When A Good Story Might Not Make A Good Sermon Illustration

Perhaps today’s post is, more than anything, a confession and caution. In my early years of preaching and teaching, I realized the power of great stories – especially true stories. There were times  I would shoehorn a story into a message whether it truly fit or not. I figured that every good story made a good sermon illustration. That mistake in reasoning caused many instances where one of my sermon illustrations actually clouded rather than clarified my audience’s understanding of the Biblical truth being taught. Thus today’s post.


You might be familiar with this story.

Hiroo Onoda, that Japanese soldier who kept fighting World War II long after it was over died at the age of 91.

Onoda was a Japanese intelligence officer who was ordered to the Philippines island of Lubang during the war to spy on American forces. He stayed on the island in hiding until 1974 (yep, 1974), when the Japanese military had to actually fly his commanding officer from the war over to the island – 30 years after the order was given – to rescind the original order. Only then did he give up.

He still couldn’t believe the Japanese had surrendered.

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If you have been a leaderhelps.com friend for very long, you know that I believe that true stories such as this one can make very powerful sermon illustrations in support of Biblical truth. (And, to repeat, the only value of an illustration is when it supports God’s Word in the minds of your hearers.)

This story has all the makings of a good illustration:

  • It’s true
  • It’s unusual
  • It has emotional impact
  • It represents significant human commitment
  • It emphasizes obedience

You get the idea. I could see this being used in a message about faithfulness, steadfastness, tunnel-visioned faith, etc.

But there are problems as well. Significant problems.

The most important consideration in the creation of a message is the intimacy between the preacher and the Lord God and the corresponding passionate commitment to His Word. If you’ll accept that, then perhaps the second most important consideration is the care of the message’s hearers – those in your audience.

Will they interpret an illustration the way it is intended? Will it throw them off the purpose of the message?

What if someone in your audience is the child or grandchild of a WWII veteran? Or, more significantly, what if they lost someone dear during the war? Or what if they are old enough to remember December 7, 1941? Further, I’ve talked to VietNam veterans who connect deeply with war in Asia in general. Since Onoda was the enemy, and a passionate enemy at that, how will they interpret this story used to represent faithfulness?

Further, what if there is more to the story than what appears on the surface?

Here’s the Washington Times account:

Not all some him a hero, however. Members of the Philippines government, meanwhile, came forward and accused Mr. Onoda of participating in several killings during his mostly hidden stay on the island, and pushed for retribution. The government finally pardoned him – but in 1996, family members of those he was accused of killing demanded he provide compensation.

Since many may be conducting an Internet search on your illustration while you’re in your pulpit, the back story will matter. (Isn’t preaching in the world of tablets and smart phones fun?)

The easiest way to address such issues, of course, is to use illustrations that are right out of the Biblical account. However, sermon illustrations that are not directly from the Bible also are helpful in establishing relevance in your message.

There are several examples of this little mine field in using sermon illustrations.

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  • The movie, Titanic, provides several outstanding clips for illustrations, yet it also has a nude scene.
  • Political examples can be very powerful, yet they present the risk of alienating half of your audience.
  • Sports illustrations can be particularly powerful, yet not everyone in your audience will relate and some will even object because of our culture where being able to throw a ball left-handed almost guarantees you a million dollars.
  • There are some “classic” sermon illustrations that for years have been represented as true but simply aren’t factual. And, as mentioned, several in any audience will be web-searching illustrations as you give them!

The best approach, in my view,  is to measure illustrations against biblical truth and to submit each illustration to the hard questions about how it will be interpreted, whether it’s a great story or not.

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