Pulpit Abuse: What it is, How to Stop it

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Do your sermons always circle back to your favorite topics? If so, you might be practicing Pulpit Abuse.

We preachers are all prone to use family events and incidents to illustrate our sermons. The dumb spouse is second only to the idiot adolescent child in making his or her meandering way through the fertile fields of homiletics. It is easy to eisegetically snuggle a good spouse into a Corinthian passage on how women ought to behave, but it is not fair! Even if you ask your spouse for permission, you sin with the practice. The fact you have to ask permission probably says you’re pretty sure this kind of sermon inclusion is off track. Even the asking of it sounds as if you’re saying: “Is it OK, darling, if I exhibit your idiocy in my sermon this week? It would mean a lot to Jesus.”

I want off this thumb-worn issue in favor of a more insidious kind of abuse. I have a lay friend who loves to teach. He is very big on the Civil War and often takes part in Civil War battle reenactments. He’s a fair Bible teacher, but he is an indefatigable historian because this is his passion. So no matter what he is teaching, it all ends up at Manassas. He amazes me when, with a bit of gyration, he can snuggle Gettysburg into Philemon. When it is all over, I can’t remember exactly how he did it, but I know he did.

Most of us who preach pursue some kind of hobby or field of learning and, without realizing it, can make our pursuit part of our sermon. I like prophecy in general, but I am suspicious of it when it becomes too specific. I have known prophecy-loving preachers who feel compelled to help me understand Gog and Magog, even when they are preaching the Book of Ruth. They just can’t help it. Ruth and Boaz are fairly easy to write into prophecy; after all, the pair lived in Bethlehem, directly south of Moscow from whence shall come the hordes of invaders in the last days.

For some preachers, their sermons keep close company with professional football. I had a pastor who, just before the Rams’ game in Los Angeles, quoted in his sermon a word of support for his favorite team (which wasn’t the Rams) by citing Daniel 8:7: “I saw him attack the ram, furiously shattering his two horns, and the ram was powerless to stand against him.” You actually have to look on down in the chapter to Daniel 8:20 to find out the ram in Daniel’s sermon is Media and Persia and has no direct correlation to the NFL.

In Alabama, home now to two championship teams—Bama and Auburn—these two rivals have developed fierce antagonisms, and their relative merits have wound up in sermons of all sorts. The Auburn team serves the sermon with a sort of mixed metaphor as it is alternately called the Tigers or the War Eagles, but there are easy ways to work eagles into a sermon: They that serve the Lord shall mount up with wings as War Eagles, sort of (Isa. 40:31). Where the War Eagles are gathered together there shall the carrion be, kinda (Matt. 24:28).

Calvin Miller served as professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama and the author of many books including "Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition" and "The Singer." Dr. Miller passed away in August 2012.

More from Calvin Miller or visit Calvin at http://www.calvinmillerauthor.com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/rony.balde Rony Balde
  • js

    So are any illustrations or stories permissible? While I certainly think we ought to guard against some of the abuses Calvin mentions, it seems to me he offered little insight on what an appropriate blending of illustrations personal stories, and transparency would look like. Moreover, it felt like he was simply railing against a form of preaching he dislikes.

  • Gerta

    An article, filled with truth; thank you professor!

  • Scotty Moore

    I like those kind of sermons once in awhile that weave together history or true family struggles brought to life in light of the scriptures. After all, Jesus did this type of teaching to teach spiritual truths and life lessons, even sometimes pointing back to the Old Testsment to reveal himself and God’s purposes…..
    Yet you are so correct in noticing how we love to use pop psychology to not offend the congregation and defend our behavior or out look on life.
    May God continue to reveal more of himself to those who teach

  • Phil the Reader

    Rule #1 with my homiletics prof was: never use family in your sermons.

  • D

    Common sense should dictate us. Whether you use your family or a group as an illustration in a sermon is a non-issue in my opinion as long as it is done with grace and truthfulness and without condescending and hurtful spirit. Come on~ Let’s not be too legalistic about it.

  • woolly sheep

    I’ve seen pastors use the pulpit to take covert cheap shots at people they don’t have the courage or love to confront directly. Baaaaad. One pastor I know of turned to me once and said ” Oh, too bad, the person I prepared this sermon for isn’t here. He would also use things told him in confidence in his pulpit messages with enough detail that the person knew he was referring to them even if others didn’t. Did he think God didn’t care or see his covert behaviour? really made me wonder. Basically reverence for God, humilty and love should gaurd against many of these sorts of things.