When Sermon Illustrations Aren’t “Family Friendly”

Have you ever been watching a TV show or movie and thought, “this would make a great illustration,” and then someone gets naked? Or the main character gets wasted? Or there’s a brutal death that shows just a little too much?

We are then stuck with this dilemma: is it still the perfect illustration if some part of the wider work it’s found in isn’t exactly “family friendly”?

Here are some thoughts that may help your discernment process:

Pray about it.

I generally assume this step when writing posts for pastors and ministry leaders, but this is a different kind of dilemma than “what type of Facebook posts should I be crafting?” This one takes an extra dose of wisdom, so let’s go ahead and explicitly say that prayer should be the first move.

Don’t automatically reject something because it’s messy.

The issues that people in our congregations are dealing with aren’t always PG. Life is complicated and not always safe for little ears. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of “Christian” movies and other faith-based media is that they are too simplistic and out of touch. If all your illustrations and cultural references perfectly resolve like the family sitcoms of the past, don’t be surprised if people tune you out.

Let the stories of Scripture be your guide.

War, beheadings, drunkenness, jealousy, adultery, rape, murder—and that’s just the life of David, a man after God’s own heart. It is amazing what God and the biblical writers were willing to include, even about their heroes, if it revealed something about God and our relationship with God.

Use Philippians 4:8 as a test.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (NRSV)

When Paul wrote this advice to the Philippians, he certainly was including study of the Scriptures. The messy parts of the Bible aren’t pure and pleasing on their surface, but they are an honest testimony of our need for God’s grace and mercy. The same can hold true for the illustrations and cultural references you use. But if you choose to use something that pushes some boundaries, make sure it ultimately helps point people to the Gospel.

Just because it is messy or ambiguous doesn’t mean it’s profound.

As with all pendulums, it is possible to swing too far the other way. There is a lot of compelling and visually beautiful stuff coming out of places like Netflix and HBO. There is plenty that points to our sinfulness and need for God. There us plenty that stirs emotions. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually profound or has something important to say. It is possible the writers just threw a bunch of spiritual themes in a blender.

Understand that the medium matters.

Reading about Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop is a different experience from seeing an actor or actress naked. Reading about Joab thrusting three spears into Absalom’s heart is different from watching someone get gunned down in a film. Even if you would never show anything graphic during a sermon, it is reasonable to expect that some will seek out and watch what you reference. Be sensitive to how something is presented, not just the theme or subject matter.

Be clear and intentional about why you want to reference something.

A “Game of Thrones” reference might get you major cool points, but it’s not about cool points. It is about making a connection. It is about showing people how to think theologically about culture. It is about using a touchpoint people understand to help them grasp something about Jesus or the Scriptures. If the reference is something most people haven’t seen, it only supports your point in a roundabout way, or you’re only using it to show how up-with-the-culture you are, it may be best to look for something else.

Are there other options?

Yes, this story or character or theme is perfect. But before you settle on something that might distract from the message, see if it jogs your memory and reminds you of something else. Themes, archetypes, and even specific plots are repeated throughout books, television, music, and film. Just because the sermon point clicked when you watched, read, or heard this one thing doesn’t mean there aren’t other options that can be as effective.

Context, context, context.

A worship service full of families with young kids is different from a Theology on Tap gathering. A sermon at a college campus ministry is different from a sermon at the First Church downtown or the Family Bible Chapel just outside of town. A gathering of non and nominally religious people is different from a gathering of life-long believers. Just as Paul used an intentionally different approach with the philosophers on Mars Hill, we need to know our context as deeply as possible. This knowledge is part of the wisdom needed to make the right call.

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