Sermon illustrations


The Changing Landscape of Ministry

In this short excerpt, professor and pastor Tod Bolsinger describes how the changing world of ministry (in the west) has led some pastors to simply give up trying:

About twelve years ago, I heard a whisper for the first time. It was a pastor who was deeply discouraged and trying to make sense of why so much effort and faithfulness seemed to bear such little fruit. Over the years I would hear it over and over again: “Seminary didn’t train me for this, Tod.”

Back then, I was serving a congregation as their senior pastor and on a commission to prepare my denomination for the future. I had also started doing consulting and coaching in leading change with church and nonprofit leaders.

On one particular day, I was stunned when three of my colleagues all resigned from their churches. There were no affairs or scandals or renunciations of faith—just three good servants all throwing in the towel, overwhelmed by the task in front of them.

The circumstances were as different as the pastors themselves, but there was one thing they all had in common: their churches were struggling because so many of the approaches and assumptions of the past were no longer working. The pastors hadn’t changed their beliefs; the churches hadn’t changed their values. The world around them had changed. And it was continuing to do so at an even more rapid pace.

Taken from Leadership for a Time of Pandemic: Practicing Resilience by Tod E. Bolsinger Copyright (c) 2020 by Tod E. Bolsinger. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Change or Die

Why is change important? Why do we avoid it, even when it means experiencing much more pain staying stuck? Writer Ann Lammott explains:

If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. . . . If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. . . .When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When oxygen can’t find a way in, you die. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing—we had this all figured out, and now we don’t.

Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 86.

Changing Someone’s Mind (Isn’t Easy)

A mind is more like a pile of millions of little rocks than a single big boulder. To change a mind, we need to carry thousands of little rocks from one pile to another, one at a time. This is because our brains don’t know how to rewire a full belief in one big haul. New neuron paths aren’t created that quickly. You might be able to get a tiny percent of someone’s mind to rewire to a new belief in a given conversation, but minds change slowly and in unpredictable ways. You might be changing it in the wrong direction.

Buster Benson, Why Are We Yelling? Penguin Publishing Group, 2019, p.19.

A Desperate Prayer, a Quiet Answer

In his important book, The Crucifixion of Ministry, seminary professor Andrew Purves describes what he needed as he faced down a cancer diagnosis and the upcoming chemotherapy he would soon endure:

I remember lying in hospital after cancer surgery, wondering what the upcoming six months of chemotherapy would be like and whether I was going to make it through the process. What I need now, I thought, is not a theological treatise to edify my mind, though that has its place. Not some sense that God in Christ is in solidarity with me in my suffering and fear, though that too is helpful. What I need is a God of power. I need a God who acts to change things.

Taken from The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves Copyright (c) 2007 by Andrew Purves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Embodying a Decision

Billy Graham had a weekly radio show titled The Hour of Decision. Normally it was a tape recording of the service and message he’d given at a recent evangelistic rally. And at the conclusion of every message, Graham would issue an invitation for anyone to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, and to do so by getting up out of their seat and making their way to the front, where Graham had been preaching.

Coming forward, Graham would say, was an outward demonstration of this inner desire. He insisted that those so moved would take these physical steps to begin a new spiritual journey. This was, for them, the hour of decision. Billy Graham was tapping into something perhaps even deeper than he knew. Any time a person feels prompted to leave the present in order to embrace a new pathway in life, a decision is required. It’s not a decision just made in the head, or even the heart; it’s something embodied. It requires a physical step forward, leaving behind our desk, or friends, or comforts as we start to walk, vulnerably, into an unknown future.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage, Broadleaf Books, 2020.

From Mediocre to Super Bowl Champions

On Monday morning, February 2008, every sports page in the world heralded the New York Giants’ astonishing Super Bowl upset over the undefeated New England Patriots. And the big story within the story? Giants’ head coach Tom Coughlin pulled off the shocer with…nice. Entering the season with his boss grumbling, “He’s our coach this year; we’ll see what happens after that,” Coughlin decided he needed a leadership makeover. Jackie McMullen of the Boston Globe reported an incident that took place on media day, seventy-two hours before the big game:

A boy no more than eight or nine years old was handed a microphone…and he made a beeline toward Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin, who spotting the junior inquisitor leaned over in an almost grandfatherly fashion and tenderly attended to his question. “I hear yo’ve been a lot nicer this year,” said the child. “Who put you up to that?” Said the coach to gales of laughter.

