Home Pastors Preaching & Teaching Are You Telling Lies When You Preach?

Are You Telling Lies When You Preach?

After finding the source, the next step to ensure the truthfulness of my illustrations is Following the Trail. Recently, I came across a book about odd occurrences from the Civil War. One such occurrence was about Thomas Corbett, the man who shot John Wilkes Booth. The book suggested Corbett had not shot Booth, but lied in order to get the reward money. Having never heard that before, I looked into the matter further. Every source I found indicated Corbett had shot Booth. Upon searching the book for a citation, I discovered nothing was documented.

Following the trail means to track an illustration until obtaining solid documentation. Most of the stories I use in sermons I do not find in the original. In many of these cases, following the trail simply means checking the back of the book for a clear citation of where the author found an anecdote. However, a citation does not always mean the end of the trail. Occassionally, the referenced source is another secondary source, such as a book of sermon illustrations. If I am unfamiliar with the source, I follow the trail until I can verify the accuracy of the story or at least find a credible reference. When I need to confirm an illustration, I typically start with Wikipedia. Generally, I can find a quick overview of a topic and some citations for further exploration. One additional warning here: Be particularly careful of Christian legends such as the one about Voltaire and the Bible Society. You may be able to find a reference, but I would advise you to follow the trail a little further.

Having followed the trail, the final step to ensure the truthfulness of my illustrations is to Cite the Source or Offer a Disclaimer. After verifying my illustration, I always make the choice to cite the source in my sermon. “In the book, The Grand Weaver, Ravi Zacharias recounts a short story by F.W. Boreham, titled ‘A Baby’s Funeral.'” This honors the truth in two ways. First, I am lending credibility to the illustration (and to myself as the speaker) by verbally documenting where I found it. Second, I am acknowledging the person who actually found the story and not misleading anyone into believing it was me. What about the stories that lack the proper citation — do I always discard them? No, not always.

In a book I read recently, I came across the story of a man walking in downtown Los Angeles. As he passed a courthouse, he saw what appeared to be a homeless man lying face down on the courthouse steps. The pedestrian approached the man and asked if he needed any help. To his great surprise, he discovered not a homeless man, but Billy Graham praying for an upcoming revival meeting in the city. Great story. Unfortunately, the author’s only source was a secondhand account from a friend.

While the story lacks the proper documentation, everything about it could be truth. Put another way, if it had not really happened, Billy Graham is the type of man who would have done it. In such cases, I do not discard the illustration. Instead, I make a disclaimer. For instance, I might say, “A few days ago, I read of an unconfirmed story about a man walking in downtown Los Angeles.” This way, I still illustrate my point, but acknowledge that the account may be fictitious. So as long as the story rings of truth, I still use it, provided I communicate the uncertain nature of the account.

In the opening, I mentioned David Ross’ thorough research debunking the famous illustration about Voltaire. Ross’ article appeared in the August 2004 edition of a magazine called The Open Society. I mention this not only to cite my source, but to make a very sad point. The Open Society is a journal by the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists. (Another article in the same edition is titled “The Rewards of Being an Atheist.”) Our illustrations matter. If they are done well, they can illuminate the truth and draw people to Jesus. If they are done poorly, they can detract from the truth and push people further from Jesus. Therefore, because we are speaking the truth, let us illustrate it with the truth.  

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ryanhobbs@churchleaders.com'
Church planter, Delaware, Ohio; previously senior pastor, Sulphur Springs Christian Church; published in Faith Visuals, Your Church and Vista; author of Practical Grace.