Straw Man Sermons

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.Straw Man

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.

4 thoughts on “Straw Man Sermons

  1. I wonder, what if the story were true? Why would that make it a straw man? What if this depicted not the ridiculous but the actual? What then? Now, what if – as you suggest – this story came from the pastor’s last board meeting. Should he speak about it to his congregation? That would certainly avoid the “them” complex. It would face the accountability of all the people within the community, including the pastor. Would that be the right thing to do?

  2. I am sure the story was true, even though it had happened a long time ago. What you say about accountability for this board is a good comment, though I doubt the public sermon would be the right venue for dealing with this sort of thing. I am more concerned about the way we use the rhetoric of the ridiculous as a means of uniting our listeners. I understand how it is gratifying for the preacher, but I am afraid that it encourages listeners to avoid accountability.

    By the way, lest I be accused of doing the exact same thing, I want to say that the preacher I heard do this is a good man, well motivated, and not egotistical. That’s why it was a useful thing for us to think about. I think we do this sort of thing without even noticing.

  3. Kent, I must admit that I am not sure why you would assume that the preacher wanted to unite the audience through his alleged straw man illustration? What if he were alienating them by his comments? Then again, what if he simply spoke the truth in love. Why would that take away from the audience’s accountability? If he wanted to mock someone or deride them, that’s one thing. But if he were actually pointing to the absurdity of the things that preoccupy our attention in our churches while the world outside is going to hell, would that not stand the listeners in a position of accountability? Why not follow the example of the leaders with a challenge to the laughing audience pointing out the folly of their own pursuits. This way, he would wipe the self-righteous grin from everybody’s face. The point I am making is that we find these sort of sermons and issues brought up by the prophets and by Jesus himself. Why would we avoid them in the pulpits today? Jesus mocked the religious leaders to death in broad daylight. Then, of course, he turned on his applauding audience regularly enough to get himself crucified in the end. I suspect that we may be losing our nerve as preachers these days when we fail to speak directly about the folly of the practices that proliferate among us having nothing to do with biblical Christianity. At least this way we could try to laugh our way out of our present politically correct constipation…and, everybody is happy.

  4. Fair enough, Lech. I agree that we could use more prophetic preaching. I am just complaining about the way we sometimes use examples that make it too easy for listeners to escape that prophetic accountability. I agree that this is usually unintentional.

Comments are closed.