From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was started in 1954 by Dr. Tom Malone, pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. Dorm students were required to attend Emmanuel. One Sunday, Dr. Malone made a statement during his sermon that I have never forgotten. Meant to be a joke, Malone said, “I am not preaching now. I’m telling the truth.”
I was twenty-years-old when Malone made this statement. In June, I will turn sixty-four. In the intervening years, I preached thousands of sermons and heard hundreds of other sermons, either in person or on cassette tape. Preaching is an art form meant to convey some sort of spiritual message to hearers. While Evangelicals love to make much of the Bible, preaching is far more than just reading the Scriptures. Following Jesus’ example, many preachers use stories to illustrate their sermons. Story-less sermons are, in my estimation, boring as Heaven. I suspect most churchgoers would agree with me. Imagine going to church on Sunday and hearing a sermon that consists of a droning-fan-on-a-summer-day preacher reading the Bible word for word. B-o-r-i-n-g.
Illustrations help keep parishioners engaged. There’s nothing better than a couple of stories interjected at just the right time. In fact, many parishioners won’t remember anything about their preachers’ sermons except for the fantastical stories they told. Marge, wasn’t that a wonderful story Pastor Billy told today? Yes, it was, Moe. Why, that one story was almost unbelievable. Pastor Billy wouldn’t lie, so I know he is telling us the truth.
Dr. Malone got it right when he said, “I am not preaching now, I’m telling the truth.” Malone knew that preachers love to tell stories, and sometimes their stories are not as factual as they should be. Younger preachers often buy illustration books. These books provide preachers with a ready source of catchy, provocative illustrations sure to get parishioners’ attention. Older preachers often develop a cache of illustrations that can be pulled out of their mental file cabinets and used when needed. These illustrations often come from past experiences, especially for preachers who did a lot of “sinning” before Jesus rescued them. I have heard countless preachers regale parishioners with stories about their lives as drug addicts, drunkards, Satanists, atheists, or hitmen for the mob. These stories often seem larger than life. And they are, because these kinds of stories are often embellished or outright lies.
Several years ago, I posted a video of anti-porn crusader Dawn Hawkins telling a story about seeing a man watching child pornography on an airplane. Several commenters said that, based on their flying experiences, Hawkins was lying. I believe they are correct. I think the same could be said for many of the stories preachers use in their sermons. Simply put, these men are liars for Jesus.
The late Jack Hyles, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, was a masterful storyteller. I heard Hyles preach in person and on tape. His stories were mesmerizing, especially to a wide-eyed young Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher from Ohio. However, over time, I came to the conclusion that Hyles was a narcissistic, pathological liar.
For many years, Hyles pastored the largest church in the United States. Those raised in the IFB church movement know that for men such as Hyles, it was all about the numbers: church attendance, souls saved, baptisms, and offerings. The ministry was like a bunch of third-grade boys in the restroom playing the who has a bigger penis game. Preachers who had John Holmes- or Ron Jeremy-sized churches were considered men whom God was mightily using. Young preachers and men who pastored smaller churches were expected to sit at the feet of these preachers, learning how they too could have large penises, uh I mean churches.
Due to his church’s number one place on the charts, Hyles was viewed as a demigod by many IFB preachers. Hyles told stories about how many people he counseled, souls he had won to Jesus, and the thousands of miles he traveled to preach at Sword of the Lord conferences and other weeknight meetings. Wow, what a great man of God, I thought at the time. I want to be used by God just like Brother Hyles.
I now know that Hyles’ stories were lies. He simply did not have enough hours in the week to sleep, eat, shit, have an affair, pastor a church, win souls, and fly around the country to preach at conferences. As with all lies, Hyles’ stories had elements of truth. However, when carefully analyzed, Hyles’ sermon illustrations sound too good to be true. Let me illustrate this with several stories found in Hyles’ book Let’s Go Soulwinning:
So I walked in and said, “Hey! Anybody home?” And there was—thirteen people at home—company all dressed up in suits and fine clothes. There I was. Imagine, Rev. Hyles, a cup in his hand, fishing hat on, split tee shirt, patch in his breeches, and a pair of tennis shoes on his feet! And I said, “Hello.” The lady looked at me, she looked at her company, then announced, “This is my pastor.” I was horrified! I was humiliated! I wanted to evaporate but couldn’t. Finally I said, “Excuse me; I’m sorry.” Then I got to thinking. Shoot! Just take over the conversation. Just act like you have good sense. So in I walked. “How do you do! How are you? Are you a Christian?” I went around the entire room asking the same question. Then THEY got embarrassed. (I found out long ago that when a preacher goes to a hospital or gets some place where he feels like a fifth wheel, he should just bluff them and take over the conversation. That will help you, too. It really will. You go to the hospital. Here is the doctor, the nurse, the family. And everybody says, “That’s the preacher.” You know how you feel, pastors. It’s a terrible feeling. So I walk in, “Hello Doc. How are you?” Make HIM feel bad. Make HIM feel like he’s a fifth wheel.)