After going 8-8 in the 2007 season, Tom Coughlin met with his veteran players. They told him he yelled too much, communicated too little, and listened barely at all. Veteran player Michael Strahan calls the change “a transformation, sometimes I barely recognize him.” (Boston Globe, January 30, 2008)

Tom Coughlin spent three years trying to change his players. It didn’t work. So he decided to change himself. And that’s what changed his players. Now they’re all sporting Super Bowl rings.

Bill Robinson, Incarnate Leadership: 5 Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus, Zondervan.

How do you help People Change: The Story of the St. Lucian Parrot

But could you imagine how valuable it would be to be able to change people’s thoughts, actions, behaviors across a whole host of areas from one to another?

This is precisely the question Dan and Chip Heath asked when they wrote their book, “Switch: How to change things when things are hard”. You could probably imagine why me, a pastor, would be interested in such things.

The book is filled with amazing stories of people, without much power, without much money, without much leverage at their disposal, who despite all this were able to create huge changes in their businesses, hospitals, and in the case of the St. Lucia Parrot, an entire Island nation.

You see, St. Lucia had a problem. The St. Lucia Parrot was almost extinct, through a combination of habitat destruction, hunters, and poachers, there was only one hundred of the birds still alive in 1977 when the head of the St. Lucia Forestry service hired Paul Butler, a just completed college graduate from the U.K. to “fix” the situation.

Butler’s job was simple, with a budget of a few hundred dollars, no real connections or political power, he was asked to save the bird from the brink of extinction.

Oh, and by the way, virtually none of the St. Lucians could care less about the parrot. Most of them at the time were more interested in eating them than conserving them when Butler showed up.

But no problem right, Butler had tons of experience, he had already spent 5 weeks in St. Lucia in the past year. It should work out just fine… And strangely enough it did.

How did he do it? How could he possibly get an entire Island nation to go from apathetic to fanatical about saving this seemingly uncared for parrot?

Well, with this hundreds of dollar he got the St. Lucians to affirm the fact that they were the kind of people who “take care of our own”

Butler organized Public events: He distributed T-shirts, cajoled a local band to write songs about the parrot, convinced hotels to print up bumper stickers, had volunteers dress up like the parrot and go into classes teaching them about it..

He even asked Pastors to quote relevant scripture passages about stewardship of the environment.

In short, he was able to convince the St. Lucians that this parrot was part of their identity, and as part of their identity, they had to protect it.

And when he had accomplished this, the public support made it possible to pass into law the changes necessary to protect it.

So what were the results? The population of St. Lucia Parrots rose from 100 in 1977 to 700 five years later, almost unheard of growth of an endangered species.

The parrot was taken off the endangered species list, and the St. Lucians were excited and encouraged to see that their identity as a people who took care of their own had been successful. The identity change led to behavior change.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Adapted from Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.

The Practice of Indirection

Payton Manning  practiced indirection. He was the winning quarterback of Super Bowl XLI. It was a rainy night, and the ball was slippery. Rex Grossman, the quarterback for the losing team, fumbled the ball several times. But Peyton Manning never fumbled. A few weeks after the Super Bowl a reporter discovered that every few weeks during the year Manning had his center (the one who snaps him the ball), Jeff Saturday, snap him water-soaked footballs.

He practices handling wet footballs so he will be ready in case it rains-even though his team plays half of their games in a dome. Manning did what he could do (practice handling wet footballs over and over) to enable him to do what he could not without this preparation (play great in the rain). We cannot change simply by saying, “I want to change. We have to examine what we think (our narratives) and how we practice (the spiritual disciplines) and who we are interacting with (our social context). If we change those things-and we can-than change will come naturally to us.

James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God:  Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (The Apprentice Series)

Preparing for Change

Change invariably leads to loss, loss to grief, grief to anxiety and, finally, anxiety to hostility. We need therefore, to acknowledge grief. We need to understand and choose to walk with the grieving. We need to lift up the truth that God calls us to change. We are pilgrims on the move and not settlers in the parlor. As I reflect back, I can recall sharing new ideas and watching, feeling and sensing the pillars of the church react with fear. It was my goal to listen to them, encourage and affirm them.

Taken from Gerald L. Sittser, Love One Another: Becoming The Church Jesus Longs For, InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Ruined Rather Than Changed: A Poem by W.H Auden

We would rather be ruined than changed

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, Princeton University Press.

