The Family Illustration

I serve a young church.  I get a reminder of this when I look at our congregation at the beginning of Sunday’s service.  We are a sleep-deprived people.  We are also a people of carseats, diaper bags, toy trucks and baby dolls.  After service, our conversations take place as we watch children slide down a hill behind the church building.

People at other phases in life are certainly represented, and greatly loved in our church.  But the predominant feel of the congregation is “thirty-something with kids.”  At a recent elders meeting we realized that between our four families, we have 14 children.  That is significant.

Because of our demographics, I often use “the family illustration” in my sermons.  Here’s my rationale, which I hope is not too technical:

People get them.  

In a conventional sense, an illustration is not the place to introduce difficult material that is unrelated to the text.  If I spend 10 minutes setting up an illustration from Roman History, I likely just wasted a lot of time and I left people asking “So when did Cicero first become a Quaestor?”

In my view, I should be into the heart of the illustration in about 10 seconds.  Like this: “The other day I was shoveling snow with my kids.”  Everyone in Newfoundland shovels snow and most people in our church have children.  Immediate recognition.

However …

The family illustration is dangerous.  If overused, family stories become trite and boring.  On the flip side, if they are too hilarious they will distract people from the text.  Not to mention the danger of constantly making our kids the focus of our sermons.  “Did you hear what your dad said about you this morning????”  Bad form, dad.

Some preachers never use them.  Some use them every week.  I am somewhere in the middle.

So, here are just a few questions I ask myself when a family moment screams: “God gave you this for your sermon introduction!”

Does this glorify sin?

Kids do funny things.  Unfortunately, kids also do sinful things.  I prefer using stories that involve some innocuous family activity, rather than: “The other day, __________ hit __________ in the nose.”  The latter might be more attention-grabbing, but I do not want __________’s sin and _____________’s pain to be sources of delight for the congregation.

Is this totally true?

Isn’t it tempting to change a story to make it more punchy?  The conversation with your toddler son was certainly meaningful, but did he really say “Daddy, I just love the way you model the gospel in our home.  I want to grow up to be just like you.”

Yes, that would have been incredible and worth sharing.  Had it really happened that way.

Do I talk about my kids too much?

Yes.  I probably do.  When I use a family illustration one week, I will tend to stay clear of “home stories” for weeks to come.  For one reason, I don’t want to be on the prowl for a sermon-starter when I’m hanging out with my family.  That’s just gross.

Does this honor my wife?

“My wife shops all the time … to save money!” [rim shot].  Hold up, pastor.  Even if a wife were on board with a preacher sharing that kind of thing, it is not a good model for how men should talk about their wives.

It’s not a good idea to promote a voyeuristic journey into our marital relationship, either.  If a moment requires me to close a door, I am probably not going to open that door during a sermon.  Marital issues can be handled boldly and directly without using our own spouses as props every week.

Am I more excited about this story or the text?

We preach the Bible, not ourselves.  Although I use illustrations often, I want my sermons to be biblical, not anecdotal.  After the service I want to have conversations about the text, not what a hoot my kids are (although that is an undeniable fact).  I want “justification by faith alone” to be what wows them, not my daughter’s dance recital (which was exquisite).  Something is very wrong if the entertainment value of an illustration is higher in my affections that the biblical truth it illustrates.

If you avoid family illustrations as a matter of principle, I totally understand.  But if we see fit to use them occasionally, let’s pray for wisdom is selecting them.

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