much care about the truthfulness of their illustrations. They’re only interested in the effect.