Getting listeners to respond to our preaching is not easy. Most of what we want to say they’ve heard us say before. How do we get them to pay attention, buy in, and respond to our messages? In our hunger to overcome audience apathy, it can be tempting to resort to cheap homiletics tricks.
One of those time-tested tricks is the straw man illustration. These are stories that gather the listener to our side in opposition to an absent foil. The example described is usually so obvious in its inadequacy that the listener unites with the preacher, chuckling derisively at these imagined others who obviously don’t have a clue.
It is just too easy.
For example, I recently heard a preacher describe a long-past church board meeting where the elders were so far off mission that they spent twenty minutes of their precious meeting time debating what brand of toilet paper should be used in the church washroom. Of course, the audience was galvanized, clucking their disapproval, laughing easily at the stupidity of this board. It was homiletic child’s play – uniting the people against the straw man, easily knocked down for the entertainment, and not the edification, of the audience.
The whole thing felt cheap and easy. The inadequacy of this description was so obvious that no one in the audience had to own the preacher’s point. The preacher felt good because he got the people with him. He had them listening, but he wasn’t actually actually able to help them because it was too easy for the people to escape the weight of the sermon’s point. There wasn’t a single person in the crowd who would ever be tempted in the same way as was this long-past board. The example was too ridiculous to bear credibility. As a result, the critique was pointed elsewhere – at those present only in the imagination.
There is never much point preaching against “those people” who make an easy target because they are not in attendance. When the focus is on “those people,” the people who are actually present in the congregation, attending to the sermon, don’t have to bother facing accountability because they are not made of the straw the preacher is knocking down.
Do we have a problem with staying on mission in board and committee meetings? Of course we do! Do we struggle to maintain biblical focus in favour of the things that make us comfortable? Absolutely! So maybe we should talk about those challenges directly and as they really happen, framing our examples and our exhortations in realistic terms that do not allow listeners to so easily escape the necessary scrutiny.
Straw men serve the preacher’s ego. Real examples are more risky – but they might also be more compelling…and more powerful.