Monday, January 09, 2006

A question that plagues me...

I've been struggling with a question for years and I still don't have a satisfying answer. I ask it of every preacher I run into...

"Do you use your kids in sermon illustrations? If so, do you have any rules or guidelines?" The responses I have received vary...

Response #1 : "I never speak about my children from the pulpit" (this was very popular among some of my preaching profs at Princeton)

Response #2: "I only speak about my son if I make him the hero of the story" (by far the most popular response)

Response #3: "I only talk about my kids if I have their permission" (also a popular response)

Response #4: "Every time I talk about my kids I pay them" (I just heard this one the other

Response #5: "Yes, I talk about my kids, but not when they're around. I normally ask the congregation not to say anything to them."

Response #6: "Huh?" (This was uttered by a famous preacher who regularly uses his kids as illustrations...I explained the question to him again. He responded, "I don't get it. It's not a big deal." And no, I'm not going to tell you who said it.)

I used to favor the "I-only-use-my-kid-if-they're-the-hero-of-the-story" argument, but I'm not so sure anymore. I don't know that I like the potential dynamics that can arise between the kid and all of his buddies who attend the church...Doesn't this just feed into the "pastor's kids are perfect" myth?

And I imagine a child who is continually hearing hero stories told about herself would get a big head. "Ah yes, I am the hero of all stories!"

Maybe it is better to avoid personal stories about one's children...But then again, they can be just so good! I still remember the classic story of my sister Christy who has a five-year-old had the following argument with my dad. Christy was absolutely refusing to do whatever it was my dad was asking of her, and so, through clenched teeth my father said: "Christy, I want you to obey!" To which she responded through clenched teeth, "I don't want to obey, I want to be happy."

In the circles I run in, there was a time when talking about one's kids was going out of vogue. People were reading more psychology and paying attention to family systems, etc. However, with the emergence of the emerging church, I'm seeing an influx of "my son" stories in an effort to be authentic and genuine. And they're not just showing up in a sermon or two, but in actual videos! I can't help but wonder how the kid on Nooma:Lump is going to feel as a teenager.

I don't know. I'd love some feedback on this issue. I'm a bit muddled. What I do know for sure is that I do not want to share stories about my children without their permission. And I actually really like the idea of paying my kid for every story I tell about her (though I imagine if I was actually handing out money, my broke child would be constantly uttering the phrase, "You know Mom, that's a lot like God").

What do you think?


Samuel Bills said...

Interesting - I always thought that my kid looks like the hero stories were meant to balance the assumption by congregations that pastor's kids are the worst kind of heathens. We went to a church for a time where the emergent type pastor used "my kid" illustrations almost exclusively - obviously having to make some big stretches to fit them in. I think the danger with "my kid" stories is that they are sometimes the worst offenders at being illustrations that just don't fit. What do you think of "my wife" illustrations? To what degree should any part of our personal life be brought in to illuminate the text?

Anonymous said...

If you do as Jesus did, he would use fictional people to represent actual people or groups of people. He was a powerful speaker with easy to understand messages. I think using personal stories in sermons are some of the worst sermons. Now if you're talking about testimonies then by all means tell your story, but keep your sermons true to God's word --> Parables good, stories about your kids bad.

Dibs said...

Are you announcing something?? If so, what an ingenious way to do so!
Otherwise, by all means use the kid stories, but only until they're 7 years old - an age when kids lose their illustrative power.

PT said...

My Senior would always give his daughter a $1 whenever she was the illustration. Now that she's married and moved he uses my kids for his illustrations...and yes he gives them the $1. I use 'my kid' stories and I don't pay...I feed them for cryingoutloud! I usually will use 'mouth of babes' type stories, but will use 'hero' and also 'not so hero' stories as well. I don't think I have ever used a VERY damaging story...I wouldn't want to make the parents look bad!!

Thanks for the toughts


Tony Myles said...

So... did you use the story about Christy because she was the hero of the story or because you paid her? :)

Here's one more twist - I only use stories in sermons about family when it's a chance for me to expose my inconsistencies or quirks (versus theirs). Then again, every illustration for me is along these lines. I want people to know how I'm wrestling through life and not how I have the secret formula they can only dream about.

But I still always ask for permission. :)

David Drury said...

I think the rule needs to flow from a higher value than the specific situation, and I believe the value is that of authenticity.

I should tell authentic stories in my speaking and writing. Sories that tell MY story or the stories of those I'm in community with--not sorites that are just "out there" not attached to any real life community.

And my family is the first community of my life... so I fully expect many of the stories of my journey to start there.

For intstace, I recently told a story about my son in an article because of the spiritual lesson it taught me in my own areas of struggle. (here it is:

My hope is that it flows from an authentic journey I'm actually taking. It's not an "illustration" = it's my life.

Using my kids are "mere illustrations" is phony (using stories about some other preacher's kids is EVEN MORE phony). But telling my own story--which is full of heroes and villans, struggles and victories, sin and holiness--is in my opinion what moves preaching beyond speaching.

