Sermons: Illustrations and Analogies

baseball_gameAs far as I can remember, I never once heard a sports-related illustration in a sermon when I was growing up. However, since I have moved to Florida, I have lost count of how many times I have heard them used. My tendency has been to react to this in two ways, and not necessarily in this order: first, to acknowledge the effort of these pastors to contextualize; second, to cringe because of the reference to an aspect of American culture marked by pervasive idolatry (especially when you hear reference to the “Holy Trinity” of sports!).

To be clear, I have nothing against sports in general. I rather enjoy watching a good football or hockey game. But I do think using sports analogies in sermons is problematic because it both undermines the gravity and seriousness of the Christian life, and, as I mentioned above, utilizes what is to many people (unwittingly or otherwise) an idol to represent a Scriptural truth.

Allow me to illustrate (no pun intended). Recently a book was published, written by a pastor in Texas, who used stock car racing as a metaphor for the Christian life. It was featured on the blog of The Atlantic last month. Here is the synopsis:

Is your spiritual engine running on fumes? Do you feel like you’re falling behind in the race of life, or that you’ve hit the wall? Get ready to start your engine once again. In The Race-From Pit Row to Victory Lane, the author of this new book offers timely and comprehensive insights that will fuel your relationship with God. Join him as he parallels the Christian life to NASCAR racing.

Just as NASCAR teams work together to improve a car’s performance in Pit Row, God has provided all we need to drive a victorious race. The author points out that we have a pit crew-other believers-and a crew chief in God. By making frequent pit stops for God’s Word, Worship, Fellowship, Prayer, Accountability, and Encouragement, we equip ourselves for ultimate performance. He explains how these are like fuel, new tires, a strong battery, receiving instructions from the Crew Chief, listening to your spotter, and receiving a refreshing drink during a NASCAR event.

But it’s not all fun and games. He also warns of accidents resulting from debris that Satan throws our way; Satan wants to put us on the “dnf” list-did not finish. The author forewarns of wreckage that can disqualify us. NASCAR teams understand that having the best car does not guarantee victory on every race day. Forty-three cars begin each race, but not all will finish.

One of the reasons I think sports illustrations fall so far short is because despite surface similarities between faith and sports, the analogies break apart really quickly. I’m sure all of you can deconstruct the analogy above in a matter of minutes. While these analogies might initially connect with people, my concern is that in the end it trivializes the Christian life. This reminds me of Terry’s post a while back on being careful in how we use the word “awesome.” He rightly pointed out that in using this term so casually it begins to lose its meaning, especially when talking about God. Similarly, when we use sports as an analogy, we lose our grasp on how serious of a matter the Christian life is.

Now, although a lot more could be said on this, my point here is not merely to denounce sports as an analogy. There are many other trivial illustrations that detract from the reality and gravity of the Gospel and the Word of God, from our faith and our lives as followers of Christ and as witnesses to the Kingdom. The question we need to ask is, what is the intentionality of our illustrations—are we looking to draw laughs, get the listener’s attention, or legitimately use an analogy to bring to light an important truth or teaching?

On that note, let us discuss this. I want to pose the question of what makes for a good illustration or analogy in a sermon. For those of you who have taken preaching classes and labs, what are the important elements in a sermon illustration? What qualifies as a good illustration, and when do we cross the line into illegitimacy? Is my critique of sports illustrations too harsh? Should allowance be made for comedic illustrations? Are analogies even necessary in a sermon? The comment form is your soapbox. Please engage!

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Written by jake-belder
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