My friend Dave, who pastors a church in my neighborhood, reminded me of a story that used to show up in sermons from time to time.
After a war, a soldier who was severely wounded was returning home. As soon as he entered the States, he phoned his parents to say he was bringing with him a buddy who had lost (fill in the blank-an eye, a leg, both legs, etc) and was confined to a wheelchair. He wanted the guy to live with the family and promised that he would take care of him. The mother said, "Now, honey, we appreciate your compassion and your dedication to your friend. But this would be too heavy a burden on your family. This is not a good idea." A few days later, the family got word that their son, the one just home from the war, had ended his own life in a hotel in a distant city. When the remains were shipped home, the family discovered he had one eye, one leg (or no legs, etc.) He had been telling his parents about himself.
Dave and I agreed that such a story, whether true or untrue-it's impossible to know-is a show-stopper; a sermon-killer. Let the preacher tell such a story and no one will hear a word he says afterwards. The congregation will be sitting there reflecting on that story, grieving and imagining and reflecting. The wise preacher will never tell a story that clobbers his sermon and destroys the point he was trying to make.
I reminded Dave of another one (which, thankfully, I never used, not even once) but which fits this sad category. A father took his young son and another boy on a fishing trip. A storm comes up, the boat swamps, and they are all dumped into the lake. Since the boys cannot swim and the father cannot save both, he has to make a quick decision. According to the story, his son is saved and the friend is unsaved. So, Dad abandons his son to drown knowing he will go to Heaven, and rescues the other kid.
That tragic story is supposed to make the point that we must do all we can to reach the lost, and that the saved person goes to Heaven. The message actually received by the congregation, however, is more along the lines of "the preacher just told a weird story of a father who abandoned his son to drown in order to save a kid he barely knows." Such an emotionally packed story destroys a sermon. No one ever hears another word the preacher has to say.
Now, it's possible to take one such story and build the entire sermon around it, the way our Lord did with the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. But, man, that takes skill most of us do not have. I sure don't.
Better to prayerfully build your sermon first, then, looking at the various points you are making, find appropriate illustrations. Not too many or their effect will be lost, and nothing distracting or "attracting," because the illustration is not the point. "The point" is the point, if you will.
A fail-safe method for determining whether a story is a sermon-killer is this: try it on your wife. You will know in a heartbeat. She will tell you in one way or the other. You may not like her reaction, but you'll not be in the dark. If she reacts negatively at all, friend, you have your answer. Do not use the story. Her instincts tend to be more sensitive than yours in these matters. I recognize that's a broad generality, and like most generalities, it has its exceptions. But not many, I submit.
The sermon is the thing, not the story. Never let the story hijack the sermon. Preach the Word.
Joe McKeever is a retired Southern Baptist pastor from New Orleans, Louisiana. He blogs regularly at www.joemckeever.com.