Not a Fan of Preacher Stories

The very fact that made up stories in the pulpit are even called “preacher stories” is the first hint that something isn’t right. Wouldn’t you hope, in an ideal world, that if the preacher says it you could trust it? About seven years ago in Millington we had different guys coming in to preach on Sunday nights. One week the preacher started with a story about the last church where he was guest preaching. A guy came up to him after his sermon, shook his hand and told him it was the worst sermon he ever heard. The preacher was stunned that someone would be so honest but took it in stride. But then he saw them man make his way to the back of the line to greet the preacher again. He told the preacher a second time how bad his preaching was. About that time one of the elders came up to him and said, “Don’t worry. All he does around here is repeat what he hears everyone else saying.” He got a good laugh out of the story and warmed up the crowd to start his sermon. But would you believe that the very next week the next preacher on Sunday night started with the very same story as if it happened to him!

I am not a big fan of “preacher stories.” These are those stories that aren’t really true but a preacher will tell it like it really is. What is more, like the example above, these stories are often told as if they are from personal experience. Now some preachers really do have lots of stories from personal experience that are legit. I’m not talking about those. I think it is important that what we have to say is from the heart and honest. I don’t think we have to make things up to be effective or tell someone else’ story (or even someone else’ made up story) as if it is our own.  It is hard to preach to people you don’t know and often people want to start with some humor but if it is a joke it doesn’t hurt to say it is a joke. If it is someone else’ story, it doesn’t hurt to cite where you heard it or say that you heard such and such one time. In fact, I think that gives you even more credibility because people know that you mean what you say and can trust that you are real.

Do you use preacher stories? What is your rationale?

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

21 Responses to Not a Fan of Preacher Stories

  1. Tim Archer says:

    Some of the “big name” preachers think that telling a joke in the first person makes it funnier. The explanation I’ve been given is that “everyone knows it’s just a joke.”

    I don’t care if it’s a joke or a story, there’s no reason to say it happened to you if it didn’t. Friend of mine was hearing another well-known preacher when that preacher told a story about his grandmother. Problem was, the story was actually about my friend’s grandmother, not that preachers. My friend had used the story in a sermon.

    We need to be COMPLETELY above board on this. I can say, “Matts Dabbs tells the story of the time…” and it will be just as effective. And a whole lot more honest.

    Thanks for touching on this.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. JamesBrett says:

    i don’t tell preacher stories.

    but i do tell preacher sermons. that’s where i take a sermon someone else has preached and tell it word for word as if it were my own. my rationale is that if the preacher really is concerned with the kingdom and the maturity of the church, he won’t mind. plus it saves me the trouble of a lot of hard work.

    • allynsalley says:

      James, it actually sounds like your rationale is to get out of doing the work of writing your own sermon. I hope you’re being sarcastic in sharing this.

      • JamesBrett says:

        allyn, i’m not so sure if it’s that i’m afraid of the hard work… or that i just know i could never write a sermon that good anyway.

        you were right on the sarcasm.

      • My new question is, what is the purpose of the Sunday Morning sermon and what is the purpose of the preacher? Wouldn’t a DVD and projector be more efficient?

  3. allynsalley says:

    I once sat in a Sunday School class in college where the teacher (also a college student) taught a class that was totally lifted from a Florida Evangelism Seminar sermon on grace–and he didn’t acknowledge it until about two-thirds of the way into the class. The reason I knew it was from that sermon? I had the tape and had listened to it several times!

    I don’t mind preachers borrowing stories or using personal examples, but if they use others’ preaching/stories without citing the source, isn’t that the same as plagarism?

    • Jerry Starling says:

      That’s not the same as plagarism. That is plagarism!

      I remember James Bales telling of dropping off a “Preacher Boy” at a Sunday appointment while Dr. Bales went on to his own appointment. On the way, the student asked Dr. Bales what he was going to preach on that morning – and asked detailed questions about how he planned to develop each point. The next week Dr. Bales preached at the same congregation where he had dropped the young man the week before. After his sermon, one of the good sisters said to Dr. Bales, “I know where you got that sermon! _____ preached it here last week.”

      It’s been a long time since I preached another man’s sermon, but I draw from many unremembered sources. While I often recognize my sources, especially if it adds to the credibility of the point I am trying to make (as someone says, about 99% of all statistics are made up on the spot – but if you can cite a particular source for the stat, it might give it more credibility).

      Jerry

      • allynsalley says:

        About the only slack I can cut that teacher is that he was a college student who may have run out of time to prepare the lesson and grabbed the first thing he could think of. But shouldn’t we, as Christians, be held to a higher standard?

  4. I guess the question for me is what the difference is between jokes and funny stories. For me a joke is something made up to get a laugh. The punch line is usually so outrageous that it can’t be true. I would call the “bad preaching” story a joke. A funny story is quite different, even though it is also designed to make someone laugh, because it has actually happened to someone.

    Bad idea to take someone else’s funny story and pass it off as your own. Jokes, however, are fair game.

