During a recent sermon, I told a story that featured one of my sons from his childhood days in a very memorable role.
One of my other boys happened to be home and attended church that Sunday. When I had written the sermon, I had not taken into account his presence. With the benefit of hindsight, we decided I should have given him a sign to wear at church that said, “No, it wasn’t me.”
The incident made me reflect on the advisability of using personal stories in sermons. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve reflected on it; I think I do that every time I use one or am tempted to use one.
I can see two major positives:
1. Stories are a must. When I really want to drive home a point, I tell a story. Stories relate concepts to experience. Stories are incarnational. Stories say, “Here is how what I’m saying fits into real life.” Stories put flesh and blood on concepts and animate these concepts with emotions and feelings.
2. There is a very basic rule of writing that says, “Write what you know!” What each of us knows most intimately is our own experience. The persons with whom we share the most experiences are our family. So it stands to reason that the ore that we mine for sermons is probably going to include chunks of family from time to time.
I can see two major negatives:
1. Over-reliance on personal stories can put too much emphasis on the pastor. People do not come to worship to hear about what has happened in my life today or yesterday or 50 years ago.
2. There is something about constantly bringing up the example of one’s own life that smacks of egotism. There is something unhealthy about subjecting the congregation to a Gospel viewed through the lens of ME.
We all have stories of our lives to tell and a need to share those stories; there is something about repeatedly inflicting mine on others who have no chance to share their own stories that seems selfish.
Even family of pastors have a right to privacy, regardless of how hilarious their antics or how perfectly their actions illustrate a point.
Like much of what I present in this column, I don’t have definitive answers.
I have established just a couple of basic guidelines for myself. I never use a story that embarrasses or casts one of the named participants in a bad light. If I want an example of stupidity or sin or haplessness, my first choice is me, second is a Biblical character, third is an anonymous person, and a distant fourth is a historical person.
Secondly, I monitor my sermons for personal stories. When it starts to feel like “The Nate Aaseng Show,” I make a point of writing different kinds of sermons for a while.
My family, and particularly my children, have provided me with a wealth of what a friend of mine calls “sermon fodder.” These stories do provide insight which I am entrusted to share with others.
So I do.
Like any gift, these are to be used with care and love and in the service of the proclamation of the Gospel.