Over the past five decades an insidious trend has crept into American preaching—and not only are most pastors unaware of it, they’ve embraced it without realizing how significantly its depreciated the impact of their preaching.
Back in the '60s and '70s, very rarely would a preacher use an illustration from their own life. In the '80s, a few pastors started sharing a story or two out of their own lives, but rarely every week. In the '90s, the trend escalated and you could anticipate hearing a story or two each week out of a pastor’s life. Now it’s not unusual to hear a message where 60–100% of the main illustrations come out of that preacher’s life.
If you’re young, or not a student of preaching, it would be easy to miss this trend. But when you step back and look at the overall trend of preaching over the past half century, it’s mindboggling. Even worse, it’s hindering the potential impact preaching could have on millions of people’s lives. But before I explain why, let’s take a look at how we got here.
How Did This Trend Happen?
The first reason is the impact of the Me Generation. Those of us who grew up in the Me Generation ('60s and '70s) know that we stopped appreciating history and started focusing more on us and now. Illustrations about Spurgeon and Hudson Taylor, the civil war and Greco-Roman culture, or even biblical characters were all things from the past. We didn’t care about those things. We just cared about us. And as more of us became preachers, it just seemed sensible to us to start using “us” illustrations.
Second is the advent of the large church movement. Note: I’m not against large churches. I pastored one. But one of the unintended consequences of the large church movement has been the creation of a culture of celebrity preachers—and celebrity always invites imitation. Subtly, those of us who aspired to grow our churches thought, “If [big name pastor X] uses lots of stories out of his own life—and I want to pastor a big church—then I ought to do the same.”
The third major cause of this trend would be the cultural shift here in America toward authenticity. In a desire to be more “real,” most of us have chosen to share more stories from our lives in order to communicate we’re just like them.
And the fourth major cause of this trend is the one most pastors don’t want to admit—it’s easier. Let’s be honest, finding great illustrations is hard work. Reading books, magazines and blog posts. Searching the Internet. Asking staff. Talking to people outside the church, etc. just to find the right illustration is hard work.
However, sitting back in your chair and thinking, “What’s something out of my own life that kind of relates to this point?” is pretty easy. All you have to do is access your memory banks.
When you put these four trends together you end up with a movement that could easily be described as the Primarily Pastor-Driven Illustration Movement (PPDIM). But why is PPDIM so bad?
What’s the Point of an Illustration?
One of the mistakes I frequently observe in most of the messages I hear is that the preacher isn’t searching for the best illustration for the point they’re making, they’re simply searching for an illustration—and the difference between those two practices is huge. It’s as if they remember their preaching professor saying, “Never make a point without an illustration,” so they’re now just filling in blocks in an outline (1.a. explain, 1.b. illustrate, 1.c. apply).
But the point of an illustration is to be a “window to the soul,” as Chuck Swindoll says. It’s to help the people in our congregations see the point more clearly. It’s to remove the dust and drab, the cloudiness and the murkiness, the misunderstandings and the misbeliefs around a point so that a window is opened and the person listening can say, “I get it.” And beyond getting it, it’s to help them apply it. It’s to help them see, “Oh, that’s what it would look like for this to be real in my life.” Or to help them see, “Oh, I do that.” Or, “That’s what someone who’s following God should do.”
The point of an illustration is not to be funny. Nor is it to fill up airtime or fill in an outline. The purpose of an illustration is to help the people who are listening to better understand the point being made and how they can apply it (or how it applies to them). Once you own that principle, you’ll understand why PPDIM is such a bad trend.
Why Pastors Are Bad Illustrations
I know most pastors don’t like to hear this, but to normal church people you are not normal. In their minds, you’re not real. You have some kind of special deal with God, and the work you do is totally different than what they do. So, any time you use an illustration out of your own life, you are, by definition, not opening a window into their own soul about how they can make something you’re sharing real in their life.
For example, I recently heard a pastor of a large, very successful church, in a series on giving, mention that he had several times over the course of his life felt that God was calling him and his wife to give all their money away to a building campaign. And each time they had done that, God had proven Himself faithful and they ended up with more than they had before.
Now, how many normal church people do you believe thought that was a good illustration that helped them get a good picture of how they could give sacrificially to God? Very few. Why? Because, in their minds, pastors have a special deal with God. They’re not real.
