Pastor, Stop Using Your Family

Pastors need to stop using sermon illustrations solely focused on their family. This is not prompted just because of GLBT people, but also folks who are single (who many times are also looked at as second class citizens in the church), as well as those who don’t have a family, or weren’t raised in a happy-go-lucky beautiful family life.

Come up with something creative that is relevant to humanity—not just those in your church who are married and have kids. Here is a great example that I wrote about in my book:

Ron and I have known each other for a few years, and I have come to learn that he is probably the most well thought out person I have ever met. Ron will not say one word until he specifically thinks about exactly what will come out of his mouth, and the ramifications his words will cause as there are many people who spout off knee-jerk reactions to almost anything (I’m really trying to work on not being one of those knee-jerk people).

Ron attends a well-known evangelical church and he began to tell me about a recent service. A video was played that had been recorded by a man a few months before he died. The man said that the five best days of his life were the day he met his wife, the day they got married and the day each of his three children were born. After the service Ron went up to the pastor with tears in his eyes and said, “If I continue to live the way that you’re suggesting that I live [celibate], then I’ll never experience any of the five best days that man experienced before his death.”

The pastor paused as he looked at Ron in the eyes and said, “I don’t know what to tell you.”

And then the pastor just walked away. Ron quickly went back to his car and cried. He called me and told me what happened. I wish I had something profound to say in that moment. But I didn’t. I sat there crying with him—that was all I could muster. I wish many pastors would do the same.

Sermon illustrations make a huge difference. Please don’t ever take them for granted. Do your homework for the Kingdom in relation to humanity, not just what happened with your wife or kids two days ago.

Much love.

www.themarinfoundation.org

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About Andrew Marin

Andrew Marin is President and Founder of The Marin Foundation (www.themarinfoundation.org). He is author of the award winning book Love Is an Orientation (2009), its interactive DVD curriculum (2011), and recently an academic ebook titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility can Save the Public Square (2013). Andrew is a regular contributor to a variety of media outlets and frequently lectures at universities around the world. Since 2010 Andrew has been asked by the United Nations to advise their various agencies on issues of bridging opposing worldviews, civic engagement, and theological aspects of reconciliation. For twelve years he lived in the LGBT Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, and is currently based St. Andrews, Scotland, where he is teaching and researching at the University of St. Andrews earning his PhD in Constructive Theology with a focus on the Theology of Culture. Andrew's research centers on the cultural, political, and religious dynamics of reconciliation. Andrew is married to Brenda, and you can find him elsewhere on Twitter (@Andrew_Marin), Facebook (AndrewMarin01), and Instagram (@andrewmarin1).

  • http://Erikscottberg.com Erik

    Andrew,

    I'm not sure that the solution is to stop using illustrations about families. Family is a strong, powerful and regular metaphor in scripture. I'd argue that it's valuable and even necessary to use.

    However, like any illustration it will fall short if left on it's own. If the only illiustrations a pastor uses relates to their family, they do their congregation a disservice because we need a wide range of metaphor to effectively communicate the Gospel.

    I guess I'm a bit confused as to why Ron reacted the way he did. Did the video imply that famliy experiences are the only valid ones for a "greatest day"? Or did Ron infer this just because the video was shown in the first place? It seems like a giant step to think that one person's greatest days in life must be the same (or even similar) to my own. It seems like there was something else being communicated here in the presentation, and if that's the case, I understand.

    Just some thoughts as I process this. I'd love some push back on it.

  • Mrs T

    I understand very much what you are saying! I am hetero & married now, but when I was young & longed to get married, sometimes those kind of things would hurt(& other times not). I did marry at age 24, which is young by today's reckoning, but I still understand. Our church has lots of singles & no one should feel left out, no matter their demographic. We try to help all groups & it is a challenge.

    Years ago, probably cuz of my lack of religious training in childhood, I longed to go to MBI. It was extremely difficult, esp. for a female, to get in (3 times as many applicants as spots, high academics, sense of a calling, tuition money[cheap by today's standards, but still needed],etc.) So I was hurt. Then there was a very old usher in church, who proudly would tell visitors "I have a granddaughter who goes to MBI." How innocent is that? But it sure hurt me, as I felt I was more sincere than most of the students there.

    Of course, these hurts make us more comassionate. I hope I'm sensitive to others' situations & I remember the few times I messed up.

    Thankfully, our pastor rarely used his kids as illustrations. That's another reason not to use kids. Either they will be resentful (due to being embarrassed) or wanting lots of attention the world won't normally give.