  5. When I first realized the “preacher story” phenomenon I was very disappointed. It damages the credibility of anyone who lies or exagerates. It hurts not only hte speaker and the listener, but also the message. Over the years I think I have developed the gift of discernment. I love to retell good preacher stories but I always begin with “this is a preacher story.”

  6. I’ve read books on speaking (like James C. Humes book Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln) where they claim that a speaker has license to use those stories, similar to a poetic license.

    I still don’t buy that – citing a source doesn’t make a story any less effective and it increases your credibility with the congregation. I can remember listening to a guest speaker tell a story about my parents (Dad was the minister who had invited him) in a lesson. It was a long drawn-out story that ended with a punchline and everyone laughed. I can remember asking Mom and Dad on the ride home why they never told me that story. They explained it wasn’t actually true. That was the first time I can remember thinking, “Why would a minister say something happened if it wasn’t true?” I think Dennis is right – just introduce the story in a way that lets everyone know its origin.

    Plus, the some of the best sermon illustrations will come from our own experiences, if we are thoughtful about things that happen in our lives, and when we use those, we won’t have to worry about citing a source.

  7. I’m not a preacher and can’t really speak to the subject as an insider.

    But years ago, I used to be an advertising agency copywriter. (Back then I told people I was a professional liar – but off the clock at the moment.)

    I was once instructed by the marketing director of my client, one of two major newspapers in Little Rock, to write that they had more pages, more color and a bigger circulation than their competitor. It wasn’t true. The competitor ran ads featuring their own numbers compared with my client’s – from the independent Audit Bureau of Circulation.

    I refused. I responded that readers don’t make a distinction in the credibility of a newspaper’s news and its self-promotion, and no amount of pretty words I could write would get them out of the trouble they’d be in if they lied. I was taken off the account. The client dropped the agency and wrote their own promo ads.

    Within a few weeks, Gannett Newspapers ran out of money and patience with the my client, the Arkansas Gazette, and sold her to the privately-owned Arkansas Democrat. Now we have one newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

    I still believe that people don’t strictly discriminate between the credibility of real news and self-promotion.

    Or real good news and what may seem like a real good story.

  8. Bob Bliss says:

    On pages 25-26 of ‘Saints, Demons, and Asses’ (by Gary Holloway) there is a funny story about H. Leo Boles. It seems a young man went to a meeting brother Boles was doing and memorized one of his lessons. Back home one Sunday he was doing the lesson of brother Boles. During the lesson he spotted brother Boles in the audience. He stopped and said, “Brother Boles if I had known you were here today I would not be doing your lesson!” Brother Boles stood up and said, “That’s all right, the fellow I got it from said you could preach it too.”

  9. john dobbs says:

    Great point Matt…and this is something I have seen others do and it is distasteful because of the lie. Everyone’s comments were very good as well. I mean… if I’m to believe my preacher brothers, then almost every one of them have visited a widow lady, left a note that said “behold I stand at the door and knock” and received a note back the next Sunday “I was naked in the garden and I hid from thee” … or some such nonsense. Back 50 retellings ago, I thought it was funny. I just didn’t know it happened to everyone!

  10. James says:

    I’m not a fan, either. Most of all, not a fan of “preacher stories” that everyone knows are made up, have heard 10 times already, and yet every guy tries to pass it off as if it really happened to them (how many preachers have said they were asked to sing “Jingles Bells” instead of “When They Ring Those Golden Bells” at a funeral?!). It hurts credibility, and then calls into question those stories told that are true. It seems to me that lIfe and scripture provide enough stories (better stories!) without the cutesy made up preacher stories.

  11. Bob Bliss says:

    Matt, something else along what I think are parallel lines is the Internet email stories that are passed along without anyone checking out the veracity of the stories. The stories are touching and I might use them as illustrations but with about 2 minutes of research most of them are proved to be fictitious and unusable.

  12. Can I offer to the table that I believe Jesus used preacher stories? They were just called parables. It is often believed that most of the “parables” Jesus told were not true, but it is most definitely up for debate because Jesus told them in a way that they sounded true. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but the purpose is not to analyze in that way, the point is to hear the message through the story. In both situations, if we waste time looking for validity, we’ve missed the message and point. Besides, true or not, they can be a really great segue into some spiritual thinking and can set up a “true to life” situation to bring even more relevance and application to scripture. From a preacher standpoint, very useful.

    • Jerry Starling says:

      Stories are indeed useful to the preacher – but when he presents a story as if it had happened to him (when you’ve heard the same story dozens of times from other preachers who indicated that it happened to them) – then something is out of kilter.

      Jesus did not present parables in the first person, but as stories to illustrate truth. In this, they are like proverbs, only the comparisons are more elaborate.

  13. John says:

    Several years ago, we were present when the pastor of a mega-church told the story of “The Drawbridge Keeper.” There are many versions of this story, but basically it involves a father who is faced with the horrifying choice between saving his son’s life at the cost of many, or watching his son die as his inaction saves others. He, of course, told the strory as if it were true. That may be the moment when I started wondering if many preachers weren’t just con artists out to make a buck.

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