The Same Old Baloney

Two construction workers had taken a lunch break and opened up their lunch boxes. One of them looked inside his box and said, “Not baloney again! I can’t believe it. I hate baloney. This is the third time this week I’ve had baloney. I can’t stand baloney!”

The other one said, “Why don’t you just ask your wife to make you something different?”

He replied, “I don’t have a wife. I made these myself.”  The fact is, most of the baloney in our lives we put there ourselves. If we ever want life to be any different from the same old baloney we keep serving ourselves, then we must break out of doing the routine.

Kent Crockett, The 911 Handbook.

Transformed by an Elevator

A family from a remote area was making their first visit to a big city. They checked in to a grand hotel and stood in amazement at the impressive sight. Leaving the reception desk they came to the elevator entrance. They’d never seen an elevator before, and just stared at it, unable to figure out what it was for.

An old lady hobbled towards the elevator and went inside. The door closed. About a minute later, the door opened and out came a stunningly good-looking young woman.

Dad couldn’t stop staring. Without turning his head he patted his son’s arm and said, “Go get your mother, son.”

Owen Bourgaize, Castel, Guernsey, United Kingdom

Watch Out for Those “Railroads”

In 1829, Martin Van Buren, then governor of New York, wrote the following to the president:

The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as ‘railroads.’
The federal government must preserve our canals for these reasons:
If canal boats are supplanted by railroads, serious unemployment will result.
Captains, cooks, drivers, hostlers, repairmen and lock tenders will be left
without any means of livelihood.

Canal boats are essential to our defense.

In the event of trouble with England, the Erie Canal could be the only means
by which we could move supplies …
The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel through the countryside
at the breakneck speed of 15 miles per hour.

Source Unknown

Working on Our Muscle Memory

Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own sermons, as I was trying to help a congregation see itself not as a building, but the body of Christ. It has been adapted for TPW.

Now, one of things I’ve realized, even in my own perspective on the church, is that we all have a default way of thinking about “church.” That is, for the majority of us in North America and Europe, when we hear “church” we often think of a building with a cross on top.

We know from studying biblical passages about the church we should picture a human body or a gathering of Jesus followers instead, right? But it’s kind of like muscle memory. You all know what muscle memory is right? It’s the idea that we have certain ways of doing things, say swinging a golf club and when we try to say, change that swing, we struggle, because we already have muscles that expect to move a certain way right? So for instance, recently I had a golf lesson. And the instructor, who knows a lot more about golf than I do, said, “I think I’d like to change your swing.”

Now, this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear, “Oh, you are just doing this little thing wrong. Fix it, and you’ll have a zero handicap.” Okay, let’s be honest, that was never going to happen.

So, let me demonstrate how I used to swing. (Show the congregation.) It wasn’t terrible, but it also had its problems. So the instructor made a couple tweaks, and I’ll be honest, at first, felt very awkward, even flat out wrong. I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I’ll never hit the ball well with this swing.”

But strangely enough, with a little practice, not only did I start to hit the ball straighter than I was before, but I was also hitting the ball further. So why do I bring this up? It’s because we all have quite a lot of “muscle memory” related to the church. We all see and expect the church to look and act a certain way. The problem is, sometimes, in order for the church to grow, we need to look back at scripture and ask, “What if our muscle memory is off?” What if we are doing things, not because they have to be done that way, but because they used to work well this way, but they don’t really work anymore? Remember, we’re not talking about changing the gospel or the essence of the Church. We are talking about fixing some of our mechanics in order to more faithfully proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, in our place and time.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon, Luke 15: Locating the Lost, Oct.10, 2017.

Yesterday I was a Dog…

Some people find themselves stuck in a rut. Without challenge or new opportunities, they begin to sound like Snoopy from the Peanuts cartoons:

“Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. Sigh. There’s so little hope for advancement!”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

What Business They Were In

In the late 1800’s, no business matched the financial and political dominance of the railroad. Trains dominated the transportation industry of the United States, moving both people and goods throughout the country. Then a new discovery came along – the car – and incredibly the leaders of the railroad industry did not take advantage of their unique position to participate in this transportation development.

In his book The Search for Excellence, Tom Peters points out the reason: “The railroad barons didn’t understand what business they were in.

Peters observes that “they thought they were in the train business. But, they were in fact in the transportation business. Time passed them by, as did opportunity. They couldn’t see what their real purpose was.”

Submitted by Chris Stroup, Source Material from Tom Peters, The Search For Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies.

See also Illustrations on Loss, RiskTransformation

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Change. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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