While playing golf with friends several years ago, one of them said, “Tim, I really wish you would share a greater number of personal illustrations in your sermons.”  While I don’t remember the exact words of my response, it was something to the effect of, “The reason I hesitate to do so is because I feel that if people learn and remember more about me than they do about Jesus, then I have failed as a preacher.”  Nothing more was said about the subject at the time, but I later learned that my friend was quite unhappy with my answer.  Not long afterward, he and his family left the congregation and he took the opportunity to express significant displeasure with my preaching as a whole and with my ministry in general.  I still don’t know for sure if the “personal illustration” issue was a cause or just a symptom of his overall negative assessment of me, but I suspect it was the latter.

Since then, I have tried to be more open about sharing personal experiences and other “life stories” as illustrative material in my lessons, although I am still not entirely comfortable with the concept.  There is a commonly held belief that without such transparency and self-revelation the church will not be able to relate to a minister and will perceive him as lacking credibility and authenticity.  I will admit that when I do share these kinds of stories, it is relatively easy to elicit enthusiastic laughter from the congregation and a significant number of affirming comments after the service.  But, is that the point?  Is that the measure of effective Biblical preaching?

The current issue of Leadership contains a great article by Mark Galli entitled “Enough of Me Already!”  Galli, who is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, offers great insights into this quandary that I have wrestled with over the years.  I would encourage you to follow the link and read the entire article.  As an enticement to do so, let me share a few quotes from Galli:

“The sermon has inadvertently become a showcase of the pastor’s life and faith.  Less about the centrality and greatness of Jesus.”

“…to this day, years later, people will remark, ‘I still remember that sermon you preached where you told about putting your fist into the wall.’  They don’t remember Jesus.  They remember me.  They tell me how vulnerable I was to tell such a story on myself.  They tell me how much they laughed.  They never talk about grace.”

“Phillips Brooks once described preaching as ‘Truth through personality.’ Indeed.  But with the flowering of the personal illustration, preaching often morphs into ‘the truth of my personality.'”

“This is one reason we’re so easily tempted to illustrate the gospel with our lives.  In a therapeutic culture, we are anxious to connect with listeners in a personal way.  The personal illustration is the easiest way to do that, especially if you can describe a personal flaw or mistake humorously.”

“Finally, we’re hooked on personal illustrations because our listeners adore them.  They love a good story, especially if it’s a funny story about the pastor’s most embarrassing moment or about cute kids doing cute things in the pastor’s home.  It makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy and connected.  It’s so much more interesting than theology or the Bible!  And it makes people like the pastor.  Who doesn’t want to be liked?”

“It’s time to find other ways to illustrate sermons than me, me, and mine.”

Rather than calling for a complete cessation of the use of personal illustrations, he offers the following beneficial counsel: 1) Illustrate like Jesus; 2) Illustrate with the Bible; 3) Illustrate with discretion.  Read the online article for Galli’s explanation of each.

As I reflected on Galli’s article and the conversation with my friend and brother several years ago, a phrase from an old familiar hymn came to mind: “less of self, and more of Thee.”  While I will continue to share personal illustrations in future sermons, I want to do so with discretion and caution.  I want to make sure that the message is “Christ, and Him crucified” rather than “Tim, and him humanized.”  Less about me.  More about Jesus.   

Advertisements