Four reasons I binned all my quotes for preaching

I’d invested hundreds of hours in maintaining a useless system

6 comments

I once worked with a guy who was a phenomenon for quotations and illustrations.  Every book or article he read, was mined.

This was before Dropbox or Evernote, so what he was doing was visible.  Drawer after drawer in his study was filled with 5×3 index cards, with a meticulous system for referencing and cross-referencing.  And a shelf full of ring binders, with all the materials in order.

Being young, I thought this was the way to go, and I copied him for years.  I too had my ring binder and index cards. 

Then one Sunday evening, in the middle of a sermon where I used one of the illustrations I’d carefully curated, I looked at the faces in front of me.  Bored. To Tears.  And no wonder, really, because I was telling them about something I’d learnt about one of the Russian Tsars.

Just cut me a teeny bit of slack.  I like history.  I’d have found it interesting.  I hope.

But at that moment, across my eyeline, I saw an imaginary ‘Breaking News’ message from CNN: ‘This Is Very Boring’.

Across my eyeline, I saw an imaginary ‘Breaking News’ message from CNN: ‘This Is Very Boring’.

And eventually, when I worked out why, I threw those index cards and ring binders in the bin. Yes, I had put hundreds of hours into that system, but it was irrelevant to the task at hand. Some of them I still treasure: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address I can repeat from memory. Some of John Stott’s best lines.

But I was behaving like a librarian, an archivist.  And that’s not my calling.  It’s not who I wanted to be – it’s who I felt I ought to be.

What I realised was that this wasn’t serving me – and more importantly, it wasn’t serving the people listening.  The saints.  The church.  God’s people gathered.  Here were the four reasons I unearthed:

Stale, not fresh. 

Each of those carefully curated quotations and stories had whiskers.  I may have been struck by them at some stage, but by the time I needed them, they had to be reheated to work.  And remember, I had to do that for me to get them to work – the people listening had no back-story on any of them.

Generic, not personal.

None of them were things that had happened to me, or us – they were all things that had happened to someone else (and probably highly polished to make a good anecdote).  

Mine, not yours.

I like history.  I like classical music.  I like cricket.  I’ve got stories from all of them.  But you won’t get anything from me about soccer, or knitting, or gardening. So the connections don’t work.  For every person I connect to because I mention Mahler, I push countless people away – some can’t stand him, most have never listened to him, many have never heard of him.  So I have to make connections on other, more common grounds.  

Literary, not living.

They were beautifully written, some of them.  Elegantly put.  But someone wrote them to be read – or maybe said aloud in a more literary time.  Mostly, they had the dead feel of quips or anecdotes, the sort that used to be sent in to Reader’s Digest. ‘The story is told…’

Mostly, they had the dead feel of quips, or anecdotes, the sort that used to be sent in to Reader’s Digest.

Ugh.

So, I chucked them, and I pray for attention, recall, and retention.

You might say, but these days we do have Evernote, and Dropbox, and tags and search fields. It wouldn’t take hundreds of hours and boxes of index cards. And I reply (this is personal, remember), they’d still be stale, generic, literary and only of interest to me.

Now, an important exception.  If I’m writing something, boy do I keep notes.  Many, many notes.  I don’t trust my memory for that, thank you very much.  

But this week, I’m using the time I reversed my dad’s car into a ditch, the day after I passed my driving test. It just came to mind as I was prepping the sermon, it’s relevant, it happened to me, and it made me laugh. And it neatly explains the passage.

Call to action: throw your files away, too! (Or do you disagree? Pile in!)

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6 comments on “Four reasons I binned all my quotes for preaching”

  1. Someone once told me that if you can’t get your illustrations from the week leading up to the sermon then you’re not looking hard enough… I quickly threw away my files of illustrations and never regretted it.

  2. Yes and Amen. Really noticed a few years ago how a preacher I really enjoyed listening to rarely told stories from ages ago. Much more were ordinary life from this week / year. Somehow it made the sermons feel much fresher and more relevant than the hoary old classic illustration handed down from the greats of the past. I keep a file, but only of the last 6 months or so

  3. As part of the congregation, I’ve found illustrations from most preachers to be hardly relevant. If it is to explain a point, a sentence or two might help, but full-blown stories have too much detail that derail the main point of the illustration.

    If we have only 20-30 min for the sermon, I would much prefer that they deep dive further into God’s word rather than spend that time on stories.

    1. Well, I’m not against illustrations and stories – the bible is fun of them, and very well told, too. But I don’ like old, tired, ‘out of a book’ or ‘nicked off the web’ stories. They ring hollow. Any good communicator wants t connect, and a preacher wants to connect the passage to the hearers, and we’ll use every power God has given us to do so. Just let them touch the ‘live’ rail!

  4. Thankyou Chris. A very helpful article. I’ve been thinking of illustrations and quotes a bit this week too. And I was struck by the fact that the books and index cards I collected at the beginning of my ministry rarely, if ever, get referred to. Now and again I might use a good old story, but not often. My wife often tells me that my best illustrations come from our lives. Not only are they more relevant, but they open us up to the congregation, enabling us to ‘share our lives’ with them.

    I’m also struck that Jesus’ parables were based on people’s everyday experiences, a familiar world. However, the challenge now is that our life experiences are so diverse that no one illustration will be helpful to everyone (not even in a covid-limited world).

    Q: Do you think there is value in sometimes using more than one illustration for a single point, looking at the same thing from different angles for different listeners?

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