Your sermon illustration is bad and you should feel bad


This is Garfield.

It is a thing that exists, and continues to exist, in this world.

There is one thing I can assure you of, though: The people who like Garfield, the people who even think about Garfield are not long for this world. I give it another 10-20 years.

Anyone under 30 might enjoy Garfield from time to time, or as a parody of itself, or remixed into something else (like Garfield without Garfield). But we’ve moved on. Garfield is a thing for another generation.

So we can understand why it exists and even understand why it continues to exist, but it’s not for us, right?

That’s your sermon illustration… illustrated.

I recently started listening to a sermon from a church I was once a part of. Mostly out of curiosity, just to see how the preaching is going. The bad news there is I ragequit after two minutes. Because the sermon opened with a “funny” story, a joke really.

That’s a bit of extreme reaction without any context. But still, it’s what I feel when I have to sit through one in real life. I feel like walking out. Again, an extreme reaction, but it’s how I feel.

This might sound like a nitpick. It might be a nitpick. Or it might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, because generally the types of preachers who do this are preaching from some kind of 1990s preaching playbook that always, always makes them mediocre at their job.

I live in a world where things are signifiers. If I go to a website and it looks like the Space Jam website or something from Geocities, I don’t expect a quality experience. If I buy a book thas has a terrible cover, I don’t expect a good read.

You telegraph your intentions at the start of the things you do. Storefronts, cover, beginnings of sermons, you get the picture.

When you tell a cheesy, “funny” story to start your sermon, you’re diminishing your role as a preacher of truth, as a sayer of difficult things, as a messenger of God.

But not only do you insult yourself, you insult me. You assume that I have to be eased into whatever you’re saying with some kind of tangentially related mini-parable.

You don’t need to worry about that, man. I’m already at church. I’ve already bought the package deal, I’m probably there for the whole thing. If your hook is this thing you got from a book of stories to tell before a sermon or whatever, you’re already doing me a disservice. This isn’t to say preachers can’t be funny, some are very funny from time to time (bless your heart, Mark), but that has to be a natural thing, not a pre-packaged, scripted, safe-for-all-ages groanfest.

Maybe this makes me super-millenial or something, but I don’t need my funny bone greased up and massaged to transition me from the singing to the not singing, you know?

What would you think of a newspaper that put Garfield on it’s front page, above the headlines every single day? Would you take that seriously? I sure wouldn’t. Or if Google News was like… I know you came here to find out serious stuff about the world and whatever, but first have a GARFIELD to take a load off!

The Messenger is the Message

I’ve thought a lot about “the medium is the message”. It’s probably one of the most insightful phrases about media to come out of our media-saturated 20th & 21st centuries. I’ve mused about how live worship music (for instance) takes on the aspects of a concert no matter how hard you try to stop it, simple because using the form of a concert to worship with speaks as loudly as the music itself. Why do worship leaders drift away from using the word congregation and start using the word audience? Why does the audience spontaneously start clapping after a particularly invigorating song? Well, it’s because both the leader and the participant see a concert, not a service, and the language of a concert bleeds over into the worship experience.

Now, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing (or both) is yet to be seen. For better minds than mine to figure out. But at least we can agree that tossing the conventions and traditions and history of the church casually aside without any thought whatsoever is a bad idea. And that we need to talk about these things.

Another area this happens in is preaching. The way you preach is a powerful message, perhaps even more powerful that the message you wrote because it’s not something your listeners are going to think of.

Preaching is a craft and a calling. It’s not for everyone. It requires someone who can think not only about what he’s saying, but also about the way he’s saying it.

If you take the huxter revivalist preaching tradition as an example, what does the rhythmic, almost hypnotic style of preaching say about what you’re saying? Is it, perhaps, that you’re trying to bypass the brain? Is it that you don’t trust people to be convinced (as, I might add, Paul was convinced) as much as brainwashed?

Or take the sedate, methodical, three-point sermons of the Reformed church. Is there a distrust of emotion there? Is there a desire to satisfy an intellectual hermeneutic framework without addressing the whole person?

Or imagine a topical sermon that simply references scripture to support its points, when it feels like it. What does this say about scripture? Does it say that scripture is to be used as a crutch for your arguments only when you can find a verse? Or, deeper, does this say something about our basic trust in the Bible? Maybe it’s saying that we don’t need scripture as the source, the thing that we go to first to find where to start instead of where we go to confirm our biases.

To put it another way, translate the message of a sermon into the message of a life. If a person says he’s a Christian but only appeals to the Bible selectively when he feels like it, to confirm what he’s already doing, what does that say about his foundation? Isn’t he supposed to go to scripture first and let it and the Holy Spirit guide him to the truth? Isn’t he supposed to hide the word in his heart so he doesn’t sin, as opposed to hiding it in his pocket so he can win arguments?

Recently my wife wrote an article about how she loves going to church because church is a place to hear God’s word. And this is as it should be. The difference between the church and a bunch of losers is the Bible. This is an important difference. It’s a difference that bears repeating, and examination.

So what does your preaching say? Where do your sermons come from? What’s the hidden message behind the message?

Four things that make me rather cross.

  • Transit strikes.

I can get on board with unions. They’re necessary to balance the interests of workers against the interests of corporations. I get that. Yet when it comes to transit workers, some of the most overpaid and impolite unionised individuals in existence barring perhaps automotive workers, I’m not on their side. Especially when the TTC members reject an offer that would make them the highest paid transit workers in the country, even in the face of their union recommending they take the deal. Especially when they give an hour or less notice that they’ve decided to strike, stranding tens of thousands of people who count on the TTC to operate. They could not possibly have engendered less public support for their actions. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about the strike is enraged at the TTC. Couldn’t the union have simply started a work-to-rule campaign wherein they stopped accepting fares? That would have put pressure on the city without garnering for themselves the further, aggravated dislike of an entire city.

