Why Pastors Are Bad Illustrations
I know most pastors don’t like to hear this, but to normal church people you are not normal. In their minds, you’re not real. You have some kind of special deal with God, and the work you do is totally different than what they do. So, any time you use an illustration out of your own life, you are, by definition, not opening a window into their own soul about how they can make something you’re sharing real in their life.
For example, I recently heard a pastor of a large, very successful church, in a series on giving, mention that he had several times over the course of his life felt that God was calling him and his wife to give all their money away to a building campaign. And each time they had done that, God had proven Himself faithful and they ended up with more than they had before.
Now, how many normal church people do you believe thought that was a good illustration that helped them get a good picture of how they could give sacrificially to God? Very few. Why? Because, in their minds, pastors have a special deal with God. They’re not real.
On the other hand, if that pastor had used an illustration of an auto mechanic or an elementary school teacher or an insurance salesperson or a secretary or a computer programmer or a nurse or a janitor who had done the same, now that would have been a better illustration. However, an even better illustration of sacrificial giving would have been something less dramatic because most normal people will never drain their bank accounts for a campaign—ever!
As much as you might not like it, as a pastor you’re not “real” in the minds of your people. And that’s why you’re not a great source for illustrations. When you talk about your work or your week, you’ve just hindered the effectiveness of your message.
Where To From Here?
If you’d like to turn this around and help more of your people both understand God’s truth and know how they can apply it to their lives, I’d encourage you to implement the following seven practices.
1. Reduce Your Personal Illustrations to 10–20 Percent of Your Total Illustrations.
I’m not saying you should never share a personal illustration. My issue is with the primarily pastor-driven illustration movement. Even though people may not think you’re “real,” it never hurts to help them understand that you are and that you’re one of them.
2. Change the Questions You Ask Yourself Each Week.
The questions you and I ask ourselves determine the answers we receive. If you want a different answer, you need to ask a different question. Instead of asking, “What’s something out of my own life that kind of illustrates this point?” you could ask, “Who in my congregation would be a perfect illustration of this point?”
3. Use Your Staff to Help Uncover Illustrations.
I tell my clients that they should start off their staff meetings each week by asking for stories of their people. This creates a database of great stories. Plus, it’s a double win. Your staff members get to highlight someone from their ministry and you get to share a story of a “real” person in your congregation who’s a perfect illustration of the point you’re trying to make.
4. Raise Your Illustration Standards.
If your standard is, “Anything in the ballpark is fine,” or “What’s easy,” then that’s what you’ll shoot for. If your standard is that you’ll only be content with a great illustration that perfectly fits a point, then that’s what you’ll shoot for.
5. Don’t Use Yourself as an Illustration About “Churchy” Things.
Whether you like it or not, 99 percent of the people you’re preaching to will never be on a church staff. So sharing stories about your calling to ministry, for example, while cathartic for you, won’t be helpful to your people. You’d do far better to share how Joe, an ordinary guy in your congregation, felt God called him to open a nonprofit or go on a missions trip or lead a small group or help a neighbor in need, because Joe is considered normal to them.