Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Wasted Sermon Illustrations

You know how it is. The preacher spends 10 minutes explaining how we all matter - in God's Kingdom there are no red-shirts. Only gold ones. The congregation of elderly women and their grandchildren look at the (male, 55-year-old) preacher in blank incomprehension. The preacher wraps up by saying "and, after all, we must all be like children in God's Kingdom," sets photon torpedoes to full power and mentally takes out the back row, says the closing prayer, puts on his anorak and wanders out into the cold.

The illustration that nobody gets. Either it's too complicated, or it's a subject only the preacher could understand. Or it's aimed at the wrong people. Or even the preacher doesn't understand either the illustration, or the thing that is to be illustrated. So here are some examples of which areas of illustration not to use - and when.

Anything that itself needs explaining.

Army metaphors for the Christian Life that reveal your hidden desire to attack Belgium.

Astronomy except to say "Isn't space like really big?"

Contract Bridge - especially that tricky occasion you made 2 over on 3NT but everyone else went one down going for the slam.

Double Entry book keeping as an illustration for sin and redemption (or anything else)

Entropy - See "Quantum mechanics."

Fine Details of railway timetabling.

Giles Fraser's articles on the Guardian website. Not as well-known outside Social Media as you think.

... is a bit like the Trinity

Keith Lemon - unless the entire congregation consists of TV programming commissioners, nobody will have watched him.

Luxury Foreign Holidays

Monty Python's Life of Brian

Mumford and Sons lyrics except at "Hipster Church".

People in or known to the congregation - without prior agreement. "You know,  Angela was telling me what it's like suffering from piles, and I'm sure she won't mind me telling you..."

Richard Dawkins - see Giles Fraser

Quantum mechanics - unless the congregation is made up of physicists or chemists. Nobody will understand it.

Quantum mechanics - if the congregation is made up of physicists or chemists. As it will be discovered that actually the preacher doesn't understand it.

Reminiscences of Margaret Thatcher.

Science Fiction or Fantasy literature, unless at "Geek Church"

Things that show how clever the preacher is - as nobody will believe it anyway.

What it's like to be a bishop


  1. I shouldn't use metaphors if I were you. There are an awful lot of innocent literal minds out there, as well as those characterised by Alan Bennett as "people who make a beeline for the wrong end of the stick", and your carefully-chosen rhetorical device might well blow up in your face.

    The makers of the film The Deer Hunter used a very powerful metaphor to convey the tragic insanity and random death-dealing of the war in Vietnam: the American soldiers, once captured, are made by the Viet Cong to take part in games of russian roulette. But once released, the film was condemned by liberals as libelling the poor little Viet Cong: they never, no never, employed such a cruel tactic! Useless for the hapless producer to point out that no-one had said that such scenes were historical, any more than the wedding scenes or the deer-hunting scenes were historical. They were fairytales used as such tales have always been used, illustrating a deeper truth.

    Unless of course you meant a simile. Don't use similes either, unless you desire someone to say, "How dare the preacher compare the ineffable X to the vulgar Y! That's blasphemy and I shall write to the Bishop tonight!"

  2. Well, I'd find sermons easier to follow if they had more Star Trek analogies.

  3. I once nailed a sermon with a reference to Richard Dawkins; I would recommend mentioning him - everyone hates Richard Dawkins (oops, not very Christian!).


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