Monday, March 26, 2007

Pet peeve about preachers

I've occupied both sides of the pulpit, so I know some of the joys, and some of the down-sides, of each. I'll share two that are a little of both.

First: Preacher stories. Because a preacher should proclaim the word of truth (1 Timothy 2:15), and serve the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16), "preacher story" should mean "true story." But it doesn't, does it?

The story may not be a lie; it may be an exaggeration. Or it may not be an exaggeration; it just may be fuzzy. Or it may not be fuzzy -- it just may be forty-third generation hearsay.

Like the story about the famous evangelist who had the drunk tell him, "I'm one of your converts," to which he replied, "You must be. If you were one of the Lord's converts, you'd not be drunk." Who was that? Moody? Wesley? Billy Sunday? It is told of a great many preachers. What bothers me is that it doesn't bother some preachers whether they can source the story or not. It's told as true.

Or take a favorite story of mine: Athanasius, told that the whole (Arian-leaning) world was against him, and boldly replying, "Then Athanasius is against the world!" I love that story. It should be true. I want it to be true. But I wanted to know for sure, to source it, before I told it as true. So, for a time, I tried and tried to document that story. I never got further back than the Middle Ages. So I have to tell it with a proviso.

We should care. We should want our hearers to be able to take what we say as grounded, sourced, solid. We don't want them to feel that they have to look up everything we say on Snopes.

Which brings me, very similarly, to...

Second: Unsourced quotations. Two of the greatest offenders I can think of are William Barclay and Warren Wiersbe, to touch two very different theological camps. Barclay was famous for making quotations without citations; but Wiersbe is the same. I love reading his Walking with the Giants. It's a wonderful book. But the documentation is atrocious!

This is a book full of quotation after quotation, but almost none of them is sourced! Wiersbe does give a general bibliography, but he doesn't cite his specific sources for his specific quotations and stories, as a rule. I can't verify what he says, unless I have the leisure and desire to read every page of every book in his bibliography. If I were to quote any of them, I'd have to say, "Wiersbe says that Dale said...."

And yes, you now know something about me. My sermon note do have footnotes. I may be a bit of a nut about it. The dear lady who typed my Master's thesis complained good-naturedly that half of it was in the footnotes.

But it's a bit like the whole Santa thing. I never told my children that there really is a demigod-Santa Pelagius looming somewhere, judging their works. First, it isn't true. Second, I don't think lying to kids is very nice. But third, I don't want them to have to start filtering what I say, and wondering whether ol' Dad is having a bit of a snicker at their expense when he talks about this other invisible figure who sees them when they're sleeping, and knows when they're awake. (Santa? God?)

In the same way, I don't want folks who hear me preach have to wonder whether I checked out what I'm preaching for myself first, or whether I'm just weaving a yarn because it sounds good and makes my point well. And as a hearer of sermons, I don't want to have to wonder, either.

(BTW, to the best of my knowledge, my current pastor never does either. He's an atrociously well-read man, with a terrific memory.)


C.T. Lillies said...

So what you're saying is that you've never heard a good sermon illustration and then tried to build a sermon around it?

Probably not and yeah I agree it bugs me too.

"...the word of God is not bound."
--2 Timothy 2:9

striving... said...

My Pastor always uses personal stories, so they are things that he has had happen to him; and when he quotes, it is normally Calvin.

striving... said...

Just a quick question, off topic, do you have any posts about trying to change your apouse to a person you want them to be? Just anything talking about that.

David said...

Fair points, but would you go so far as to argue that a preacher must name each commentator he quotes during the oral delivery of his sermon? (e.g. - "MacArthur says..." instead of "one commentator says.."). I would argue that preachers should emphasize the content of the quote rather than the "big name" behind it.

DJP said...

Only if they're quoting me.

Hey! It happens!

JackW said...

“Brothers and sisters, any quote that I use during today’s sermon that is not sourced can be found in the book of Hezekiah which you can look up later as your homework assignment”

Feel free to quote me. ;{)

Phil Walker said...

My bugbear is the use of science and statistics. At least with stories, you can weasel out names and sources, saying "there is a story--I don't know if it's true--that is told of a well-known evangelist that once upon a time...", thus making the point without needing the story to bear the full weight of factual accuracy. With science and statistics, though, it's very rarely the case that you can do that and preserve the point you're trying to make.

Tim said...

Thanks for your blogging. What a blessing. I only wish I were more diligent to read it. Keep on seeking His kingdom and righteousness.


Travis said...

I'm assuming that your current pastor regularly reads your blog.

I agreed with your post, and I agree that WWW does a poor job of citing his material, but I do appreciate much of his writing.

I also am fond of MacArthur's material, but I have found that his books are poorly footnoted. The exceptions being The Gospel According to Jesus and The Gospel According to the Apostles.

I too heard your example story, and I have heard it from several pulpits and it's been attributed to more than one evangelist. I have also heard the story told like this: "As one preacher has said..."

Do you think that is an acceptable citation, or should the story be skipped altogether?

Personally, I'm in favor of the skipped altogether approach.

DJP said...

I'm assuming that your current pastor regularly reads your blog.

You'd think so, wouldn't you?

I also love Wiersbe's stuff, but could only cite it as, "Wiersbe tells a story about...." Because he, lamentably, has made himself the source.

I think "as one preacher has said" is not unethical. I just almost surely would not do it. I really believe in crediting sources when feasible.

HeavyDluxe said...


Is this where you family is? You wanted me to tell them that you are right... ;-)

Thanks for the good natured thrashing, friend.

Call to Die said...

"There must be a harmony between the life and the profession. A Christian professes to renounce sin and if he does not do so, his very name is an imposture. A drunken man came up to Rowland Hill, one day, and said, 'I am one of your converts, Mr. Hill.' 'I daresay you are,' replied that shrewd and sensible preacher; 'but you are none of the Lord's, or you would not be drunk.' To this practical test we must bring all our work."

-From C.H. Spurgeon, The Soul Winner

Call to Die said...

I assume Spurgeon quotes Rowland Hill correctly: He seems to have studied Mr. Hill's life somewhat extensively. [See Spurgeon's article on Hill in his work on Eccentric Preachers.

DJP said...

Good on you, Andrew; no doubt CHS' citation at least antedates most of the others. Thanks!

The Big Groan said...

I agree with you on all points in the post. I also dislike it when a Pastor wrings out 45 minutes of commentary on a single verse from the Bible.

Commentary is okay, but make your point and move on. Sum up at the end. Give me more word of God and not all word of preacher. After all, God says it better.

Matthew Celestine said...

Yes, I do get annoyed when I keep hearing different variations of the same old stories.

philness said...

I like it when they speak slow and clear without the heavy words cause I dont like to bring my dictionary to church. If a heavy word must be used I expect a definition.

Another thing is cracking their voice to prompt emotion. I can see straight through that and besides what man wants to be seen wiping tears.