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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.



Bruce D. Johnson is the President of Wired To Grow, a business growth coaching, consulting and executive education firm located near Charleston, SC. (www.WiredToGrow.com) and the author of “Breaking Through Plateaus” (www.BreakingThroughBook.com). Prior to that, he was the founding pastor of a church he started with two families that grew to 2,000 people. You can reach him at bruce@wiredtogrow.com

 

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Talk about it...

Joe Mckeever

commented on Aug 10, 2013

I so agree, Bruce. I know of a preacher, now in Heaven, who returned to the church all the salary they'd given to him in a lengthy ministry. (At least, he said he did.) However, the man's outside speaking ministry and the sales of his books made him wealthy enough to do that, so that it was not a stretch. So, not a fair illustration.

Bruce Johnson

commented on Aug 10, 2013

Joe, thanks! What promoted me to write this article (and all that I've written) is a desire to help pastors become more effective at what they do so they can change more people's lives. The unfortunate problem with trends is that most people simply copy the trend without ever stepping back and asking, "Is this right?" or "Is this wise?" or "Is this optimal?" And, in this case, it's a significant hindrance that needs to be throttled back dramatically. And, by the way, it's not just pastors who've bought into this trend. I shared this article with an attorney client who's Jewish and he said, "My rabbi is the same. Everything comes out of his life and he doesn't get that none of us live a life like his." So, I hope that pastors who read this article hear my heartbeat on this issue and don't just get angry. I want you and every other pastor who reads this to be more effective at connecting with and changing people's lives. I'm glad you get that!

Simon P

commented on Aug 10, 2013

I really can't seem to remember most of the stuff I do to make them into an illustration.

Dave

commented on Aug 10, 2013

i can see the point to a point.The Apostle Paul used stories about himself constantly, how he lived as a Jew and how he himself struggled as in Romans 7. I believe that the reason the congregations see Pastors as different is because Pastors have portrayed themselves as different, as though they live on a different spiritual plane to the rest of us and they have done this for centuries. It makes it easier for the normal man and woman to see that the leaders have the same struggles as the rest of us.

Edward Kraft

commented on Aug 10, 2013

Interesting article but I can't relate, as I hold a 40 hour a week job in addition to pastoring a church. I don't have a staff I can go to for assistance in finding illustrations. I only have my own life interacting with the world to draw upon. If people see a pastor's life as unreal maybe they should move from behind the pulpit and into the people's lives. I think that is how Jesus did it. So I will continue to use real events and illustrations from my life and my encounters with real people.

Bruce Johnson

commented on Aug 10, 2013

Dave, the point was not that you can never use yourself as an illustration (hence the 10-20 rule), but that it's far better to use others. And Edward, you don't have to spend hours searching for illustrations. I'll write an article on what's referred to as, "Illustrating from the present." But the basic story line is that you can create an illustration that creates a "window for the soul," that highlights a normal person's encounter with the point (and doesn't make the whole sermon about you and your encounters). For example, "Let's take a husband, we'll call him Sam, and let's say that it's Tuesday evening and he arrives home 30 minutes late. His wife, Angela, is standing in the kitchen, fuming mad that he didn't even call. This is the fifth time in two weeks that Sam hasn't arrived home in time for dinner. In that moment, Sam has a choice to make ..." You get the point. Even if that same thing happened to you, it's better to not have every illustration come out of your life. One or two a week is fine, five or more is not. Hope that helps.

Zachary Bartels

commented on Aug 10, 2013

I wish I could make every preacher I know read this article. Great reminder and challenge!!

Zachary Bartels

commented on Aug 10, 2013

(Also, please DO write the article you mention in comment #6!)

Bruce Johnson

commented on Aug 10, 2013

Zachary, thanks! And I will do (of course, it's up to the Sermon Central team to approve). Also, good of you to read the comments section closely!

Michael James Monaghan

commented on Aug 10, 2013

Oh Joe , 'you knew of a preacher, now in heaven ....? ' you knew of a preacher , but how do you KNOW , 'he is in heaven '?. Well he won't be 'in heaven' until the resurrection. If 'the sale of his books made him wealthy' I hope he made other people wealthy too . :) The Apostles didn't get wealthy as is seems to happen to todays 'ministers' . ?.

Spencer Miller

commented on Aug 10, 2013

A pastor using himself as an example of being a good Christian in an illustration can easily be perceived as narcissistic. I know of one pastor who uses the fact of how well he tithes to make others feel obligated to tithe. But tithing is not to be done due to a sense of obligation, we give as we purpose it in our hearts. Great article!

Doug Bower

commented on Aug 10, 2013

Naturally a danger is self-centeredness. This could occur even in using illustrations from others. However, there is danger in using illustrations from others. Permission is needed. There may even by copyright issues. However, genuine, open, and personal illustrations carry authority. One may have to risk the narcissism to be authentic and not just reject the personal because the trend is seen as problematic. Of course a good personal illustration comes from engaging a variety of resources as stated in the article. One of my own favorite resources was our bird feeder in the front yard. There are tons of personal possibilities which don't risk violating the rights of other speakers and writers.

Irene Allen

commented on Aug 10, 2013

This article has so many good points. I don't know if the following will make any difference to anyone here, but I will share something I experienced while teaching a group of girls ages, 9-12 years old. I was given a set of instructions after proving my potential to teach, and that was, to teach the girls all about Jesus, period.. Not once was I ever instructed to teach about myself. Therefore I could never became a star or a celebrity! If we keep our focus on Jesus teachings and allow bible characters to illustrate most of God's objective points and a whole lot less of ours, I believe stardom and narcissism will cease, starting from the pulpit to the pew- (Pastors' are not the only ones guilty of desiring celebrity status.) I do believe there are times during teaching/preaching when personal, testimonial illustration is relevant that helps the hearer see a clearer picture of God's intent.. Testimonial illustrations prove God's faithfulness, thereby helping to build faith in others. Very good article..

