The following is an excerpt from Charles Spurgeon’s book, Lectures to My Students, about the propriety of using anecdotes in preaching:1
It is pretty generally admitted that sermons may wisely be adorned with a fair share of illustrations; but anecdotes used to that end are still regarded by the prudes of the pulpit with a measure of suspicion. They will come down low enough to quote an emblem, they will deign to use poet’s imagery; but they cannot stoop to tell a simple, homely story. They would probably say in confidence to their younger brethren, “Beware how you lower yourselves and your sacred office by repeating anecdotes, which are best appreciated by the vulgar and uneducated.”
We would not retort by exhorting all men to abound in stories, for there ought to be discrimination. It is freely admitted that there are useful and admirable styles of oratory which would be disfigured by a rustic tale; and there are honored brethren whose genius would never allow them to relate a story, for it would not appear suitable to their mode of thought. Upon these we would not even by implication hint at a censure; but when we are dealing with others who seem to be somewhat, and are not what they seem, we feel no tenderness; nay, we are even moved to assail their stilted greatness.
If they sneer at anecdotes, we smile at them and their sneers, and wish them more sense and less starch. Affectation of intellectual superiority and love of rhetorical splendor have prevented many from setting forth gospel truth in the easiest, imaginable manner; namely, by analogies drawn from common events. Because they could not condescend to men of low estate they have refrained from repeating incidents which would have accurately explained their meaning. Fearing to be thought vulgar, they have lost golden opportunities. As well might David have refused to sling one of the smooth stones at Goliath’s brow because he found it in a common brook.
From individuals so lofty in their ideas nothing is likely to flow down to the masses of the people but a glacial eloquence – a river of ice. Dignity is a most poor and despicable consideration unless it be the dignity of turning many to righteousness; and yet divines who have had scarcely enough of real dignity to save themselves from contempt, have swollen “huge as high Olympus” through the affectation of it.
A young gentleman, after delivering an elaborate discourse, was told that not more than five or six in the congregation had been able to understand him. This he accepted as a tribute to his genius; but I take leave to place him in the same class with another person who was accustomed to shake his head in the most profound manner that he might make his prelections the more impressive, and this had some effect with the groundlings, until a shrewd Christian woman made the remark that he did shake his head certainly, but that there was nothing in, it. Those who are too refined to be simple need to be refined again.
Luther has well put it in his Table-Talk:
Cursed are all preachers that in the church aim at high and hard things; and neglecting the saving health of the poor unlearned people, seek their own honor and praise, and therefore try to please one or two great persons. When I preach I sink myself deep down.
It may be superfluous to remind you of the oft-quoted passage from George Herbert’s “Country Parson,” and yet I cannot omit it, because it is so much to my mind:
The Parson also serves himself of the judgments of God, as of those of ancient times, so especially of the late ones; and those most which are nearest to his parish; for people are very attentive at such discourses, and think it behoves them to be so when God is so near them, and even over their heads.
Sometimes he tells them stories and sayings of others, according as his text invites him; for them also men heed, and remember better than exhortations; which, though earnest, yet often die with the sermon, especially with country people, which are thick, and heavy, and hard to raise to a point of zeal and fervency, and need a mountain of fire to kindle them, but stories and sayings they will well remember.
It ought never to be forgotten that the great God himself, when he would instruct men, employs histories and biographies. Our Bible contains doctrines, promises, and precepts; but these are not left alone, the whole book is vivified and illustrated by marvelous records of things said and done by God and by men. He who is taught of God values the sacred histories, and knows that in them there is a special fullness and forcibleness of instruction. Teachers of Scripture cannot do better than instruct, their fellows after the manner of the Scriptures.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the great teacher of teachers, did not disdain the use of anecdotes. To my mind it seems clear that certain of his parables were facts and, consequently, anecdotes. May not the story of the Prodigal Son have been a literal truth? Were there not actual instances of an enemy sowing tares among the wheat? May not the rich fool who said–”Take thine ease,” have been a photograph taken from the life? Did not Lazarus actually figure on the stage of history? Certainly the story of those who were crushed by the fall of the tower of Siloam, and the sad tragedy of the Galilaeans, “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” were matters of current Jewish gossip, and our Lord turned both of them to good account.
What He did we need not be ashamed to do. That we may do it with all wisdom and prudence let us seek the guidance of the Divine Spirit which rested upon him so continually.
1 Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Fig Books, 2012; Kindle ed.), 362 – 364.