Sermon illustrations can be a helpful way to drive a point home, unless your listeners have heard them a million times. If you keep using the same old clichés, you’re losing your listeners.
Here are five sermon clichés it might be time to retire:
1. The bridge operator
This is the haunted hitchhiker tale of sermon illustrations. Everyone has their own version of it, but as soon as you hear it you think, “Oh yeah, I know where this is going.”
It goes kind of like this:
A drawbridge operator bring his child to work because rivers, train tracks, and bridges provide wonderful, child-safe play areas. As the train is scheduled to come through, the operator reaches to put the bridge down. That’s when he notices that his child is standing in the way taking Instagram selfies. If he puts the bridge down now, he’ll crush his kid (because drawbridges just slam shut quietly like guillotines). He yells out to his son, but chain smoking menthol cigarettes has left him hoarse.
That’s when he realizes that he’ll have to make a horrifying choice: put the bridge down and kill his son or leave it up and kill all of the train passengers. As the train arrives, he pushes forward on the lever bringing the bridge down and killing his son.
This is intended to drive home the choice God made to sacrifice Jesus over us. Unfortunately, it introduces some other weak ideas:
- Instead of putting this plan into effect all the way back in Genesis, Christ’s death was the tragic, panicked, last-minute decision of a dad who makes bad parenting decisions.
- God’s hand was forced between only two equally awful choices.
- Jesus doesn’t understand how drawbridges work.
2. Sports metaphors
Paul occasionally used sports metaphors, so it’s not like they’re bad. It’s just that the people who use them tend to use them all the time. If sports is your go-to method of illustrating your point, stop. You’re really only connecting to a percentage of your congregation.
There are plenty of guys like me who stare at you blankly and don’t get the connection you’re trying to make between Jesus and football. I do, however, kind of understand boxing metaphors because the point of boxing seems pretty obvious—but when you get outside of that, you lose me.
3. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian . . .
Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. See how clear and concise that last sentence was? It doesn’t really need to be modified or abridged to make sense, but we do it anyway.
One of the most overused sermon statements is basically a mad lib that goes like this: “Going to Church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to ___ makes you a ___.”
You can fill those blanks in however you want:
- Going to Church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to McDonalds’ makes you a cheeseburger.
- Going to Church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going into a garage makes you a car.
- Going to Church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to ministryadvice.com makes you a pastor.
This statement only works if someone’s never heard it before. It’s the clever little surprise at the end that might solicit a chuckle. When you lose the surprise, you’ve got nothing—and the surprise was lost on this cliché long time ago.
4. Overused blockbuster movies
If it’s used well, a scene from a movie can illustrate a point that people will long remember. But like anything else, when a pop-culture reference gets overused, it becomes a handicap.
As sure as you can say “Aslan isn’t a tame lion,” no one wants to hear another Matrix, Lord of the Rings, or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe reference in their sermons for a while.
These film franchises/book series translated so well for pastors that everyone was using them. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve probably seen the same Matrix scene in different churches about eight times. . . and I’ll just take the blue pill, please.
Isn’t it terrible when you’re preaching, but you don’t feel like you’re getting any feedback from the congregation? It’s like every word you say comes out of your mouth, hangs in the air for a moment, and then sinks slowly to the floor like a deflated balloon.
If only there was some kind of preaching defibrillator, something that you could say that guaranteed a congregational response. Lucky for you, there is! It’s the word “amen.” If you say it as a question, they almost have to respond.
The only problem is that it becomes a self-conscious habit and it gets used too much. There are a lot of pastors who constantly use “amen” to shock their congregation back to life. People were never meant to have that much power.
Be careful how you cut corners
Coming up with a sermon every week is not for the weak of heart. It’s a tough racket! And although the internet makes it easy to find and recycle ideas, but it also makes it a lot easier to promote and perpetuate clichés.
As Picasso famously said, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” There’s nothing wrong with borrowing ideas from others. But in a world where everyone’s stealing ideas from everyone else, you need to make sure you’re not the last person in the chain. Just because it sounds new to you doesn’t mean that it’s not a cliché to everyone else.
Before you throw that illustration, movie scene, or quote into your sermon, Google it to ensure that it’s not being used everywhere. We’ll all thank you!