Saturday, 14 March 2009

kids as sermon fodder

A lot has been written over the last few days about Julie Myerson’s new book The Lost Child. The reason for the comment is that in part the book is about her son, his drug habit and the Myersons' decision to ban him from their home. Myerson and her husband have been horrified at the reaction to the book but cynics note the publisher’s decision to bring forward the publishing date to make the most of publicity and Myerson’s exclusive interviews. However, it now transpires that Myerson was writing anonymously about her family and in particular her kids in a weekly newspaper column for several years. There have been those who have defended Myerson’s decision to write the book including Mark Lawson but other commentators have been scathing in their criticism.

There is an issue raised by this sad tale and it is one I think clergy including myself would do well to consider. Is it right to use our children as sermon illustrations? I write as a clergy kid and as a minister with kids.

As a family we enjoy our annual pilgrimage to Spring Harvest and one of the draws is some excellent preaching and teaching. Yet I am sometimes surprised and occasionally horrified by the way speakers share intimate information and stories about their children. I find myself thinking that if that was my dad on stage in front of several thousand people talking about my teenage years I would be seriously p****d off. I understand the pressures on the speaker; the need for good relevant illustration; the intention to find appropriate application; the desire to show others that you may be an international speaker but you have a real life with real family issues and problems just like everyone else etc. It may well be that the speaker has sought permission from the child before telling the story, though I would want to ask how free the child felt about saying no.

The same temptations and issues face those of us ministering in more humble circumstances in the local situation and other speaking / teaching events we might find ourselves in. A family incident comes to mind as one is searching for an illustration and it would work perfectly. Or perhaps one is in full flow in the pulpit and an incident pops into the mind which would serve to emphasise the point beautifully. Yet, our children are more than just sermon fodder and what may seem to me to be the recounting of a humorous incident might be extremely embarrassing to the child who features in the anecdote.

I’d be interested to know what guidelines colleagues follow in this matter because it seems to be something that hasn’t been given much thought if the practice I have observed is any indicator. I certainly don’t remember it featuring in preaching courses I attended and now that I am responsible for designing and delivering such courses I want to give it some serious consideration.

It occurs to me that this is an issue bloggers might also want to consider when writing about our families.


paul said...

The Vicar at the church where I worshipped God during the 1990s - in North Yorkshire - illustrated almost all of his sermons with two out of three of: (i) something that had happened to his daughter that week; (ii) something from a popular TV show that week; (iii) a bit of incident from a 'Saint's Life'... I resolved as a result, should I ever find myself in a pulpit, to avoid doing so, as it was consistently painful, inappropriate, laboured, crass...and it didn't teach you very much!!!

Philip Ritchie said...

I agree Paul, there is nothing worse than an illustration which is inappropriate etc. It suggests a lazy approach to contstructing and preaching a sermon and can indicate a lack of time in preparation. Sometimes the best illustrations just pop into one's mind but often it takes time for the right one to emerge.

I try and get students to be ruthless in their preparation: does this illustration really underline or develop the point or is it a distraction even if it is funny? I can't stand listening to an amusing anecdote only for the preacher to say it has nothing to do with their subject.

However, the right illustration can really make an impact and draw out the meaning and significance of a point - Jesus spent most of his teaching/preaching ministry doing this. I think the key is that the illustration must enhance the message and if it doesn't don't use it. And if you can't think of an appropriate illustration then don't have one.

My point about using illustrations from the family is that my son (8) has recently come out with a couple of incisive observations re church but how appropriate would it be to use them referencing him? FYI they were:
On entering church on the 1st Sunday in Lent he saw the empty pews and said 'Have people given up going to church for Lent'
Later in the day he asked why we had sung 'Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is bored'. Out of the mouths of babes etc.