    Thanks, Andrew, for the reminder. Around gay folks, I try not to mention family too much, altho it may come up in the discussion.

  • http://dwhwar.wordpress.com/ Joe_S

    There's a difference between a roll of the eyes and Ron's reaction. I'm sure we have all rolled our eyes at some aspect of church culture.

    Perhaps the pastor should have known what to say but pastors are only human too. Would Ron be as comfortable with his pastor crying as he was with you responding that way?

  • jami

    Keyword being “solely”……

  • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

    Or you could substitute “most of the time” or “usually” or “frequently” – I think they all fit.

  • http://jontrouten.blogspot.com/ Jon Trouten

    The sad part is that Ron — a gay man who has chosen celibacy and lives on his own because he’s been told that he must do so to be a good Christian — wants a family but is denied that if he wants to maintain relationship with his church. He doesn’t want the life that’s been requested of him. He wants to live a life where he meets and marries a compatible spouse that he loves and he yearns to be a parent.

  • M

    The idea translates to many circumstances. I have a challenging marriage. I don't want to hear every week how wonderful and perfect the pastor's wife/family is. I go to be encouraged by the Word and to worship. Some personal examples may be appropriate now and then, but not frequently.

  • http://isaacdowning.com Isaac Downing

    I think it would help to have some more clarity on this issue.

    Are you saying that pastors need to use illustrations that aren’t exclusively from their own family experiences? If so, then I’d say I agree, but I don’t know of any pastors that ONLY use illustrations that relate to their wife and kids.

    The way the post reads is as though you are saying pastors shouldn’t use illustrations about their family AT ALL – because some people (specifically GLBT) can’t connect with it.

    In that case, I think you may be making your point too strongly. Pastors certainly need to do their homework and make an effort to connect the message to their audience, but they also have their own story to tell. What are we doing in churches if we aren’t allowed to tell about how we’ve grown through a certain issue? It seems that a pastor should be ENCOURAGED to give examples in his own life how he has dealt with the elements he’s teaching about.

  • http://isaacdowning.com Isaac Downing

    UPDATE: Andrew, I just saw your comment. So disregard the first paragraph. but my main point is still the same.

    Thanks for sharing – would love to hear more of your thoughts.

  • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

    Erik and Isaac– Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I really appreciate them. And despite the title’s potential suggestion that illustrations about the pastor’s family must wholeheartedly stop, I do agree with you that does not mean they can never be used. The last thing I want to do is invalidte someone’s story/journey that has led them to their current spot.

    There have been recent times that I am noticing pastor’s family illustrations have had a dramatic increase. I’m not sure if it’s the tough economic times that are drawing many families closer together or what has prompted so many personal family illustrations, but every church service I have been to recently around the country have had multiple references each sermon. In fact just last weekend in while I was in Cincy I was sitting next to a lady, and when the pastor used his second family illustration she rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. I asked her what was up and all she said was, “I feel God has called me to be single and I get no dignity from the church other than a ‘glad it’s not me’ mentality.” That statement and the conversation that followed was the last example I needed to know that this post should be put out there.

    I think that with Ron, and this lady from Cincy’s perspective, it’s not so much about them not being able to have their five best days in their own context; just like the dying man reflected on his five best days in his context. It’s rather the structure/hierarchy that is put in place with such comments that set ‘marriage with kids’ apart from the rest as somehow better or more worthy. There are a variety of clear passages and examples in Scripture that speak to singleness as a dignified life, if not a higher and more difficult calling than marriage (Isaiah 56:3-5 among others). I just think that we (I/married folks) many times don’t give enough respect and utter equality to those that are not married. What bothers me most is that many married folks see marriage as inherent instead of a privilege that should not be looked at as a birth-right. Just look to many-a-single-ministry in the Church: for almost all intents and purposes it could be called Match.com for Church-goers. The end goal of living a faithful life is not to get married and reproduce, and shouldn’t be pushed as the focal point of single, or adult ministries. I am not saying that getting married and having kids is wrong or negative, as it is a sacred bond given by God. I just think there is more depth to our faith and the illustrations we pull from our faith than just family experiences.

    I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • http://nateandjill.org Nate Williams

    Andy,
    This is very thought provoking. Thanks for being a catalyst for change in the church. Keep it up!

    Nate

  • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

    Joe_S – It’s not so much the tears as it is the ‘walking away.’ I don’t think Ron expected the pastor to know what to say. Or if he did, I sure wouldn’t expect the pastor to know what to say. Though neither of us would have expected the walk away. Many times it’s not about ‘words’ as it is about the ‘with’.