On the other hand, if that pastor had used an illustration of an auto mechanic or an elementary school teacher or an insurance salesperson or a secretary or a computer programmer or a nurse or a janitor who had done the same, now that would have been a better illustration. However, an even better illustration of sacrificial giving would have been something less dramatic because most normal people will never drain their bank accounts for a campaign—ever!
As much as you might not like it, as a pastor you’re not “real” in the minds of your people. And that’s why you’re not a great source for illustrations. When you talk about your work or your week you’ve just hindered the effectiveness of your message.
Where To From Here?
If you’d like to turn this around and help more of your people both understand God’s truth and know how they can apply it to their lives, I’d encourage you to implement the following seven practices.
1. Reduce Your Personal Illustrations to 10–20% of Your Total Illustrations.
I’m not saying you should never share a personal illustration. My issue is with the primarily pastor-driven illustration movement. Even though people may not think you’re “real,” it never hurts to help them understand that you are and that you’re one of them.
2. Change the Questions You Ask Yourself Each Week.
The questions you and I ask ourselves determine the answers we receive. If you want a different answer you need to ask a different question. Instead of asking, “What’s something out of my own life that kind of illustrates this point?” you could ask, “Who in my congregation would be a perfect illustration of this point?”
3. Use Your Staff to Help Uncover Illustrations.
I tell my clients that they should start off their staff meetings each week by asking for stories of their people. This creates a database of great stories. Plus, it’s a double win. Your staff members get to highlight someone from their ministry and you get to share a story of a “real” person in your congregation who’s a perfect illustration of the point you’re trying to make.
4. Raise Your Illustration Standards.
If your standard is, “Anything in the ballpark is fine” or “What’s easy” then that’s what you’ll shoot for. If your standard is that you’ll only be content with a great illustration that perfectly fits a point, then that’s what you’ll shoot for.
5. Don’t Use You as an Illustration About “Churchy” Things.
Whether you like it or not, 99% of the people you’re preaching to will never be on a church staff. So sharing stories about your calling to ministry, for example, while cathartic for you, won’t be helpful to your people. You’d do far better to share how Joe, an ordinary guy in your congregation, felt God called him to open a non-profit or go on a missions trip or lead a small group or help a neighbor in need, because Joe is considered normal to them.
6. Make Sure You’re Not the Hero of the Story.
Unfortunately, too many church people put pastors on pedestals. So, if you’re going to use you as an illustration, make sure you’re rarely the hero. For example, several years ago, during a message on pride I said,
“The interesting thing to me about our ego is that it often raises its ugly head in ways we would never anticipate. In fact, this past week I was sitting at a red light at the corner of Great Seneca and Clopper. I was in my Infiniti, enjoying some music, the sun was out, and I was in a good mood. In the lane next to me, a young kid in a little hot rod pulled up. His windows were down, his music was blaring and he was revving his engine. When the light turned green, I don’t know what happened, or what force overtook my body, but somehow my foot forced my accelerator all to the way to the floor and I blew the kid away. My first thought as I looked in my rearview mirror and saw him behind me was, ‘Yes!’ My second thought was, ‘I can’t believe I just did that. I’m a 42-year-old community leader and pastor of a large church and I just drag raced a kid right near his school.’ What was that about? What caused me to do something I would never intentionally do? It was my ego. I just wanted to win.”
My people loved that story (and talked about it for a long time afterward). But the reason why it worked so well was because they thought, “Hey, he’s one of us.”
Note: This doesn’t mean you can never be a good example; it just means that you don’t want to do it too often or you’ll keep increasing the distance between you and them.
7. Make Heroes of “Normal” People.
If the goal of a great illustration is to help the people of your congregation not only get a point but know how to apply it, then I’d encourage you to make a commitment to finding and using illustrations of “normal” people who are living out the principle you’re talking about. Don’t talk about your devotions, talk about Sally’s. Don’t share your evangelistic encounter this week, share Ahmed’s. Don’t talk about your reflections about the missions trip you just got back from, share those from the people who went with you.
Is all of this harder? Absolutely. But serving God has never been about doing what’s easy. It’s always been about doing what’s required so that we may present “everyone complete in Christ.”
If you want to be a better and more effective preacher, if you want to connect more deeply with your people, and if you want to help them become more fully-devoted followers of Jesus Christ, then I’d strongly encourage you to turn in your membership card to the Primarily Pastor-Driven Illustration Movement.
Some trends are worth bucking. This is one of them. I, and the people of your congregation, hope you will.