Once upon a time we had a guest speaker where I attend church. He started off with the obligatory comments about how awful the weather was. Then he made a few comments about standardized testing and how much he dislikes the common core standards. Then, finally, he started his lesson about how Jesus was a hero. Our brother compared Jesus to Greek heroes in mythology and heroes in his state history. He also told a funny story from when he was in high school; I’m not sure what it’s purpose was. To become better teachers we often study well prepared lessons, but sometimes it is useful to examine poorly prepared lessons. We will do the latter this time.
Illustrations are used to help our students understand an unfamiliar concept. We take something that not familiar and relate it to something that is familiar. Jesus was the master of this method: “The kingdom of heaven is like….” Paul also used illustrations: “Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life” (Gal. 3.15). As a general rule, illustrations should be simple, brief and lack details.They don’t need to be complicated and detailed, because they are examples from everyday life: “A farmer went out to sow his seed” (Mat. 13.3) or “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour…” (Mat. 13.33). Our brother’s illustrations were poor because they were unfamiliar (Greek mythology and Texas state history) and detailed (We learned a lot about the battle for the Alamo). We came away knowing more about Heracles and the Alamo than we did about Jesus.
Giving a lesson is like taking a roadtrip: We have a place we want to reach and we have to pass through certain places to get there. When we are preparing our lesson we must ask if this illustration is going to help us reach our goal. If it doesn’t help us reach our goal it needs be cut from the lesson. Because, if it doesn’t help us get where we are going it is just a distraction.
We also need to be honest about why we are using our illustrations. Why did our brother include the story about his bad shaving experience in high school? He said it was to show us how once we get used to something bad it doesn’t hurt to do it anymore, and this is what happens when we keep sinning. Remember, the topic of his lesson was how Jesus is a hero, not about sinning. This illustration didn’t help us get where we were supposed to be going. It was just a distraction. So, why did he include it? I suspect because it was a funny story that he wanted to tell. So he figured out a moral point it could illustrate and forced it into the lesson.
Everybody likes to get the audience to laugh. Everybody has funny stories they want to tell. If you have a need to tell funny stories join Toastmasters, or go to the comedy club down the street. Don’t delude yourself that the gospel message will be better with the funniest thing that happened to you on the way to work.The pulpit is not the place to be a comedian. Pause for a moment and ask yourself how many funny stories Jesus, or Paul, or anybody in the bible told? They were busy teaching the gospel, so they don’t have time for getting the audience laughing.
What about the obligatory comments about the weather, education and politics? Well, that is to “warm the audience up.” Why does the church need to be “warmed-up”? Yes, many professional speakers and politicians chat and joke before getting to the main topic. They are entertainers and the people are there to be entertained. We are at church to hear the word of God. If the comments about the weather and politics don’t get us to the goal of what you are teaching leave them out. They are a distraction from the message.
How did our brother’s lesson turnout? When he was done speaking one of our elders got up to give the closing comments and this elder was so excited about the history of the Alamo that he told some of his own stories from Texas history. After the service was over I heard many of the men telling their own bad shaving stories. If our brother wanted people to be thinking about our hero Jesus he failed. He did, however, succeed in being entertaining.
Teaching the word of God is a serious business. It is not about us and it is not about making the audience laugh, it is about teaching the word of God. That is why James wrote that “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3.1). We should think about this verse every time we step into the pulpit.