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preaching article When Illustrations Become Sermon-Killers (And What to do About Them)

When Illustrations Become Sermon-Killers (And What to do About Them)

based on 4 ratings
Sep 25, 2015
Scripture: none
(Suggest Scripture)

My friend Dave, who pastors a church in my neighborhood, reminded me of a story that used to show up in sermons from time to time.

After the war, a soldier who was severely wounded was returning home. As soon as he entered the states, he phoned his parents to say he was bringing with him a buddy who had lost (fill in the blank–an eye, a leg, both legs, etc) and was confined to a wheel chair.  He wanted the guy to live with the family and promised that he would take care of him. The mother said, “Now, honey, we appreciate your compassion and your dedication to your friend. But this would be too heavy a burden on your family. This is not a good idea.”  A few days later, the family got word that their son, the one just home from the war,  had ended his own life in a hotel in a distant city.  When the remains were shipped home, the family discovered he had one eye, one leg (or no legs), etc.  He had been telling his parents about himself.

Dave and I agreed that such a story, whether true or untrue–it’s impossible to know–is a show-stopper. A sermon killer.

Let the preacher tell such a story and no one will hear a word he says afterwards.  The congregation will be sitting there reflecting on that story, grieving and imagining and reflecting.

The wise preacher will never tell a story that clobbers his sermon and destroys the point he was trying to make.

I reminded Dave of another one which thankfully I never used, not even once, but which fits this sad category.  A father took his young son and another boy on a fishing trip. A storm comes up, the boat swamps, and they are all dumped into the lake.  Since the boys cannot swim and the father cannot save both, he has to make a quick decision. According to the story, his son is saved and the friend is unsaved. So, Dad abandons his son to drown knowing he will go to Heaven, and rescues the other kid.

That tragic story is supposed to make the point that we must do all we can to reach the lost, and that the saved person goes to Heaven.  However….

The message actually received by the congregation is more along the lines of “the preacher just told a weird story of a father who abandoned his son to drown in order to save a kid he barely knows.”

Such an emotionally packed story destroys a sermon. No one ever hears another word the preacher has to say.

Now, it’s possible to take one sermon and build the entire sermon around it, the way our Lord did with the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15.  But, man, that takes skill most of us do not have. I sure don’t.

Better to prayerfully build your sermon first, then, looking at the various points you are making, find appropriate illustrations.  Not too many or their effect will be lost.  And nothing distracting or “attracting,” because the illustration is not the point.  The point is the point, if you will.

A failsafe method for determining whether a story is a sermon-killer is this:  try it on your wife.

You will know in a heartbeat.  She will tell you in one way or the other.  You may not like her reaction, but you’ll not be in the dark.

If she reacts negatively at all, friend, you have your answer. Do not use the story.  Her instincts tend to be more sensitive than yours in these matters. (I recognize that’s a broad generality, and like most generalities, it has its exceptions. But not many, I submit.)

The sermon is the thing, not the story.  Never let the story hijack the sermon.

Preach the Word.



Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at JoeMcKeever.com.

Talk about it...

Fernando Saravi avatar
Fernando Saravi
0 days ago
Great advices! I have read about these stories before and although I see their points, they are so emotionally loaded that they cloud the reason of most persons. And then, testing an illustration with your wife is also a keeper. My own wife is the finest critic of my sermons. She is sensitive but has a lot of common sense. If she doesn't like an illustration (or the whole sermon at that) I know I must avoid it. Believe me, I have attempted to go ahead anyway and ruined a couple of sermons. Not anymore! Best wishes in Christ.
Harry Love avatar
Harry Love
0 days ago
I must disagree with your observation that it is best to construct the sermon and then add the illustrative materials. I feel that they need to incorporated as you write because they can influence and continue to be used in a retrospective fashion in the body of the message. I also do not fear the illustration killing a sermon. The most ineffective preaching is that which is not illustrated and I feel that Jesus provides this example. Jesus was a story-teller who occasionally preached. He used parables and illustrations constantly to imbed the deeper truths of God and I believe that our best preaching is when someone goes homes remembering an illustration, because after 45 years of preaching I am not vain enough to believe that most of the congregation goes home remembering my precious 3 points. I have people who I have not seen in thirty years still come up to me and tell me an illustration that I used long ago and long forgotten by me. Tphey remember the illustration because it spoke God's Word to some corner of their spiritual walk. Don't discourage the use of illustrations. Thousands of poor preachers are still trying to find out how to do public speaking and they need all the tools they can find.
Harry Love avatar
Harry Love
0 days ago
I must disagree with your observation that it is best to construct the sermon and then add the illustrative materials. I feel that they need to incorporated as you write because they can influence and continue to be used in a retrospective fashion in the body of the message. I also do not fear the illustration killing a sermon. The most ineffective preaching is that which is not illustrated and I feel that Jesus provides this example. Jesus was a story-teller who occasionally preached. He used parables and illustrations constantly to imbed the deeper truths of God and I believe that our best preaching is when someone goes homes remembering an illustration, because after 45 years of preaching I am not vain enough to believe that most of the congregation goes home remembering my precious 3 points. I have people who I have not seen in thirty years still come up to me and tell me an illustration that I used long ago and long forgotten by me. Tphey remember the illustration because it spoke God's Word to some corner of their spiritual walk. Don't discourage the use of illustrations. Thousands of poor preachers are still trying to find out how to do public speaking and they need all the tools they can find.
Joe Mckeever avatar
Joe Mckeever
0 days ago
Nothing here was meant to discourage the use of illustrations. I'm a story-teller who often errs on the side of using too many rather than none.
Patrice Marker-Zahler avatar
Patrice Marker-Zahler
0 days ago
I disagree with you Joe, but what is new. This is one of the most memorable illustrations I have ever heard and one of the few I remembered. The sermon that was preached was being companionate to others with your words.
Shalom Transcription avatar
Shalom Transcription
0 days ago
Illustration is powerful when the right story is selected.
Lawrence Webb avatar
Lawrence Webb
0 days ago
Joe, I think your point is well made about the story of the disabled, dismembered soldier and the preacher who had to choose which lad to rescue from drowning. That's always a hazard with any "canned" illustration. I constantly roam the Internet in search of stories I consider valid. Both those examples seem far fetched. May I say, "made up"? As the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true (or too bad either), it probably is. I have to part company with you on waiting till the sermon is done and then inserting worthwhile stories. Fred Craddock used to say you should start at the end of the sermon, usually with a substantial example, so you will know where you are going from the start. You probably are right -- and wise -- to check things out with your wife. I don't often do that, but I probably should. She often has saved my neck in other areas of life when I've listened.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.