I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan from 1976-1979. Midwestern, started in 1954 by Alabama preacher Tom Malone, was a small Evangelical college known for producing fiery Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers. Malone pastored nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. College students were required to attend Emmanuel. In the 1970s, Emmanuel was one of the largest churches in the country. Today, its buildings are shuttered and a FOR SALE sign sits in the dust-covered main entrance door. (I recently heard that the buildings might have finally sold. The college campus was purchased and converted into community buildings and apartments.)
During my time at Midwestern, I heard Tom Malone preach several hundred times. Considered by many to be a great pulpiteer, Malone was a fervent preacher who punctuated his sermons with illustrations meant to drive home the point he was making. During one sermon, Malone said something I never forgot. In the middle of sharing an illustration, Malone said:
I’m not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.
Everyone laughed and then he finished his illustration.
Over the march of my life from infancy to the present, I’ve heard thousands of sermons and preached thousands more. I’ve heard some men who had no public speaking skills and others who were wordsmiths capable of enchanting hearers with their preaching and illustrations. Sadly, there are a lot more of the former than the latter. Even though I am an atheist, I still enjoy hearing a well-crafted sermon delivered by a man who knows how to turn a word into an epic Broadway production.
Preaching only the Bible is boring, uninspiring oratory. An effective sermon requires illustrations. Jesus himself was a master storyteller. His sermons made ample use of illustrations meant to drive home a spiritual point. A preacher who is good at his craft knows that illustrations are key to helping listeners understand and embrace his sermon. And therein lies the danger.
When I started preaching, I used illustrations from illustration books. As I aged and experienced more of life, I began to use more and more illustrations about my experiences and personal life. If a preacher isn’t careful, it is easy to massage his illustrations to “fit” a particular sermon or audience. Sometimes, the illustration becomes a lie.
As I mentioned above, I’ve heard a lot of sermons. I’ve heard thousands of illustrations and personal stories, all meant to get my attention or drive home a point. Over time, I came to understand that many preachers played loose with the truth, often shaping their stories to make a particular point or to cast themselves in a positive light. In other words, they lied, even if they didn’t understand they were doing so. Often, a speaker can tell the same Holy Spirit-inspired lie over and over until they reach a point where the lie becomes reality and they think it’s the truth.
Take Jack Hyles — by all accounts a masterful speaker and storyteller. He was also a narcissistic liar. I heard Hyles preach numerous times at Sword of the Lord/Bible conferences. His sermons were usually long on illustrations and short on Scripture and exegesis. For Hyles, it was all about the sermon, the story, and the invitation. Everything he said was meant to bring hearers to a point of making a decision for or against Jesus.
Here’s a story Hyles told about winning an auto mechanic to Christ:
When I got to his house, he was working under the car. He was lying face up on a creeper and could not see me as I arrived. “Hyles Mechanic Service!” I shouted. “Who called you?” he asked.” I was not called,” I replied, “I was sent.” “Well, roll yourself under and see if you can see what is the trouble. “I got another creeper, laid down on it, and rolled myself under the car with him. “Looks like to me you need the valves ground,” I shouted. “How can you tell from under here?” “I am not talking about your car. I am talking about you.” “Who are you?” he asked. “I am Pastor Hyles of First Baptist Church.” Then he became inquisitive, and I explained to him that he needed Christ as Savior to make him a new creature and that he was in worse shape than the car. With both of us lying on our backs looking up at the bottom side of the car, I told him how to be saved. When time came to pray the sinner’s prayer, he closed by saying, “Lord, I am just coming for a general overhauling.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both. The next Sunday he came forward in our service professing his faith in Christ.
Great story, and one I have no doubt is an admixture of truth and lie. Every time I read a story like this I am reminded of that Sunday morning almost forty-five years ago when I heard Tom Malone say, “I’m not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.” Now, that will preach, as the Baptists like to say.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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