  • Shark fin soup.

I watched Sharkworld last night. The film is amazing, but the events portrayed in the film are a travesty. An unmitigated, utterly barbaric raping of the oceans. Frankly, anyone who eats shark fin soup should have his arms and legs chopped off and be left to starve on the side of a road somewhere. If flaunting your wealth involves damaging the life-support system of the entire earth, perhaps you should be made to feel the cost of that. I hope future generations look back on the Chinese and Taiwanese as a sort of barbarian race of ecological terrorists whose actions severely diminished the richness of the world’s oceans. Not that I have much of a high horse to speak from; Canada’s seal hunts and government subsidised fisheries are just as ruthless and unconcerned with long-term impact. Personally, I stopped eating fish — any fish, at all — about six months back, after reading A Short History of Nearly Everything. And it’s sad to see that a bunch of nutcases at Greenpeace are doing God’s work (in their own strange, rabid way) while the vast majority of Christians don’t bother to tend to the world’s largest garden: the seas.

  • Evangelicals in bed with the Republican party

Certainly after Mr Bush’s disastrous dual terms in office, some of the Republicans in the States must be second-guessing their religious affiliation with their party. That it took a bunch of crooks to do that is a great tragedy. That some will never question that affiliation is a greater tragedy still. Still, with the mythology of the Pilgrims and Religious Freedom and Democracy and Fighting The Evil British and God Is On Our Side still going strong, it’s not really that strange. It’s just… sad. America is no more on God’s side than Charlemagne or Constantine (whose in hoc signo vinces should still ring as an affront to the very ethic of Jesus, and one of the greatest lies the devil has managed to perpetuate over the ages). You mix your religion with your politics and you find that they make very bad bedfellows. Your religion must of course inform your political views, but politics must not ever inform your religion. Politics is about the exercise earthly power; Jesus is about the exercise of heavenly power. These things are very, very different. They are oil and water. You should not mix them up, or soon you find people painting Jesus on the side of their nuclear warheads.

  • Cliches in sermons.

If you are attempting to preach an authentic sermon, something that resonates in the hearts and minds of your listeners, don’t use cliches. Don’t use marketspeak. You’re not a motivational speaker. You’re not an entertainer. You must approach scripture and let it inform your method of preaching. People do not need handy bullet points that rhyme and have a particularly pleasing cadence. Bullet points do not impart truth, at least not any sort of useful truth. As anyone trying to implement and idea will tell you, it’s not simply enough to have a great idea: you need a great implementation. That is to say that while a turn of phrase might be handy to encapsulate the thrust of your message, the nuances are where the magic lies. Or, you might say, the difference between Mac OS X and Windows. There’s a reason Jesus used parables and not a lot of handy tracts. You can mine a parable for ages, you can look at it from different directions and see things you didn’t see before, you can over-analyse it, you can approach it with too much gravitas, you can do all kinds of things. A bullet point is boring. A bullet point that rhymes and sticks in your head is annoying and boring.

I have to expand on this. Jesus told stories that had a particular richness to them. They weren’t simple anecdotes with simple points. They were designed so you have to look at them just the right way — often in hindsight — to get the point. And often you’ll quite dislike the point because it hits you dead-centre.

These days preachers tend to tell stories both brief and humorous that make a particular broad point that lines up with their sermons. These stories are blunt instruments. They’re not really narrative: they’re cleverly disguised bullet points. There’s no meat. There’s no content. They’re like a dancing monkey with colourful clothes: it might be briefly entertaining, but you certainly wouldn’t want to marry the monkey. It’s just a monkey. Take off all the clothes and strip away the dancing routine and it’s just a monkey. And you’ll find that monkeys are rather boring, after all.

I’d like to be told the truth. Not a particularly one-dimensional version of the truth that can fit in three points and thirty minutes. If telling the truth means you need to go into overtime and tell stories and confuse me and dig deeper than I’m prepared to go, DO IT. God knows I’m never going to do that myself, willingly.

Theology: First resort of the gun-shy.

Cerebral theology can be an escape route, I think. It’s a lot harder to get the home crowd riled up about predestination, for example, than about knocking off the gossip, or being a light in the community, or what is the difference between conscience and preference.

I’m not saying that anybody’s trying to avoid anything on purpose; people just do this by nature. Unless you’re a sociopath like me, you probably don’t want to stir the pot or disturb the peace. What better way to do that than by ignoring tricky real-life issues and sticking to the tried and true dictums of theology passed down from the fathers? There’s nothing safer than a precept filtered through the scrutiny of those great men.

You’d have to be crazy to disagree with that.

Try to make me live like Christ in a pagan culture by eschewing their value system, though, and you’ll have to take me kicking and screaming to the bank. Even then you’ll probably only get my pocket change.

Sometimes I think this is because we don’t really get a whole bunch of things. Like for instance if I believe that the end times are right now, I am first of all on the edge of being a crazy person with a sign, but this is also going to change the way I live and see the world. If I believe that humans have free will and can freely choose this than and the other thing, this is going to change the way I live and see the world. Theology affects things. It effects things, too, now that I think about how that word is spelled.

I imagine you could show this connection by doing this progression: Scripture –> Theology –> How To –> Vision. That seems simple enough, for people that like formulas.