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Preaching: It's Not All About You

Over the past five decades, an insidious trend has crept into American preaching—and not only are most pastors unaware of it, they’ve embraced it without realizing how significantly it’s depreciated the impact of their preaching.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, very rarely would a preacher use an illustration from their own life. In the ’80s, a few pastors started sharing a story or two out of their own lives, but rarely every week. In the ’90s, the trend escalated and you could anticipate hearing a story or two each week out of a pastor’s life. Now, it’s not unusual to hear a message where 60-100 percent of the main illustrations come out of that preacher’s life.

If you’re young, or not a student of preaching, it would be easy to miss this trend. But when you step back and look at the overall trend of preaching over the past half-century, it’s mindboggling. Even worse, it’s hindering the potential impact preaching could have on millions of people’s lives. But before I explain why, let’s take a look at how we got here.

How Did This Trend Happen?

The first reason is the impact of the Me Generation. Those of us who grew up in the Me Generation (’60s and ’70s) know that we stopped appreciating history and started focusing more on us and now. Illustrations about Spurgeon and Hudson Taylor, the civil war and Greco-Roman culture, or even biblical characters, were all things from the past. We didn’t care about those things. We just cared about us. And as more of us became preachers, it just seemed sensible to us to start using “us” illustrations.

Second is the advent of the large church movement. Note: I’m not against large churches. I pastored one. But one of the unintended consequences of the large church movement has been the creation of a culture of celebrity preachers—and celebrity always invites imitation. Subtly, those of us who aspired to grow our churches thought, “If [big name pastor X] uses lots of stories out of his own life—and I want to pastor a big church—then I ought to do the same.”

The third major cause of this trend would be the cultural shift here in America toward authenticity. In a desire to be more “real,” most of us have chosen to share more stories from our lives in order to communicate we’re just like them.

And the fourth major cause of this trend is the one most pastors don’t want to admit—it’s easier. Let’s be honest, finding great illustrations is hard work. Reading books, magazine and blog posts, searching the Internet, asking staff, talking to people outside the church, etc. just to find the right illustration is hard work.

However, sitting back in your chair and thinking, “What’s something out of my own life that kind of relates to this point?” is pretty easy. All you have to do is access your memory banks.

When you put these four trends together, you end up with a movement that could easily be described as the Primarily Pastor-Driven Illustration Movement (PPDIM). But why is PPDIM so bad?

What’s the Point of an Illustration?

One of the mistakes I frequently observe in most of the messages I hear is that the preacher isn’t searching for the best illustration for the point they’re making, they’re simply searching for an illustration—and the difference between those two practices is huge. It’s as if they remember their preaching professor saying, “Never make a point without an illustration,” so they’re now just filling in blocks in an outline (1.a. explain, 1.b. illustrate, 1.c. apply).

But the point of an illustration is to be a “window to the soul,” as Chuck Swindoll says. It’s to help the people in our congregations see the point more clearly. It’s to remove the dust and drab, the cloudiness and the murkiness, the misunderstandings and the misbeliefs around a point so that a window is opened and the person listening can say, “I get it.” And beyond getting it, it’s to help them apply it. It’s to help them see, “Oh, that’s what it would look like for this to be real in my life.” Or to help them see, “Oh, I do that.” Or, “That’s what someone who’s following God should do.”

The point of an illustration is not to be funny. Nor is it to fill up airtime or fill in an outline. The purpose of an illustration is to help the people who are listening better understand the point being made and how they can apply it (or how it applies to them). Once you own that principle, you’ll understand why PPDIM is such a bad trend.

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Bruce D. Johnson is a business growth strategist and the author of, “Breaking Through Plateaus." Bruce is an expert in the areas of business growth, strategic planning, leadership, systems thinking and development, positioning, and marketing to attract and retain more clients and customers.