Movies as Sermon Illustrations?

Okay, since we’re on a roll here at helpmyunbelief on sermons and the last couple of posts on some sermon hijinks, I wanted to bring to throw out a question based on Ed’s comments from the previous post (“Sermon Mischief”).

To use movies as sermon illustrations or not?

If you are a pastor/preacha, why or why not?

If you are a parishioner, how do you respond when a pastor uses a movie illustration?

Personally, I can think of one time when I used a movie illustration in a sermon, though there may be others…the sermon theme was on hope and I used a discussion between Andy Dufrane & Red from Shawshank Redemption.  I believe the illustration was effective, but it did require a disclaimer given that it is a rated “R” (shocking, I know).  Movie illustration also often assume that everyone has seen the movie.

Ed is tired of the Lord of the Rings illustrations…personally, I’m tired of the Chariots of Fire illustration.


13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Gina on October 14, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    I think movies can portray truth in incredibly effective ways. That being said, it’s only effective in a sermon if the listener has seen the movie in question. If I haven’t seen the movie, your two-sentence plot summary isn’t going to cut it, and the illustration loses its power. Also, while you might find an applicable moment in a movie, the movie as a whole might not be the kind of thing you want to promote from the pulpit. (But I do love “Shawshank”, so I’m tracking with you, Adam.)

    I’d much prefer an illustration from real life–I’m more apt to listen to you if I can relate to you. Of course, not everyone’s life plays out like a movie…but at least it’s real.


  2. Any illustration hastily tacked on because “an illustration is needed here” has the tendency, in my opinion, to lower the weight of what is being said. Just because I’m talking about pride, and Simba the Lion King had pride, doesn’t mean my message is really helped by making the comparison.

    On the other hand, we gain our hearers’ trust when they see that we can connect what we see in the Bible with the events, issues, and ideas around us. But anyone can watch a movie. We *usually* gain greater trust (and better illustrate our point) when we draw on more subtle subject matter.

    BONUS NOTE: The “Chariots of Fire” illustration is indeed so overused. I recently saw a cartoon in which a child is playing video games on the living room floor, and his mom is urging him to go outside and play (run?). He is saying to her, “But mom, when I play video games I feel God’s pleasure!” … So I think we can consider that illustration fully used up by now.

    BONUS NOTE 2: My wife won’t let me quote Narnia, ever. Even rare, untapped stuff.


  3. I’m not against movie illustrations in general, but I’d much rather hear a personal illustration, or an “illustration” taken from an applicable “story” in Scripture. Further, if you’re basing your topic completely around a film (i.e. preaching on a film), that’s bad news bears. I might just be a cranky old soul, but too many pop culture references (from music to movies to news events to comic strips), and I tend to tune out.

    BONUS question: Ken – does your wife not let you quote Narnia because you haven’t read them all, or some other reason? I might go so far as to say that even Narnia references are quickly going the way of Chariots of Fire references.


  4. Joel,

    While both of those would be good reasons, it is the latter. Any reference from Narnia is immediately campy, and credibility points go down. (“Seems he searched the Narnia Sermon Illustration Database…”)

    It’s too bad because the books have such great illustrations of Biblical truth. Guess I’ll just read ’em to Cullen.


  5. Posted by adamtisdale on October 14, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    great comments all…thanks. Here are a couple more thoughts:

    **too much of any one type of illustration can be too much – even personal illustrations.

    **there are dangers with any type of sermon illustration. e.g. personal illustrations can exalt the pastor or biblical illustrations can rob the meaning from the original text to meet then needs of the sermon.

    **in the end, illustrations must serve the sermon, which should serve the text. It’s dangerous when we confuse the proper place of each.


  6. Posted by Tag Tuck on October 15, 2008 at 1:11 am

    Maybe this shows how culturally empty we are. Christians are only *allowed* to read books like Narnia and LOTR. We’re only *allowed* to watch “Chariots of Fire” and “Veggie Tales”.

    Another place that may no longer be mined for good illustrations is the Old Testament. Because our culture and congregations pay little attention to 3/4ths of the Bible, it can’t effectively be used unless it is the main text of a sermon and given a lot of backstory.

    Remember that those great overused illustrations from Lewis and Tolkien began as books, not movies. Also, Eric Liddell was a real person who really said those words to his sister. Maybe those became great overused illustrations because they are good and didn’t have their origin in Hollywood? What would happen to our sermon illustrations if we read more good literature(especially biographies of missionaries)?

    I once heard Jerry Root of Wheaton College speak about three major themes in story: man as a pilgrim, man as a lover, and man as an ascetic. He then encouraged people to look for these themes as starting points to relate stories to the gospel. It was really eye-opening for me.

