Sitting on the FenceOctober 24, 2007
On Sunday past I opened my sermon with reference to an inquest into the death of a climber. Christopher Parratt had scaled Snowdonia in Wales, following a popular mountain guidebook. Yet while he followed the guide’s directions – “Tryfan, the Easy Way” – he soon discovered that there was no easy way up this mountain. Tragically, he fell and died.
Putting the illustration in parallel, I then pointed out that in Jeremiah’s day there were ‘living guides’ who were proclaiming “Egypt, the Easy Way.” This advice proved not only to be misleading, but insofar as it was followed, it proved fatal.
After taking considerable time putting together this intro, I was slightly taken aback by a conversation I had afterward. Someone simply suggested I could have done without it! “The meat of the sermon was tasty enough” they said, “The illustration didn’t add much.”
Because of such comments (and others saying just the opposite!) I have swayed back and forth over the use of contemporary illustrations in sermon intros. Preachers these days seem either unrelentingly for them or against them. I’m both, depending on the particular sermon, or the way I roll out of bed!
To give an idea of the pros and cons, the Nine Marks blog discussed this topic recently. More against than for, Michael McKinley wrote:
“…I use an introduction about 20% of the time. I think people in my congregation generally like it when I do, but I don’t do it often for a few reasons (in no particular order):
— They take a lot of work to do it well (at least for me). I’d rather invest that effort in the text, plus my sermon already eats enough family time.
— They tend to make me look clever (look who’s read Dostoevsky!).
— They generally entertain, but rarely actually shed light or generate interest in a topic (though perhaps this is due to my incompetence).
— As a concession to reality, I don’t think anyone wants my sermons to be longer.”
Conversely, more for than against, Mark Dever responded:
Application and gospel-implications are the main reasons I do introductions as I generally (though not always) do them.
1. Application–I am trying to front-load the “so what” of the passage, in order to help Christians and non-Christians listen well, and to apply what they hear (rather than simply depositing it in a Bible-knowledge mental file that is un-integrated with the rest of their life).
2. Gospel-implications–by picking some foil of the point of the passage, and a foil which I intend to represent a popularly held idea, either by non-Christians listening, or some who are present but skeptical, or even unwittingly by Christians, I intend to tease out popular ideas that contradict scripture and model a way to approach them mentally, biblically, maybe even practically with certain questions or lines of thought that can be pursued with secular or unbelieving or confused friends at the office. (A sentence [fragment?] of Pauline proportions!)
The fact that both Dever and McKinley make valid points is probably the reason why I’m still sitting on the fence…