the shape of leadership

Stop Using Your Family as an Illustration

Why you shouldn’t always share your home life with your church

Chris Colvin on April 4, 2019

When I consult with pastors for sermon prep and research, the question I hear more than any other is, “Where do I get sermon illustrations?”

Even the most talented storytellers find it hard to come up with fresh material for their messages. And if you are preaching nearly every week, you will run out of stories eventually.

One piece of advice I give preachers is to be on the lookout for illustrations. Reading books, keeping up with the news, and learning about history are all good ways to find material. But the best stories come from real life. When you can tell about yourself, it’s the most relatable.

Unfortunately, one area you can overuse is your family life. The quickest way to get a quick laugh or convey emotion is to retell what happened at the dinner table on Tuesday night, the conversation you had with your daughter on Thursday morning, or the tiff you and your spouse had the night before. But sharing too often isn’t good — for you or your family members.

If you are going to use your family in sermon illustrations, set some boundaries. There are rules you need to follow. You may think it’s not an issue. After all, no one has ever said they didn’t like it. But that doesn’t mean they enjoy being the object of a lesson on Sunday morning. So make sure you are treating your family with the honor they deserve.

Never Go Negative

The first rule — and this is pretty much a nonnegotiable — is never tell a negative story about your family. If it puts them in a bad light, don’t tell it! Find another way to illustrate your point. Come up with a different story. There is no excuse to allow your audience to think less of a family member.

The only exception is when you are relating a personal testimony that includes some past sin or behavior that God has redeemed or forgiven. And even then, make sure you have the family member’s permission. In fact, preface your story with some statement to that effect.

I have heard great preachers tell these types of stories. The thing that always stands out to me is that they never put their family in a bad light. One particular testimony was about a daughter who had left the faith. She had dabbled in drugs and alcohol, and the preacher made mention of that. But at no time did he blame his daughter, degrade her or put her down. In fact, more than once he repented of his own role in driving his daughter from church.

Any illustration that puts your family in a positive light is a win. It reinforces for your audience that you honor and respect your own family. And it gives them a chance to shine.

If you are going to use your family in sermon illustrations, set some boundaries.

Ask Permission

Even if the story is a good one, get permission before you tell everyone. No one likes surprises when it comes to a revealing story. Put yourself in their shoes, and you’ll see why you should always ask before you tell.

Think about how your family member would take being made an illustration in a sermon — especially if that family member is a teenager. What you may not think is embarrassing may still be embarrassing. Even if it paints that person in a good light, it may put him or her in an awkward position when people ask about it later.

Another reason to ask permission is because you may not realize how frequently you are using your family for illustrations. If you bring them up too often, they may feel like they are the punchline of a joke. Or people may start to feel they know more about your family than they really do.

Asking permission means asking well in advance of the sermon. Asking during your sermon doesn’t count. For instance, don’t turn to your spouse in the middle of preaching and ask, “Is it OK if I tell that story about dinner last night?”

What’s the Difference?

If you’re still with me, you may be thinking that telling a story about your own family isn’t that big of a deal. You’ve done it over and over again with no problems. What’s the difference?

There is a difference. There are three different levels to consider. We all have public, personal and private lives. Think of them as red, yellow and green lights.

Your private life includes the parts of your day you would share with no one except your spouse and possibly a parent. I don’t have to explain to you what a private matter is. I’m sure you can figure it out. These types of stories should never be shared. To put it bluntly, no one needs to hear about your sex life.

Your personal life is different. These are the moments you share with those closest to you. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they can betray a trust or reveal too much. Proceed with caution in this area.

Finally, there’s your public life. These are things that just about anyone can know about you and your family. For instance, your child may be comfortable with you sharing how many points he or she scored in a basketball game. But the conversation that happened during the car ride home would be personal, so understand the difference.

The family of pastors and preachers are in uniquely public positions, often without their consent. Family members may already feel like their lives are under a microscope and that others are scrutinizing them. When you share too much from their lives, they can feel exposed.

Instead, honor your family by portraying the best about each member, allowing them to live their own lives for God — not as an object lesson for Sunday morning.


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