So I walked in and asked each person if he or she were a Christian. The last man, a young man, said, “No, I’m not, but I’ve been thinking about it.” Well, I said, “I can help you think about it right here.” We knelt there in that home and opened the Bible. He got converted. He lived at Irving, Texas, forty miles from Garland. I said, “Now, J.D., you need to walk the aisle in the church in Irving tomorrow.” He said, “If you don’t mind, Preacher, I’ll just stay over tonight and come to your church and walk the aisle.” He did, and that night he got baptized in my church. Later he joined the First Baptist Church of Irving, Texas.
You don’t realize how many places you will bump into people. I saw a lady while on vacation just recently. She said, “Hello, Brother Jack. Remember when you won me to the Lord?” I said, “I certainly do.” It happened while I was looking for a Mrs. Marsh. I knocked on Mrs. Marsh’s door—I thought. She came to the door. I said, “Mrs. Marsh?”
“No, I’m Mrs. Tillet.”
I said, “Mrs. Tillet, I thought Mrs. Marsh lived here.”
“No, she lives five houses down the street.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Tillet.” I walked off. Then I said, “Wait a minute, Mrs. Tillet. Are you a Christian?” She began to cry. I led her to Christ right there.
I have won shoeshine boys and fellows on airplanes. I was going to Phoenix to a conference last year. I sat down beside a man seventy-two years old, a wealthy rancher. “Where do you live?” I asked.
He said, “On a ranch between Phoenix and Tucson.”
I said, “Do you and your wife live alone?”
“My wife died a few months ago.”
I asked, “Do you ever think about having anybody else come and live with you?” “Oh,” he said, “If I could find somebody who would come and live with me, a friend to keep me company, I’d give anything in the world.” He had chauffeurs, servants. He owned a big ranch with hundreds of acres, but was as lonely as he could be.
I said, “I know Somebody who would come and live with you.”
“You do? Does He live in Phoenix?”
I said, “He sure does. He lives everywhere.”
He said, “Who is it?”
“Jesus will come.” In fifteen minutes that man had Somebody to go home with him to live.
Oh, if we will just take time to witness. The trouble is, we are ashamed of Jesus. We don’t mind saying, “Isn’t it hot today?” or, “I wonder how the Berlin situation is.” We don’t mind talking about Khrushchev. We’re more eager to talk about him than about Jesus. Isn’t that a shame! Here we are redeemed. He died for us on the cross. We have been made heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. He is building a home in Heaven for us. We’re God’s children and we won’t even tell a stranger that we belong to the Lord Jesus. Be soul-conscious.
Storytelling preachers love to tell stories about people suddenly dying and going to Hell. What better way to drive a point home than to tell hearers about this or that man rejecting God’s plan of salvation and then dropping dead and awaking in Hell. This story can be told in numerous ways with different characters and circumstances. Jesus himself told a similar story in Luke 16. The point is always the same: now is accepted time, now is the day of salvation.
Let me conclude this post with several stories I have heard preachers tell over the years. One preacher told a story about a man God had called to preach. The man ignored God’s call and went on to have a large family and made lots of money. One day, this man’s wife and children were driving down the road when a truck hit them head-on. This man’s entire family was instantly killed. In a quiet moment before the funeral, the man wept over the caskets of his loved ones. And at that moment, God audibly spoke to him, telling him that it was God who had killed his entire family to get his attention. Are you ready to serve me now? God asked the man. The man collapsed on the floor and told God that he would indeed forsake all and follow him.
Another preacher told a story about the people in Hell. One day, a crew that was drilling an oil well began hearing what sounded like people crying and screaming. Where was this noise coming from, they wondered? They soon ascertained that the noise was coming from the oil well casing. One of the workers decided to drop a microphone down the well casing, and sure enough, they heard people screaming about being in the unrelenting, fiery flames of Hell!
Of course, neither of these stories is true. The first story was a legend of sorts – I heard variations of it numerous times. Preacher Bob heard Big Name Preacher John tell the story at a Sword of the Lord Conference. Bob thought, why not use this story in my sermon, impressing on people the importance of immediately obeying the voice of God?
The second story is pure fabrication. But hey, if souls get saved . . . right? The end justifies the means, even if it means telling stories that are more farcical than the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.
Have you ever heard too-good-to-be-true sermon illustrations? Please share them in the comment section.
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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