In Defense of Sermon Illustrations

medium_2103688683 I just finished reading Craig Barnes's fine book, The Pastor as Minor Poet. I agree with my friend who said it should be required reading for new pastors---so long as they agree to reread it every few years. This is one of those books that begs to be revisited.

Barnes's book is a welcome counterpoint to the numerous blogs, articles and books out there that trumpet the pastor's need to be an entrepreneur, fundraiser, change agent, CEO, family systems guru, social media expert, etc. Those skills are important, but Barnes's book calls pastors "to continually search for the deeper, truer understandings of what they see--both in the text of scripture and in the text of their parishioners' lives."

In other words, our attentive study of the scripture and of the human condition isn't superfluous. It's our primary vocation... not least because we're likely the only ones in our parishioners' lives doing that.

As pastors, our job is to notice and to name. It's just that simple and just that complicated.

One place where I quibble with Barnes is in the area of sermon illustrations. He seems pretty down on them, for reasons I partly understand. Stories within the sermon are tough to get right. Karl Barth used to talk about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I told someone recently that I also feel called to preach with the Bible in one hand and popular culture in the other, but it's a tricky business. (Part of the reason I enjoy tackling it. Remember, I'd rather be wrong than boring.)

I've done sermons about gospel lessons in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, children's literature, reality television, and comic book characters. On reflection, some have probably worked better than others. You have to bring people up to speed, and I can remember a few sermons in which I thought "this is requiring too much setup to get to the point."

What I hoped all these sermons did on some level, though, is to model for people a faithful engagement with the world we live in: to sleuth around for the living Christ at work in (and/or standing against) those works of culture we consume every day.

Anyway, here's Barnes's critique:

There are two great dangers that accompany every sermon illustration. The first, and most common, is that the illustration will overpower the gentle revelation of Christ that the preacher is trying to hold before those in the pews. The second is that it will be only ornamentation that distracts the listeners from the pristine beauty of the message. This is not to say that preachers should avoid using illustrations. There are times, especially when preaching out of the epistles of the New Testament, when a good illustration is necessary even for the minor poet. But even then, it is important that the illustration not get in the way of the preacher, the congregation, and the Holy Spirit.

At this point it seems like Barnes isn't against illustrations, just against bad ones. But he goes on:

The longer I preach, the fewer illustrations I seem to use. Mostly that is because I have learned to trust the incarnational nature of the biblical text. The vast majority of the Bible presents not abstract theology, but theology embodied in sacred stories. These narratives are profoundly compelling, and they don't benefit from being interrupted with similar contemporary stories.

Did you catch that? Preaching without benefit of illustrations is a matter of trust. Do you agree?

I've heard it said (and Barnes intimates) that if people leave the service remembering the story you told more than the story you read from scripture, that you somehow didn't serve the people well. I don't think it's that simple. What is the goal of our preaching? For people to leave with the scripture passage on their lips? One hopes so, and a good sermon can provide some biblical education, but it shouldn't be the primary aim of our preaching. Rather, our hope in preaching is that the gospel message continues to live in the hearts of the listeners. Why can a well-told story not do this?

I find it peculiar, this idea that the gospel is somehow threatened by our stories, as if the illustration and the scripture are somehow in competition with one another. This is a false dichotomy. A good illustration doesn't pull attention away from the text, it breaks it open further.

Preachers and listeners: what do you think?

~

By the way, you can read those Harry Potter sermons (and lots of other stuff) here.

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photo credit: Randy OHC via photopin cc The Word became flesh and lived among us. BOOM.