Are You Telling Lies When You Preach?

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I love that story; however, it has one problem. Apparently, none of it happened.

A well-known sermon illustration recalls French philospher Voltaire. During the Enlightenment, Voltaire, a deist, declared that within 25 years the Bible would be forgotten and Christianity would be obsolete. Of course, it did not turn out that way. In fact, following Voltaire’s death, a Bible society began printing Bibles in his former home!

I love that story; however, it has one problem. Apparently, none of it happened. Writer David Ross did thorough research and concluded: “The entire story probably arose from a misunderstanding of the 1849 Annual Report of the American Bible Society.”

Preparing sermons is a hard and often frustrating task. Part of the struggle includes finding an illustration that will bring my point home to the audience. So, when I finally discover a good illustration, I face the strong temptation to run with it without a second thought. By doing so, I risk the terrible contradiction of using a falsehood to communicate God’s truth. We need to be careful and be sure to use truth to illuminate truth. In order to ensure our illustrations are true, the first step is to Find the Source.

While searching for a quote on science’s limitations, I came across these words regarding the Internet from physicist Richard Feynman: “Nobody understands quantum theory.” Wanting to make sure it was right, I checked another site and found it phrased, “No one understands quantum mechanics.” Although both have the same meaning, I decided to track down the source, because by definition a quote should be exact. It turned out both were incorrect. The actual words were: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” The first two versions were close, but apparently some people’s memories were not quite right.

Whether a quote or a story, I often discover my memory doesn’t always get it quite right either. Therefore, no matter how well I think I know the illustration, I stop and find the source to make sure. My seminary degree is in church history, and my professors insisted on documentation. Any work that did not check the sources would be shoddy and unexceptable. When I became a senior pastor, it occurred to me that my sermons should be held to the same standards. Tracking down the source of an illustration can be time consuming, but it is always worth it.

Through the years, I have found a couple of tricks for making it easier to find my sources. When I read a book, I use an index card as my bookmark. Then, when I discover an interesting anecdote, I write the page number and a brief description on the card. Later, when I need an illustration, I can pick up my notecard and see if anything is a good fit. It takes more time up front, but can save hours of searching. A second trick is Google Books. Although not every book can be found there, many can be found. With Google Books, you can search the content of a book and look for key words. This has been helpful for books that I read a long time ago and only have a vague recollection of the illustration.

Church planter, Delaware, Ohio; previously senior pastor, Sulphur Springs Christian Church; published in Faith Visuals, Your Church and Vista; author of Practical Grace.

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  • Renny

    Good advice. It is good to teach the gospel from truth than encourage believers to be carried away by every story that goes round. very helpful….I use stories too in bible studies and preaching, and yes the cost is high trying to verify.

  • LovingJesus

    When I am unsure about the truth of my illustrations, I usually start the story with something like, “I can’t tell you 100% this is true, but I heard a story…” or “your guess is as good as mine on whether this is true, but I once ran across a story…” This way I am not verbatim telling the people it’s true, I’m simply telling them in order to make a point. Jesus called these parables. A made up story with a spiritual point. But if you are going to give the impression that the story is absolutely 100% true, yeah, you better know for sure haha.

    Personally, I have so much going on in ministry, that I don’t have much time to check on every story/illustration to see if it’s true. So many people to see, help, pray with, and be with, I can’t spend that kind of time on sermon preparation.

    • Rodney Shanner

      Wouldn’t it be great to be all and do all that we are told we should be and do.

  • cathcart boy

    Good guidance here. Well worth looking at quotations to verify accuracy at source: newspapers make a living by portraying half-truth in this way!

  • Jock Tamson

    A useful caution, but surely lie is a bit strong for snow honest mistake.

  • PK

    Our pastor was talking about this kind of thing this Sunday. He called if Folk Theology. It has long been a pet peeve of mine but I never had a term for it. With the advent of the internet this stuff should be easier to verify but at the same time the net seems to speed up and broaden the influence of Folk Theology. Great article.

  • Theophilus2013

    This is excellent advice – I have indexed books for years but I really need to use the index card method! A few times I have found that such sites as snopes sometimes ‘debunk’ from a bias and my further research has shown that the illustration was still reasonable and maybe only irrelevant details were off. But of course there are many Christian legends that are just non-nonsensical – one such is the discovery a day and 20 minutes missing from the universe – there simply is no such way of measuring such a thing.

    Another way to illustrate is to write your own parables and clearly indicate them as such – though I have often wondered if Jesus being omniscient didn’t just tell true stories as parables…

    BTW – I used to be a mason and this quoting from unreliable sources layer after layer is what is done in most Christian anti-Masonic literature. It has become a joke – I used to go around to lodges speaking on anti-masonry and exposing it. Since that time I have left masonry for two Biblical reasons but I don’t know that I have ever seen these reasons given in anti-masonic literature. Getting our facts straight would help masons rather than propagating misinformation that they know is not true. It steals the integrity from the Gospel you are trying to reach them with…

  • Douglas Reece

    As writer; I agree totally. We must also be careful to check the spelling of words used that go into print. Brother Ryan’s use of the word unexecptable is not correct in the context of the sentence. It should be unacceptable. We are all guilty of the small thngs like forgetting to do our research which includes the sources and the spelling of our words. My BA and MA are in Biblical Studies and I, Like Brother Ryan, had professors come down on us because of the little things. Remember what Christ said about the little things and you will be rewarded above what you might ever expect.

  • Fred

    You are simply being too academic here for nothing. Let the Holy Spirit lead you to say whatever He wants you to say, and be sure He will use anything for His greater purposes. God bless.

  • Mar Komus

    Balance. Even the Gospel writers sometimes disagree on exact wording when quoting Jesus

  • Hawkeye8444

    I’m a History major myself. This is a good article. As a word of caution, I think Wikipedia’s information is not documented and is in fact sometimes spurious.

  • Cal Krahn

    Bugs me when I here quotes of statistics that have no basis. Speakers do this a lot!!! The sentiment may be true, but you can’t throw statistics out there as fact just because you think it’s probably true

  • Ndukwe

    The content of this article actually reveal your type of person. Let me tell that you goes in that far to research for the truth but some Pastors falsify testimonies. Tell me if this kind of person will have time to verify a quote he/she is not certain about. we should always remember that truth and lies are two parallel lines that can never meet.

  • Rex

    My Dad told me to not let the truth get in the way of a good story… Maybe that does not apply here.

  • Gee

    The best illustrations are found in the Bible.

  • Ryan Hobbs

    Hi, this is Ryan Hobbs. I’m the original author of this article. I appreciate more people reading it, however the name of this article is “Illustrating the Truth.” I never, nor would ever, title this article, “Are you telling lies when you preach?” I don’t mind you having it here, but please change the title back to the original. Thanks.


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