Kevin Joseph

commented on Aug 10, 2013

As a Pastor I am able to use myself as an example because I do not promote myself as one with a special arrangement with God. I must also fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold of eternal life. What makes me a leader, are the people following me as I follow Christ. When an individual is first born again, they are learning about Jesus, but emulating what they see others doing, and hearing what others in the ministry do. when I received Jesus as my Lord, I paid tithes based upon the testimonies of the Pastor and the congregation. I believe it is alright to use yourself as an example as long as it is not done in a prideful manner.

Thomas Giddens

commented on Aug 11, 2013

The thing is...our congregation does need to view us as "real" having the same struggles, and temptations, such as the illustration used in point#6 of this article. We struggle with pride, anger, temptation just like the average person. Just like the bi-vocational pastor that works a 40 hour a week job and pastors, he is "real". I do agree though that it is not about us, and it should never be about us. There is a trend in ministry today that I feel is dangerous, and that trend is we have gotten away from preaching Jesus. Make it about Him, use the illustrations from His life, and that will change our lives, and the people's lives we are preaching to. God Bless you all, as you labor for the cause of Christ.

Bruce Johnson

commented on Aug 11, 2013

It seems like some have missed the point of this article. The point is NOT that pastors can NEVER use themselves as illustrations, NOR that pastors are not "real." The point is that a trend has taken over that no one is questioning, "Is this right?" "Is this best?" "Is this wise?" Or, "Is this optimal?" Good communication isn't based on us and what we want to say. It's based on who we're communicating with and how to best help them hear what we're trying to say (in this case, God's truth). In light of that, using fewer illustrations out of our lives and more out of the lives of stay at home moms, teenagers, accountants, elementary school teachers, middle managers, salespeople, mechanics, chiropractors, grandparents, graphic artists, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, government workers, swimming instructors, party planners, etc. would be better. Remember, 99 of your people will never be in full-time vocational ministry. So, why not use more illustrations that give them a "window into their soul" better than using us? However, at no point am I suggesting you can't use you as an illustration (or that you're not "real"). I'm merely suggesting that 1 or 2 per week is a better percentage than 5 out of 5 or 8 out of 10. And, more importantly, that it'll help you be more effective at helping your people actually apply the Biblical truth you're highlighting that Sunday. Trust me, I'm on your side :-)

Tim Secrist

commented on Aug 11, 2013

Good article. It is a matter of balance as in all things in ministry. Pastors do have some life experiences to share, and yet we can easily overdo it. I don't think I've ever read an article on this website where twenty-five percent of the comments were from the author himself. I feel it may be best to allow others to comment and let the article speak for itself. I found it helpful and well-written, as apparently did others. Look forward to the next article, Bruce.

Bruce Johnson

commented on Aug 11, 2013

Tim, how could I not respond :-). First of all, thanks for the positive comments. Secondly, I was one of the first blogging pastors back in 2004. One of the parts I think most of us loved was that it allowed for the conversation to continue once the post was posted. Likewise, on Sermon Central, I tend to check in for the first 24 hours or so after an article has been written so I can carry on a dialogue with those who've read my article and have taken the time to comment about it. If most authors don't, that's their prerogative. But my preference, as you've noticed, is to care enough to engage. Third, as a preacher, I'm sure you know that no matter how well you've crafted your sermon, there are people walking out who think you've said what you didn't. Wouldn't you love being able to sit in the car with them driving home and clarify what you actually said and what you didn't? And finally, the best part of an author commenting is that it's not an either/or decision. If you want to read the author's comments you can and if you prefer not to, you can simply scroll past them. It takes less than a millisecond. It really is the best of both worlds. Hope that helps you understand why I actually engage in the comments section.

Rodney Shanner

commented on Aug 12, 2013

I think it is extremely important to share how God's ways are illustrated in our lives. 1) It brings clarity. 2) It makes us more credible when people know we are living what we preach.

Bill Williams

commented on Aug 12, 2013

I get the main idea of the article, and I agree with the major premise, although I may quibble over some of the minor details. Certainly, if the use of personal illustrations is done to an extreme, or if it fosters a "celebrity culture" in the church, it is wrong. Having said that, there was one point I'd like to challenge, namely, that "normal church people" don't consider pastors to be "normal," and because of that illustrations from their lives would not appear relevant to them. Sadly, I think that is true, but I guess I'm wondering, does that HAVE to be true? Do pastors simply have to accept that as a given, accept it as something they can't do anything about? And the bigger question is, if the dominant perception (whether real or imagined) of a local congregation is that their pastor is not "normal," that he is not one of them, that he is somehow on a separate level than them, that his life and experience does not relate meaningfully to their own, can that person really be able to pastor that congregation in any meaningful way? The older I get, the more I have begun to doubt that anyone can really pastor a congregation that considers him "different" than them!

Bill Williams

commented on Aug 12, 2013

@Tim, in Bruce's defense, I think it is wonderful that he does interact with those of us who comment on these boards. I get the idea of letting an article speak for itself; but if you've been around this board for a while you've noticed that many on here DON'T let the articles speak for themselves. They read into an article their own prejudices and then they judge the article and the author based on that, and not on what the article actually "spoke for itself!" So it's good when an author can come on and add clarification. Of course, that won't always stop the misunderstandings. I've seen instances where the author commented and said, "You're misunderstanding me, I mean 'x' not 'y'," and people will STILL insist that the author meant 'y'! But for those not pushing an agenda and who simply want to hear what an author has to say, it's helpful!

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