Of course my homiletics professor father and I have a little disagreement on this point. But he gets to "preach" on the computer and I'm in a real church.

(Sorry, Dad, low blow)

Ken Schenck said...

I use my kids as illustrations in class--mostly because they have little chance of finding out... HA, HA, HA. I mean the stories to be endearing, and I usually tell my kids afterwords. I don't intend to tell unflattering ones...but occasionally the look I get leads me to check the box that says, "OK, don't tell story about..."

Gwen said...

I know your dad told Christy tales and Mandy stories in his sermons. I have a specific memory of a story your mom told about Paul Matthew. I'd be interested in knowing how you felt when your dad did this. You may be the true measure of this question.

As a recipient of those stories, I know they displayed to me real life and real people. If anything, it took your family off the pedestal I could so easily place you on and made me realize your lives were no different than mine. You were authentic and I could relate. There's something powerful in that.

Just like when we read the stories of the Bible, we often can place ourselves in the story identifying with their feelings, reactions, or circumstances. They were real, too.
Falling asleep when Jesus asked the disciples to pray . . . outright denying the Lord . . . little faith . . . prideful arguments about who is the greatest . . . relational conflicts. They inspire me, give me hope, teach me lessons, and remind me I'm not the only one that goes through various life experiences.

Being a PW, our family's life comes out in the message from time to time - anything from parenting, marriage, spiritual life, our own childhood stories to stories of our kids, finances, or just life in general. Often times, more comments are made from people relating to these life experiences as it relates to the word than anything else. Ears perk up and hearts are drawn in.

Obviously, discretion must be used when applying real life to a message. Anything that would be condemning, devaluing, or humiliating would not be appropriate to share. One of my kids would be disappointed if her dad didn't place her name in one of his family stories. Although, she didn't like when people from the church would come up and say something to her about it afterwards. So, it definitely has it's pros and cons. Definitely, permission should be received before someone's name is up in lights for all to see.

Love to hear your take on it from a PK's standpoint.

Diane Muir said...

I'm a preacher's kid and dad was very sensitive about using us in his illustrations. But, he always talked to us if it was going to happen. If we seemed at all concerned about it - the illustration was stricken. I never hated it, in fact it was kind of cool that the parishioners got to know his family a little more intimately from the pulpit. We were a family of stories - our stories were told over and over to us as we were growing up, so it was second nature for us to hear things like that from the pulpit.

Aaron said...

Dad used stories about me all the time. WHen I was younger it was the cute stuff, and as I got older it was ... well the good, bad, and ugly. I never minded, and although it was never explicitly stated the permissions was always there ... now I use my ex girlfriends cause I don't have any kids ... shoudl I ask and pay them even if I don't mention them by name?

Amanda said...

Wow. This is really helpful stuff.

Gwen, your comments have given words to what I was feeling but unable to express...

With one exception, I enjoyed being used in my dad's illustrations. What I didn't like, however, was strangers coming up and trying to joke about it with me later.

It may sound strange, but at the time I didn't mind if the congregation KNEW my stories, but I didn't want strangers in the congregation to repeat or hyjack my stories and try to become a part of an experience that took place between my Dad and me. Does that make sense?

It always felt very odd when a complete stranger came up to me and the first words out of his mouth were an inside joke shared within my family.


Amanda said...


It's interesting how PK's can get it from both ends of the spectrum...often times, people either expect them to be perfect or complete heathens.

As a goody-goody high schooler who had a difficult time forming good, close friendships, I sometimes worried about the "hero" stories told about me. I worried that other teens in youth group would look at me differently if they kept hearing all the great things about me without hearing about the routine screw ups I made as well.

I think you are right on the money when you state that one of the worst offenders of "my kid" stories is simply that they don't fit. Pastors go for cuteness over effectiveness...thanks for bring this up.


Anonymous said...

I'm a PK and I think it's a bad idea. The one and only time I remember my dad telling a story it was about how he had given me a BB gun for Christmas in an attempt to connect with me--then about 11 years old and in a fairyland mostly inaccessible to dad--and while he played with it, I snuck off upstairs to play with my dolls. The whole point was to make fun of his own foibles, but I hated it for three reasons: 1) I didn't want the congregation to know I was still playing with dolls, 2) I didn't want to congregation to know about his foibles that belonged to the privacy of our family life, and 3) I felt he was announcing to everyone my betrayal of him for not liking the BB gun as well as my own things. So even stories that are supposed to be centered on the pastor's failures or humanities can have repercussions beyond that.

I frankly think that paying your kids to use a story about them teaches them at an early age how to sell out their integrity and privacy for material gain. We really have enough of that already in the U.S.

And in the end the most relevant point is this: Anecdotes are the only thing people end up remembering about sermons anyway. No matter how good your content is otherwise, people will remember the family story, and probably not the good gospel point you were trying to make with it. The Word is powerful enough to make its point without that kind of help.

paul hontz said...

Paul Hontz said: "I deny I ever knew her!"

"However, did you hear the one about...."