  • http://www.loveisanorientation.com Andrew Marin

    pm – Wow, that’s some deep stuff. From my vantage point you answered the first question you asked about the principle behind the post—sermon illustrations are about life and faith in public, in real time. Not just about what happens in your own home. And can I just let you know how masterfully you articulated your point! Paragraphs two and three should be read by every pastor. Period. I love your reference to Matthew 11:8, as Jesus asks the crowd about the rumors of John the Baptist of ‘what did you see’ instead of relying on hearsay. In essence, leaders, accusers, teachers, everyone, must go out and experience life for themselves outside of their own context and filtration. It’s no wonder so many pastors rely on their family experiences for so many illustrations—releasing power in discovering real life contexts is a scary place to be. Instead, many just live within their church context. But living in Christ outside will always produce Kingdom fruit. It’s impossible for that to not happen! Thanks pm for that clear principle.

    I am reminded of a direct challenge to pastors, a dangerous dare—one that got balked at by many, but should be the simple core of a pastoral job description. Please read these two posts in order:

    http://adammclane.com/2009/03/13/a-dare-for-pasto

    http://adammclane.com/2009/04/29/update-on-the-da

  • Andrew I

    Hey Andrew,

    Good to read your article and all the posts. If I am reading you correctly, you would simply like pastors to branch out. I wholeheartedly agree. I have been in churches where the sermon got to be "formulaic" – and certainly one of the main formulae for many pastors is the old "do you know my kids…" routine.

    What I agree with most is that pastors should do homework on their sermons. But this also goes to a cultural thing: in a world of 10-second sound bytes, 160-word tweets, and fast web commercials (I forget the official name) that play while our youtube videos are loading up, do we value a well-crafted sermon that explains the Scriptures and points us to Christ and exhorts us to godliness, or are we waiting for the laugh lines?

    Sometimes we box our pastors into corners, especially when it comes to preaching, so they go to the easiest, most effective source for humorous illustrations: the antics of their family members. And… let's admit it… MOST of the congregation at least smiles or laughs out loud when the family stories come out.

    Personally, I get uncomfortable when I know that the purpose is a warm fuzzy illustration or straight up humor.

    For five years I was a single man in a very family-oriented semi-suburban, semi-rural church. I know what it's like to want to be married – but you don't even have someone you're dating. I know what it's like to hear all those illustrations from the pastor's family life and gritting my teeth knowing that it was touching 75% of the congregation. I endured multiple sermon series on marriage and family. They were "felt needs" in the community, and it was quite legitimate for the context in which we were placed.

    Of course, I'm married now… if I were single, maybe I would roll my eyes like the sinle woman at the church in Cincinnati… but I would challenge her that God gives us grace for what He has called us to do. Granted, sometimes the thoughtless or intentional choices of people in the church make it hard for grace to shine through in your own life. Maybe that's where she's at right now?

    I think I'm reading, on the whole, that we need balance here. Do we agree that pastors have a God-given responsibility to preach the Word, including Scriptures relating to marriage and family? Do we agree that pastors need to relate to their people in their sermons? Do we agree that pastors need to do their homework so there is a balance of sources of illustrations? Do we agree that pastors don't always need to crack jokes to get us to listen to their sermons?

    But addressing your story, brother, I would hope that the love of God would control me enough that I would stay with Ron for a while and offer friendship and support. But – here's the sticking point – at some point after the last service of my Sunday, my two-year-old son will come running to wherever I am and begin to (innocently) demand my attention. My teenage daughters will begin pacing in the back rubbing the tummies as a cue that it's time to get home to dinner. My wife will do her best to keep order, but at some point soon after all this begins to happen, I need to excuse myself from whatever situation I am in, unless of course it's life-threatening. I didn't like the fact that the pastor walked away, but I hope we can also give the pastor the benefit of the doubt, too.

    Wow – I didn't mean to ramble. Feel free to call me on the carpet if you disagree or if I said something disagreeably.

    May God's grace continue to be poured out on you!

  • http://www.couragescotland.org RuairidhD

    In Seminary, this particular issue was addressed, and it was communicated that illustrations from our own families should be avoided at almost all costs. There is a difficult balance that all Pastors undertake – that is to be an example to those around them (agreed, all Christians should be) and also to live out their lives in front of their congregation.

