Sex, murder, and preaching: How much is too much for Sunday morning?

Some analogies stick with you. They embed themselves deep within your psyche. You could probably get rid of them with enough counseling or some seriously strong medication. But, short of that, they’re probably yours for the rest of your life.

I remember one in particular. My youth pastor was preaching that Sunday, and he usually started by warming us up with an entertaining story. That’s what a good comedian preacher does, right? This Sunday was no different.

“Have you seen Top Gun?” he began. The congregation tensed immediately. My youth pastor was known for taking sermons in interesting directions. And, this certainly sounded like it might qualify. “Do you know the part where Goose bets Maverick that he has to get ‘carnal knowledge’ of a girl in the bar before the night is over?” He continued. “And, to pull it off, they end up singing ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’….”

To be honest I don’t remember anything after that. Did he really just manage to combine alcohol, gambling, and sex in one sermon analogy? That’s impressive. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he somehow managed to relate this to a Bible verse somewhere. But, I really have no idea.

How much is too much in a sermon?

A similar question came up a while back as I was reflecting on theological themes in Dexter, a TV show about a serial killer. The show does an outstanding job illustrating brokenness, loneliness, alienation, hope, longing, and sin, among other things (see these video clips). So, it’s ripe with sermon illustrations. The problem is that most of them would be pretty “edgy.” He is, after all, a serial killer. So, we’re not talking about family friendly fare.

Would you use stuff like this in a sermon? It’s real, but is it appropriate?

Should a sermon be rated R?

I found myself reflecting on the same questions a few days ago, but from a very different direction. Carl Trueman posted some thoughts on how hard it was to preach through Judges 19, in which a woman is raped, murdered and dismembered. How do you preach that story to a congregation filled with people of all ages, backgrounds, and sensitivities? Sure it’s in the Bible, but does that make it okay for Sunday morning? And, if so, does that make some of these other examples fair game? Dexter is no more graphic than Judges.

How much is too much for Sunday morning?

As always, I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. But, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from those of you who preach regularly. How do you think about your analogies? Do you ever find yourself struggling over whether a particular analogy is “appropriate”? How do you decide? How do you balance the need to connect the hard and dirty realities that are part of everyday life, with contemporary sensibilities? Should we be “earthier” in our sermons? Or, would that just be capitulating to the more debased aspects of modern culture?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 6, 2011, in Culture, Preaching. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Eccl. 3, there is a time for everything. I’m one who does not feel that preaching needs to be comedic although it’s good to laugh at something, especially oneself, from time to time. However, on Sunday morning there is a wide variety of needs presented by the congregation. One should be diligent to preach only what the Holy Spirit is leading in order to effectively meet the needs of the hearers as much as is possible.

  2. Good question. I’ve wrestled with this very thing on several occasions. For me the line is drawn at my answer to the question of “why” I want to use a particular illustration. Usually followed by what is necessary. If it’s just to get a reaction from the audience with a gruesome story or provocative tale, its not worth it. Illustrations help prove points. If the illustration will eclipse your point, don’t use it. If the illustration helps to prove the point, then by all means, have fun.

  3. This is an excellent question, and one that gives me grief every week. Finding good illustrations can often take me just as much (if not more!) time than working through my passage.

    As far as intros go, my brief foray into youth ministry has instilled in me a proclivity for starting with a joke: if they laugh, I know they’re listening. In response to Billy’s insightful comment, I have to say, even if illustrations aren’t over the top, and even if they do help prove the point, I’ve found (and have had several other pastors corroborate) that people still tend to remember the illustration rather than the point.

    Not to get totally off-topic (this post is, after all, about Dexter), but preaching to a highly educated, well read audience brings with it another set of temptations: to come off as highly educated and well read by using particular quotes or illustrations in my sermons.

    Since this comment is out-of-control-too-long already, I may as well continue. I think your question, “How much is too much on Sunday morning?” is and/or should be, part of a larger question: Are the elements and illustrations of my sermon, our music, liturgy, etc., helping in the clear communication of the gospel to this particular group of people?

    That question may in fact force us to ask, “Am I making Sundays too tame?” Some of the more pietistic folks may need to hear that God isn’t afraid of using the dirt and grime of human history to bring about the re-creation of all things.

    I guess what I mean to say is cultural capitulation can go both ways: obsessing over sex and violence is dangerous and distracting, but so is glossing over the lives of the patriarchs, disciples, and ourselves to look like some pietistic fairy tale. The story of the gospel never shies away from the dysfunction and disaster of sin, but neither does it linger there. My sermon and illustration choices should strive to do the same.

  4. I wonder if you only ought to say enough to make your point. The gospel writers didn’t go into detail about Christ’s crucifixion, in part, I’d guess, because they didn’t need to. Everyone knew what it involved.

  5. I like what Steve said about not making Sunday morning too tame or glossing over things, and also how the Bible is very R, or real, but comes with hope as well. Jesus himself used stories to get a point across, but I have to say that sometimes Pastor’s points aren’t very clear through their stories. Danny has a good point about not needing every single detail. There has to be focus.

    “Glossing over” the difficult parts in the Bible can leave us with a distorted view. It also makes me wonder how it affects people’s ability to be their true selfs if they feel they have to hide or put on a mask (hope that makes sense). Sometimes we have to take the Bible for what it is, for the whole truth. Are we trying to be master’s over it as we read? Are we trying to interpret it? Are we reading over the Bible or under it?

    I know this has strayed off topic a bit, but that is what comes to mind for me after reading the post as well as the comments.

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