    Of course, my real point here is that there should be more sermon illustrations taken from the Godfather movies which is only slightly less brutal than the OT itself.

    Alright, time for the truth: who out there has used a Godfather illustration in a sermon?


  7. Posted by Gina on October 15, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Speaking as the only woman who has chimed in here, I beg you–please don’t use Godfather illustrations. And if you absolutely HAVE to, please don’t use a Brando voice.

    I don’t know–our pastor here references “Nacho Libre” quite liberally. That’s one movie I haven’t seen, but I still enjoy his illustrations. How’s that for cultural richness?


  8. I’m trying to remember whether I ever cited “The Godfather.” I guess not. I really wish I could have said yes.

    Regarding the big question of whether to cite movies as ILL, the answer to which seems to be “sometimes,” I think there are two things to consider:

    1. The movie itself. (Have people seen it, is it worth citing, etc.)

    2. The manner in which we present it. I think that whether we have given serious thought, and unique thought, to something comes through.

    Also, the manner in which we present it can either include or exclude those who have not seen the movie.

    I have much more to say but I don’t want to be kicked off Adam’s site.


  9. In total agreement with Adam’s additional thoughts and Ken’s most recent thoughts (not to say that I don’t agree with the other thoughts – I do). I assume y’all were at least given cursory advice about using illustrations in seminary? As a non-seminary trained “lay” person, I appreciated your last thought, Adam:

    **in the end, illustrations must serve the sermon, which should serve the text. It’s dangerous when we confuse the proper place of each.


  10. Posted by adamtisdale on October 15, 2008 at 9:29 am

    For the record, this may be the most commented upon post on the blog…a fun little conversation!

    Tag: I think that you make a good point about the difficulty of OT illustrations, but maybe that is all the more reason to use them.

    I have never used a Godfather illustration and I’m not very good at impersonations, so rest at ease Gina. Well, there is the sermon where I imitate Mr. T, but that was something of a personal illustration.

    Ken: I haven’t figured out how to kick anyone off yet, but when I do… Seriously, good points and kudos for answering the question.

    Joel: Yes, some training but it’s like a lot of things at seminary. You get some info/training, to put you on the right track, but it is not always possible to cover every conceivable situation/circumstance that may come up in the church.

    For the record, Dr. Bryan Chapell, who I think is a master sermon illustrator has written a book (Using Illustrations to Preach with Power) on this subject. I do not see in it where he addresses movies and may not.

    Thanks all!


  11. Here are some factors to consider: in the old days, a preacher would quote from a book, and people would of course assume that he had personally read said book, and that he had discovered that nugget of wisdom himself.

    After all, preachers, when not out visiting the sick, were sitting in their studies, feeling God’s pleasure. Later came the quotes books, and illustrations books so we could just go through the topical indexes and still appear to be well read and cultured.

    The problems with the movie clip illustrations begin here.

    1)Our people will naturally assume that their Pastor is spending his days/evenings at the movies looking for sermon material.
    2) That he is not familiar enough with the Bible to pull good material from it.
    3) That his own life experiences aren’t relevant enough to illustrate much biblical truth (it’s hard to get life experience sitting in a dark theater).
    4) That their Pastor openly approves of the movie, which also in most of the R rated ones, include nudity, profanity, blasphemy, adultery, etc and that their Pastor finds this entertaining.
    5) That clearly it is ok for them to spend their time watching R rated movies (or worse, to learn even “deeper” lessons!)
    6)That the host of Biblical instructions about not setting unclean things before our eyes, to not take part in the lifestyles of the ungodly, etc, do not pertain to them nor their Pastor.
    7)That their Pastor may be spending more time feeding on movies than he does in the Word of God.

    We need to remember that as Pastors, our example is louder than the one in the pew. Whatever we do, is interpreted in the light of “and HE is a Pastor, and HE thinks it’s ok to _________________!”


    • Steve: thank you for stopping by and giving your thoughts on this matter. I am not sure that I agree with all of your numbered points or your conclusion, but I don’t think we would agree largely in principle.


      • Hey, no problem, Adam. I know that the whole idea of the Pastor who is hopefully urging his or her people to be less like a fallen world and more like a spiritual community of healers/ gospel bearers means that he or she MAY be neutralizing some of his/her potential impact if the impression is given that a large amount of time is spent watching movies, rather than in the Word of God or prayer.

        Of course, that also has a lot to do with the audiences’ expectations and personal lifestyles.

        Most places where I minister, there is the expectation that I would be a man of prayer, a man of the Word of God and that I would probably be uncomfortable sitting through an hour – plus of foul language, violence as entertainment and adultery, etc.
        And, I must confess that a lot of that does vex my spirit.

        Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

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