To illustrate is to shed light on a subject. Illustrations are like windows in a house: They let the light in, but they can also let in voyeurs, seeking to eye the forbidden.
Voyeurism is not just the vice of those who want to see what they should not see. It is also the vice of those who want to show what they should not show.
There is no place for voyeurism in the pulpit. Sermon illustrations should be like letting sunlight into a window, not like putting a spotlight on a stage.
Here are 10 guidelines for avoiding indecent exposure in the pulpit.
1. Thou shalt not embarrass thy neighbor.
When I got married, Crystal gave me blanket permission to use anything I thought was appropriate or helpful. She had one qualification: “Don’t embarrass me.”
I strive to keep this one commandment. So should you. Don’t say anything that will embarrass your family and friends. Don’t criticize, settle scores or take shots from the pulpit.
Affirm, don’t embarrass.
2. Think twice.
Many inappropriate things are said in preaching spontaneously. We just don’t think about it before we say it. This is why you should write out your messages. And as much as you can, stick to the script.
If you stray from what you prepared, and it includes a personal reference you have not thought through, think twice.
3. Do not boast.
You should not use illustrations about what you drive, where you live, what designers you wear, how much money you have, who you know or anything else that conveys you have it going on.
Don’t use the pulpit to brag about material things!
4. Ask permission.
A simple way to stay out trouble is to ask permission before you mention someone from the pulpit.
Get permission first, and you won’t have to get forgiveness later.
5. Do not use illustrations from counseling sessions.
Church members do not confide in pastors (or other members) because they fear their private business will broadcast. “Please don’t talk about me from the pulpit,” they plead.
Your people should trust their discussions with you are confidential. You undermine this confidence when you use counseling conversations as pulpit material.
6. Spare us the details.
Once or twice a year, I permit unplanned testimonies in worship. But I remind volunteers they cannot tell it all.
It just seems the more details they try to give, the more the testimony goes astray. The same thing happens in preaching. The more details about a situation, conversation or experience you give, chances are you will over-speak. The devil is in the details.
So only say what is necessary to get your point across.
7. Don’t play the hero.
Avoid illustrations in which you are the star. You don’t want people to think more highly of you than they ought. A surefire way to produce misguided hero-worship is to tell stories that feature you as the hero — the one who prayed or forgave or sacrificed or exhibited patience or led someone to Christ. Be the villain.
Let Jesus be the hero.
8. Good for the soul, bad for the reputation.
If there is something you need to confess, tell it to the Lord—not to your congregation! Beware: in the attempt to prove you are human you can suggest you are not spiritually qualified to preach.
Even if it is something buried in the past of your pre-Christian days, still be careful. You want to invite prodigals home, not make the far country seem desirable.
9. Make sure you are over it before you talk about it.
When we have gone through hurts and pains and sorrows, we want to share the lessons we have learned with our people. Let those lessons sit a while. Make sure you pass the class first.
Don’t vomit your hurt feelings, open wounds or unhealed offenses on your congregation.
10. Remember it’s not about you.
The best way to avoid indecent exposure in the pulpit is to stay focused on the fact that the message is not about you. Your people should learn more about Christ from your sermons than they learn about you. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves,” said the Apostle Paul, “but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Christ’s sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).
What else would you recommend to avoid indecent exposure in the pulpit?