When I was growing up, people asked me two questions because I am a pastor’s kid:
1. Is the song “Son of a Preacher Man,” true? Do pastor’s kids have some sort of otherworldly powers of woo?
2. What does your dad do on the other six days of the week when it’s not Sunday?
The answer to the first question is easy.
Yes. Yes we do.
The second question was a little harder.
As a pastor, my dad did a million weird , random things during the week. He went to a bunch of meetings. He counseled people. He made hospital visits. And on some weeks, he did what until this day has been a secret—he created an anonymous person for a sermon illustration.
He didn’t fabricate the person. They were real, but in order to tell the story about them in a sermon, my dad had to do a reverse CSI move.
In that show about crime scene investigations, red headed Latino sensation David Caruso takes all the available facts about a case and assembles a representation of the criminal who committed some heinous crime. I once saw an episode where they lifted the image of someone’s face off a plastic grocery bag. My friend who is actually a CSI guy in Georgia, said that show has created what they call “the CSI effect.” Juries literally expect all tests to come back from the lab in roughly 24 minutes.
But pastors have to do the reverse. They have to take someone they know. Someone real and perhaps easily identified by the congregation and disguise them. They have to fuzz up their identity enough so that during the middle of the sermon people won’t figure it out and neck snap to their neighbor and yell, “How could you Ricky!”
This form of sermon illustration comes in many forms but there are some consistencies you should look for:
1. The story can’t be about some distinguishing physical feature.
If you’ve got a “snake guy” in your church, one of those folks who goes to the beach and brings a chair, a cooler and a 12 foot reticulated python, the sermon illustration can’t include a reference to a guy “who has a scar from a huge snake bite.” Everyone will know you’re talking about Randall right away.
2. The story has to have happened “the other day.”
Pastors use the phrase, “The other day” to mean roughly any time in the last 6 months – 3 years. You might think they’re talking about a situation they were in last Friday, but don’t be fooled. They’re talking about a long, long time ago.
3. The story must involve someone with a general name.
If the person the pastor talked to goes to your church and his name is Humperdinck Elviston, don’t expect him to say, “I was talking with a friend of mine named ‘Humperdinck.” Everyone would immediately look over at Humperdinck, who would undoubtedly have a handlebar mustache. So it’s best to give your sermon illustration person a general name like “Chris” or “Pam.”
4. The story needs at least one fantastic detail.
No one likes a boring sermon illustration. “I met a guy who was normal and had a wife and a steady job. Guy really taught me something important about life and God.” Where’s the fun in that? Expect the person featured in the sermon illustration to have at least one wild detail about their life. They once lifted a car off someone in an adrenaline drunk moment of strength after an accident. They used to work at the White House. They were once a professional bullfighter.
5. The story is probably going to take place on a plane.
Steven Furtick, a minister in North Carolina, spoke about this phenomenon once. More than 87% of sermon illustrations occur on planes. For some reason, pastors tend to get into the craziest, sermon illustrationy stories ever on planes. Like a dog who can smell fear, people with wild stories can smell pastors. And then they tell them their wild stories on the flight. In a lot of ways, airplanes are like Whole Foods for pastors looking for sermon illustrations.
My uncle used to say that one of his goals as a parent is to raise his kids in a way that never requires them to be in therapy at some point. I think he’s wrong. Therapy or counseling can be great. A better goal is to raise your kids in a way that they are never the anonymous star of a sermon illustration. That’s the real goal right there. Especially if you have a pastor who is not afraid of just calling you out right from the stage.
Have you ever heard an “anonymous sermon illustration?”