Something I’ve noticed over time is that, while we Protestants try to live “sola scriptura (by scripture alone),” a large number of traditions have crept into our theology and praxis over time. One of those areas is in the realm of preaching.
When I was in seminary, it was taught that the best illustrations were always “personal,” but after that, the best way to find powerful illustrations was to read widely and pay attention to the world around us, because, after all, illustrations are everywhere.
Now, I would argue that this is half-true: personal illustrations are, in fact, very powerful. But at the same time, there are a number of dangers and pitfalls that ought to be considered before we give them carte blanche in our preaching.
“Personal illustrations are always the best because they are personal.” This is the default teaching most hear during their preaching training.
And it is correct…well, sort of…personal illustrations are powerful because of proximity. The closer the teller of the illustration, the more significant impact it has on the audience. If I say, “I was walking through St. James Park in London and all of a sudden the queen strolled up to me and asked how the weather was…it’s a lot more powerful than if I share that my brother’s aunt’s best friend read an article about this guy who was walking through a park in England…proximity matters.
A personal illustration can also create intimacy and trust when the speaker shares vulnerable truths about their own life. If I entrust you with my story, you are more likely to believe I am a reputable speaker whose words should be taken seriously.
However…here are at least a few reasons to question the oft repeated mantra that “personal illustrations are always the best.”
Reason Number 1: Your personal stories, if used regularly (which illustrations should be) can elevate you and your personality to an unhealthy place. When you and your story become the normative expression of the Christian life, it can cause others to question the legitimacy of their faith, especially if your stories tend to consistently paint you in a favorable light.
Reason Number 2: Choosing only personal illustrations denies both the universal appeal of the gospel and limits the expression of the Body of Christ. How can we be inspired by those who faithfully followed Jesus before us, nor experience the diversity of the global church if we only rely on our own experiences to illustrate the great truths of the gospel? Doesn’t relying on personal illustrations in some sense deny the theological commitment to a worldwide church?
Reason Number 3: Sometimes the people involved in our personal illustrations don’t want to have those embarrassing, scary, emotionally-charged events shared with a group of people, even if they are Christ’s church. I can think of at least one situation in which I received a strong reprimand from my wife after sharing a distressing story that happened within our family. The illustration was powerful, but it didn’t take into consideration the impact it would have on those around us.
Reason Number 4: Your personal illustrations are, gulp, not always the most exciting. Let’s be honest, we don’t come across life-changing, hilarious, emotionally-gripping stories every day. We may occasionally, but to expect to have an inspiring illustration or two (and it should be multiple per sermon) each week is a bit of a reach.
So if personal illustrations are not always the best idea for a sermon, where should we look to find great stories, analogies, etc. to bring the gospel to life?
Paying attention to the world around you can help of course. Reading, both fiction and non-fiction will supply some of those essential illustrations.
But I would argue having a database, either personal or an external service, can be a lifeline as we try to find new and inspiring ways of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
Prevailing wisdom may respond to this article by saying, “Sure, personal illustrations are the best, but we encourage preachers to read widely, pay attention to the stories they experience in various media, books, etc…”
But that is precisely what a site like The Pastor’s Workshop does. We “read-widely,” drawing from a rich diversity of authors, genres, etc., to bring content to our users. “But that’s all canned stuff, it’s not contextually suited to the specific preacher or teacher’s audience.
But couldn’t you say the same thing about content from a book or a movie? It still needs to be adapted to a specific audience? We call our site The Pastor’s Workshop, because we believe our role is to provide you with the “raw materials” that you then craft into a sermon or a worship service that fits your time and place, your community.
So are personal illustrations the best? Well, in our opinion, it depends. Are they used almost exclusively to articulate the richness of the gospel? Are they actually engaging, gripping the emotions and speaking to the heart? Do they enfold the greater church in all of its diversity, both geographically, theologically, and historically? If not, then perhaps resources like The Pastor’s Workshop have a place for pastors and ministry leaders to better articulate our faith.
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