The Preacher as Sermon Illustration: The Holy Trinity/first Sunday Alter Pentecost-Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

By Satterlee, Craig A. | Currents in Theology and Mission, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Preacher as Sermon Illustration: The Holy Trinity/first Sunday Alter Pentecost-Ninth Sunday after Pentecost


Satterlee, Craig A., Currents in Theology and Mission


Is it okay for the preacher to use stories from their personal and family lives as sermon illustrations? The short answer is that opinions vary. Proponents of the preacher as sermon illustration remind us that Saint Paul says, "Brothers and sisters, join in imitating ale, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us" (PH 3:17). They contend that what is true for Paul is equally valid for those whom Christ through the church calls to peach. Moreover, research indicates that many people are engaged by sermons in which preachers refer to their own questions, struggles, insights, and joys. These listeners are drawn to sermons in which preachers reflect theologically on the meaning of their own experience as a lens through which to help the congregation encounter the gospel.(1) References to the preacher's own life can illustrate the point of the sermon, help establish identification between preacher and people, stir the people emotionally, and serve as an authority for the claims of the sermon. Thus,, some listeners suggest that preachers share their vulnerabilities with the congregations, seldom make themselves heroes or sheroes of stories, and bring their experiences into dialogue with other sources of theological authority, such as Scripture.(2)

On the other hand, some homileticans make a hard and fast rule: "Never use yourself as illustration." They contend that people remember the story rather than the point, may identify negatively with the preacher, might be stirred emotionally in ways other than what the preacher desires, and. may give the preacher less authority. Moreover, people may fear they will become "sermon illustrations" themselves. Opponents of the preacher as sermon illustration warn that the use of personal and familial material rather than material from the shared life of the congregation may signal that the preacher has no relation to the people, and does not desire one.

Somewhere in the middle, many preachers and teachers of preaching attempt to negotiate the tension by coming up with rules to guide them, including using personal illustrations no more than three times in the same congregation. Some say never be the hero; others say never be the dunce. I like the rule, "Never put yourself in the place of Jesus."

I find that, as in all, rules about preaching, they work until they don't. Someone can always name a preacher or a sermon that bloke the rule and the sermon was a smashing success--bringing people to faith, saving the congregation, or transforming the neighborhood. So rather than providing rules to follow, here are six variables to weigh.

First, David Buttrick warns of "split focus." According to Buttrick, by speaking of yourself, the congregation will focus on you and the intended subject matter will not form in congregational consciousness in a satisfactory way. Preachers often use personal narratives to build relationship and demonstrate their humanity to create empathy. Buttrick contends there are better ways of building relationship (like visiting), and that our humanness will be all too evident to congregants without our putting it on display.(3)

Second, research indicates that people want to know about their preacher--to a point. …

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