Dumb stories we preachers keep telling

“Whatever was I thinking?”

I’ve said that. And I’ve sometimes thought it about other preachers whose sermon illustrations were just entered into the competition for dumbest story of the year.

A “dumb” story, for our purposes here, refers to an account of something that distracts from God’s message, or sucks all the air out of the room so that no one hears anything for the next 15 minutes, or overpowers the sermon so the story is all anyone remembers for the next week, or is mind-bogglingly offensive. Or is just plumb stupid, did we say that?

Most of us preachers have been guilty of telling one or two of those over the years. Or a hundred.

Consider this a call for greater discernment in selecting stories and illustrations, parables and news items for our sermons.

1) A story that overpowers the sermon and smothers whatever point you were making is unworthy and needs to be tossed.

Have you heard the one about the dad who went fishing with his son and the boy’s friend?

As the story goes, the other kid was not a Christian, so when the boat capsized and the father could save only one of the two, he grabbed the unsaved child and let his son drown. After all,  he knew his son was saved and would go to Heaven. (The sermon is supposed to illustrate something about witnessing or salvation, not about going boating with your dad and a friend.)

That is a terrible story. And, I can just about guarantee you two things….

1) It did not happen.  This surely evolved from some pastor “making up a situation” for his sermon, and then, seeing the effect it had on people, using it again before other audiences. Other preachers picked it up and before long, it went viral.

2) After a preacher tells it, no one hears another thing he says.  The congregation does the same thing you and I did the first time we heard it: They sit there wondering what they would do in a similar situation, growing angry that such a choice had to be made in the first place, and becoming irritated that the preacher would mess with their minds that way.

Do. Not. Use. That. Story. Ever.

2) A story you like too much and tell too often should be jettisoned.

Telling a story several times to the same congregation causes it to backfire and do precisely the opposite of what you intended.

At a family reunion, my cousin called home to see how things were going. Her daughter gave a report on church that day and the sermon in particular. When she got off the phone, Annette said, “The pastor told that story of the kid who fell in the well and all the community came together to rescue her. I know he must have told it a hundred times! He does it to put a guilt trip on us for not working together to save the lost.”

With an impish look, she said, “I’ve heard that story so many times, I now root against the rescuers. Die, kid!”

Not exactly the response the pastor was looking for. But when the preacher overuses a story, it turns off his audience and works against the point he wants to make.

3) A tale that offends anyone with even an ounce of discretion is one your sermon can do without.

At a denominational gathering, the speaker of the hour, a pastor of a significant church, told a story about his adolescent daughter.  “She is a blonde,” he said, “and this girl is soooo dumb that….” and he went on from there.  Mercifully, I have forgotten the involved tale he told about his dumb-blonde daughter. The entire time, I sat there  squirming in my seat, unable to believe what I was hearing.

Then, at the end, the preacher said, “I’m just kidding. None of that happened. That was just a joke.”

If one person laughed, I didn’t notice.  We were all mortified–for the daughter who was the butt of this story, for the preacher who had no better judgment than to tell it, and for ourselves for having to hear it.

What did he preach that day?  I seriously doubt if anyone remembers.

We all have committed bonehead mistakes in the pulpit.  I have, and if you stay in the ministry long enough, chances are you will also. Thankfully, God’s people are gracious and will forgive us.

Traveling across the state, I had found a church service on a radio station.  The guest preacher of that congregation evidently had not been told that his message was being beamed out over the air waves.  And, clearly, he thought he was talking to a bunch of “good ol’ boys under a southern shade tree” because he told a racial story using all the slanderous terms for the other race. While I have mercifully forgotten the details of the story, I recall how embarrassing it was even to hear it.

Then, in the middle of the story, there was a long pause.  For a moment I thought the station was having trouble.

What happened was that someone informed the preacher–maybe slipped him a note?– that his sermon was being heard throughout that part of the state.  It was almost humorous hearing him stammering, back-tracking, and apologizing.

That poor excuse for a preacher dropped the rest of that story and went on with his sermon. I guarantee you that’s one message he will never forget. I remember laughing and thinking,  “Good! He got caught doing something he should not have been doing in the first place.”

The underlying problem, I assume, is that we preachers get so comfortable in the pulpit that we begin to think “this is my place” and “they’ve come to hear me.”  Both are major fallacies.  The pulpit is the Lord’s and the people are there to worship Him and hear from His word.

God’s preachers should exercise the greatest of care to see that we honor the Lord with all we say, and that our stories enhance the message rather than detract from it in any way.

As one prone to mispeaking, I find myself praying Psalm 141:3 almost every day of my life: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.”

Each time I approach the pulpit, my heart is  praying the words of Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

4 thoughts on “Dumb stories we preachers keep telling

  1. Joe, those are all fantastic and so true. I could add another: Don’t tell stories in which you are the hero. It’s tempting for us, especially if we feel insecure, to tell a story about the church member or deacon at that other church who was so unspiritual an critical of us, and how we put him in his place. But that leaves our current congregation wondering, “Is this how he’ll talk about me someday?” It also lacks humility. When I was in seminary, a well-known preacher told a long story about sitting next to a liberal politician (who we had all heard of) on a flight, and the conversation they had in which the preacher showed him the folly of all his political stances. I had a hard time believing it really happened that way, and it certainly didn’t exemplify Christian humility. Occasionally, it’s good for us as preachers to show how God has used us to change someone else, but we need to tell such stories sparingly and with great humility.

  2. Thanks for the reminder. I use the same advice I gave to volunteers overseas that I had to translate for. Use the KISS method (keep it simple) and use biblical illustrations. Inevitability someone will forget and use an illustration like “my wife’s car” and the folks in the service start thinking about what a great country he comes from where even the wife has a car. I usually ended my advice to a volunteer by saying that if we start losing the folks I’ll switch to my own sermon and he’ll never know it. In 36 years I only had to do that once.

    • That’s funny–and rich. Love it. Reminds me of a pastor friend I once knew here in Mississippi who was part of a mission team “back in the day” who traveled into the heart of Africa, and according to the story, in addressing the pastors there he was showing slides of his home back here, his double garage, cars, etc. Truly offensive.

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