    That is hard. But one essential part of that is to show their failures, vulnerabilities, and the fact that they just plain don't have it all together. I think that is a challenge all Christians need to learn in living with our non-christian friends, family and neighbours. For pastors to use illustrations about how great their family life is, is usually a lie (because if fixes in people's minds the moment it was good and ignores the difficult times), and is unhelpful. To give illustrations when it is difficult and not going well can be too much information and hurtful/embarrasing to the family members who are being talked about. Pastors should rarely (if ever?) give illustrations where they are the 'hero' of the situation (another point taught in Seminary). Even if the 'hero' part was done by the preacher, the illustration should be altered to remove the focus from the Pastor.

    Pastors (and I speak only from my own experience in the pulpit and pastoring) must use illustrations concious of the diversity in the congregation. This calls for an awareness of the people in the pews and also an imagination and sensitivity about the issues that people out there are facing. With the divorce/marriage difficulty rates in the Church almost as high as outside this is another issue that is essential. Single parent families and children being brought up by family/guardians not their own birth parents means we need to be concious, sensitive and inclusive in our language. And of course, there are those who are currently single and may or may not feel called to singleness, and there are the LGBT folks as well.

    My concern about the story you tell Andrew, is that the Pastor did NOT pastor! I assume his position is that LGBT people are, at best, called to singleness. Thats a postition I respect though disagree with. However, that isn't the issue. Pastors do not have the luxury – and this is only my opinion obviously – of railing forth on how LGBT people are to live their lives (without ever a hope of a loving, beneficial and nurturing Creation-order relationship) without thinking out the consequences of what that means for people in reality, on the ground. Its easy to make those kind of statements in the study, easy to declare them from a pulpit, but if you don't have in mind the impact of your words to your people then its simply not preaching, its lecturing (and the Church has had way too much of that). Preaching is to be a heartfelt, word from one sinner to another – as the unveiling, digging out and proclamation of God's Word – that is to have an impact on the preacher and hearer alike. The preacher can only do that when s/he is walking with their people and entering into all the experiences they face – or at least being willing too.

    Knowing the answer is not whats important. Being willing to stand alongside as you discover the answer is what a pastor is about. Entering into the pain of the person being expressed to you is pastoring. The "compassion" of Jesus (much more powerful in the Greek) is what is needed as well as an awareness of the Ecclesiastes "a time to…" passage.

    Sorry!! Typcially of preachers I go on too much. But I am frustrated at too many in the Church being willing to tell the LGBT community to "Go do…" without being willing to contemplate reality and face what it means for us. Only then do I think any form of a bridge will be built. And finally(!) there are lots of LGBT Christians who are out there building the bridge with the LGBT Community with no back up or support from the traditionalists in the Church because we are ostracised by them as we've a different interpretation of Scirpture re. same sex relationships. We're getting on with it. Who is going to join us? Surely we can work together for the Gospel agreeing to disagree on secondary issues?

  • pm

    What is the principle behind this post? Is it to
    tone-down the bully-pulpit rhetoric promoting a
    stereotypical ‘family-man’ role thereby marginalizing
    singles, or GLBT or those who have (to a greater or
    lessor degree) been struggling in their marriage or
    those who were raised through incredibly difficult
    family-of-origin experiences?

    How often is the success mentality of an ego-centric
    male-dominated role model been examined by the sermon
    giver as the starting point then also the ending point to
    all ‘real-life’ examples?

    We can’t all fit into the cultural bias that’s portrayed
    repeatedly in picture-perfect high-def form as often as
    we hear from those sermons offered to us weekly. How
    should we focus on reaching out when main-stream
    pastors only pound repeatedly their monologues based
    solely on their personal cultural filters?

    Maybe, there might be a deeper spiritual side to this
    post that remains a bit hidden yet I suspect merits some
    honest conversation. I ask myself the same question
    found in Mat 11:8 “What then did you go out to see?

  • http://www.ianua.org renee

    imo, it's not just about lgbt or singles ….. this is also about divorced families, widowed families, difficult families, mixed-up families, any families that don't neatly fit into the pastoral illustration.

    i grew up in a divorced family, i spent the weekends with my father and his parents, and the week with my mother's adopted grand-parents.

    i never related to any pastoral family and it used to really tick me off.

    i think overall and in general, pastors need to realise the width of the world, in all of its forms, and use their illustrations with knowledge of those things.

    not only will it help expand all the various types of awareness of christianity and christians, but it will also help the "different" types of christians feel like they are noticed, and that they are a part, and that they belong.

    all of the family illustrations have been difficult for my husband & i as we have a disabled daughter. we always feel incomplete and imperfect; incapable of whatever the illustration is trying to portray or illustrate.