Fact-Checking Your Sermon Illustrations

June 22, 2016

Regardless of what you think of Roger Olson’s theology, this excerpt from his book The Story of Christian Theology serves as an important reminder for preachers to fact-check their sermon illustrations.

A popular misconception—perhaps a Christian urban legend—is that the United States Secret Service never shows bank tellers counterfeit money when teaching them to identify it. The agents who do the training, so the legend goes, show bank tellers only examples of genuine money so that when the phony money appears before them they will know it by its difference from the real thing. The story is supposed to make the point that Christians ought to study truth and never heresy.

The first time I heard the tale as a sermon illustration I intuited its falseness. On checking with the Treasury Department’s Minneapolis Secret Service agent in charge of training bank tellers to identify counterfeit money, my suspicion was confirmed. He laughed at the story and wondered aloud who would start it and who would believe it. At my request he sent me a letter confirming that the Secret Service does show examples of counterfeit money to bank tellers.

I believe it is important and valuable for Christians to know not only theological correctness (orthodoxy) but also the ideas of those judged as heretics within the church’s story. One reason is that it is almost impossible to appreciate the meaning of orthodoxy without understanding the heresies that forced its development.

I won’t ask for a raise of hands, but I wonder how many of you have heard the counterfeit money illustration in a sermon? If you have, I hope it wasn’t one of mine.

Even though the principle we are seeking to illustrate may be valid, we have to be careful that our illustrations are not, uhm, . . . counterfeit, right? If our listeners know the facts, our phony illustrations will only undermine our credibility.

Question: What do you do to maintain integrity and credibility in the use of sermon illustrations?


Kerry McGonigal

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In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.

5 responses to Fact-Checking Your Sermon Illustrations

  1. Hand raised here. It scares me how smoothly silly homiletical memes travel through the Christian community.

  2. I’ve definitely heard this one as well, although not recently, fortunately. The overall point that fact-checking is crucial for credibility seems obvious and easier than ever (Snopes, anyone?), but for whatever reason I still hear a lot of poorly sourced or suspect illustrations. For whatever reason it seems most prevalent in “evangelistic” contexts, which is especially unfortunate.

  3. Hand raised here too. If the story sounds too “fantastic,” I will dig around the internet to see if I can find any validity to it. More often than not, they are debunked quite quickly. If it still sounds odd, I will either opt out of using it or will seek a primary source to place in a footnote.

  4. It’s even more important to fact-check today since most church-goers carry access to the whole internet around in their pockets.

    On a tangentially-related note, I’ll never forgot the time I was listening to a preacher when he suddenly had a really, really brilliant section in his sermon. Too brilliant, and too eloquent, I thought. So I pulled out my phone, punched a few choice keywords that I had just heard a second ago into Google, and lo, this whole section of the sermon I was hearing was lifted straight from a Tim Keller blog post.

    I’m not saying the Keller material wasn’t good or anything. But my friend hadn’t introduced it as a quote. If I had left my smartphone at home, it would even have been a blessing to me.

    • Good point, Duncan. Listeners can immediately validate what we’re saying via a quick Google search on their phones.

      Every once in a while I will hear a student preaching in class who sounds remarkably like Charles Spurgeon. 🙂