We've all been there. Sitting in church on a Sunday listening to the sermon, and the preacher proceeds to tell a wonderful story. It might be about some act of faith that changed lives, or a famous and influential atheist converting on their death bed, or a miraculous sign, or some sceptic being put in their place by a well placed world from a child—or a hundred other things.
It is uplifting, inspiring, educational...and often simply not true. Most of the congregation may never realise this and rave about what a wonderful message they heard that day, but for those who know the truth it can leave a nasty taste in the mouth—and sometimes dilute the impact of what would have been an otherwise powerful moment.
So, why does this happen?
A noisy world
To be fair, in the vast majority of cases the people sharing an inaccurate illustration have no idea, and are convinced of its truth. We shouldn't ascribe malice when ignorance is just as good an explanation—a truth social media in particular often forgets! We are exposed to so much information on a daily basis that it is hard to work out what is true and what is false. The temptation is there to simply take these things at face value and hope that someone else has done the fact checking for you.
And, after all, everyone else is happy to spread that meme on Facebook or share that news story without making sure. And, when it turns out to be false you very rarely see the same amount of posts sharing a correction. Other people might say we are doing it for the Kingdom, so we should let it slide when people make mistakes—it's all in a good cause, after all. Some might even hold the point of view that if it brings people to God then it doesn't matter if it is true or not, to which I would say—of what use is a building built on a rotten foundation?
I don't think that is good enough. As Christians we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard than the world, not a lesser. Everything we do for God we should be trying to do to the best of our ability, and that includes ensuring the truth of our words. Those of us who are given the privilege of speaking from the platform or the lectern are carrying an even greater burden of responsibility, for at that moment we take on some of the authority of the church we represent and our words given more weight than might otherwise be the case.
Do your research
So, what can we do to avoid falling into the trap of using a story or illustration that isn't true? It's simple, in this brave new world Google (or the search engine of your choice) is your friend. In the internet age, all the information you could possibly want is at your fingertips, and all you have to do is find it. If you get a chain email with a wonderful story that you want to use, it's simple—just type in a few key points and you will soon discover whether there is any doubt as to its veracity.
A world hostile to Christian faith will tear holes in any story that serves to bring people closer to Christ, so if that lovely story you want to use can be disproved someone, somewhere, will definitely point it out—loudly. There are also websites, like snopes.com, dedicated to investigating urban legends that are an invaluable resource.
This doesn't mean that stories and illustrations don't have a place in our sermons. Jesus himself used parables and allegories to spread the Gospel, after all. It didn't matter whether the good Samaritan existed or not, or whether some unlucky calf really did get slaughtered by a happy father. These stories communicated important truths to their listeners in a way that was easy to comprehend.
But, Jesus' audience was well aware of their cultural tradition of using myths and legends to communicate deeper meanings. To them, whether those events actually happened or not did not diminish the truths of which the stories spoke.
We can use these methods, too. If we come across a story that allows us to quickly and clearly communicate an important message there is nothing stopping us from using that, in fact it is an essential part of the preacher's tool kit.
We simply need to ensure that we do not present something as truth unless we have verified it actually happened. Clearly framing it as a story or illustration prevents any misunderstandings that might come between our listeners and their ability to trust what we say—so that when we speak of the glory of God they will know it to be the truth.
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army's magazine, On Fire. He is a freelance writer, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html