5 Sermon Clichés to Retire

We had never met before, the student and I. And we never did because after hearing my illustration, he made a bee line for the door as soon as the talk was over.

The student? An art major from a small southern town, slightly skeptical of Christianity but giving it another chance. The illustration? Sheep castration.

Take another sip of coffee and read that again. Sheep castration. I was teaching on Jesus as the Good Shepherd from John 10, and used a story from a Mike Rowe TED talk on the subject. It basically compared Jesus’ love to a farmer castrating his sheep. He loves us enough to hurt us for our good.

Exactly what a person reengaging with faith needs to hear: The Lord loves you. Now sit still because this will hurt a little. Sing it with me, “Oh how He loves us. OW AHHH He loves us.”

Like most illustrations, you have no idea how they’ll go until you use them. I knew this one wasn’t working when I locked eyes with said art major only to see them well up with fears. Somewhere there’s a painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, holding a lamb close to His heart in one arm, a gigantic knife in the other.

Illustrations are tricky. Charles Spurgeon said illustrations are like windows in a house. Too many and you’re left with no substance. Too few and you’re left with no light. If you’ve been around church for very long, you’ve probably heard a lot of them, some more than once. Illustrations basically come in three kinds: some good and powerful, some bad and awkward. And some good, but overdone—the ones that feel less like a window, more like a revolving door/time machine to the ’90s.

“Of what illustrations do you speak?” you ask (hopefully in a Downton Abbey footman’s voice).

Glad you asked. Here are five illustrations teachers love to use that are perhaps like a faithful pet in old age: they need to gently be put down. A word to fellow teachers who, like me, may hate themselves a little more upon reading this: he who has not used any of these illustrations may cast the first stone.

The Matrix

Who doesn’t love The Matrix? Anyone born after 1995. Using The Matrix in your talk is like putting a Creed song on your dinner party playlist. It would be so edgy if you had a time machine that could take everyone back to 1999.

In fact, I’m 99 percent sure Scott Stapp and Keanu Reeves are the same person. The Matrix is full of Christian symbolism, you say. Jesus is just like Neo, except hopefully we never have to see him covered in black leather. Will you take the red pill and follow Jesus, or the blue pill and stay in your comfort zone? I’ll take whichever pill immediately wipes this illustration from my memory. Now that I think about it, we might want to retire “comfort zone” too, unless we’re brainstorming a new Old Spice deodorant.

“He’s Not Safe, but He’s Good.”

That line is famously spoken by Mr. Beaver about Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Don’t get me wrong, The Chronicles of Narnia as a whole should definitely still be fair game for illustrations. Just not this particular line. Why? Because it’s been way overdone.

I vividly remember the last time I used it. I was on a boat, leading a devotional for some high schoolers. In light of how badly it was going, it felt exactly like The Titanic. So I pulled out this line about Aslan only to be met with a lion’s share of blank stares. “He’s not safe, but He’s good” is the “Call Me Maybe” of illustrations. Incredible the first time you hear it, but by the 50th time you want to Dexter your own ear drums.

The Shawshank Redemption

New rule: unless you plan on engraving “Get busy living, or get busy dying” on your tombstone, you’re not allowed to use Shawshank illustrations any more. Or unless you sound exactly like Morgan Freeman. But then you wouldn’t need any illustrations at all.

I know what you’re thinking. Slow down, Red, and give Andy Defresne a chance. No I will not. Shawshank illustrations are like Brooks. Cute and sweet and old and have to die. Unless your talk is on how prison is the best place to make new friends.

See Also

Anything Bono Said or Did


I’m not sure if you know this, but Bono is actually an old Irish word that roughly translates to “makes teachers feel cool.” I get why we as Christians love him. I do. He’s famous but faithful, using his power for good not evil. And he says some incredible things about grace.

The most amazing thing about Bono is that he hasn’t changed his outfit in over 20 years. But using another Bono illustration is like wearing a pair of leather pants to a family reunion—it may be tempting, but you really shouldn’t do it.

Lord of the Rings

What Sam is to Frodo, LOTR illustrations are to teachers. Your faithful friend, always there for you, slightly co-dependent.

I myself have used Smeagol/Gollum illustrations 100+ times in the last 10+ years, so much so that my students are slowly turning into Gollum and their ring is to never hear me use an LOTR illustration again.

In the words of Job, I have made a covenant with myself to never use another LOTR illustration. Unless I’m at a homeschool convention. Then I will make it rain (reign?) LOTR illustrations.

We’re out of time and didn’t even get to Gladiator, Matt Chandler’s “The Rose,” or Chariots of Fire/pretty much any other sports movie.

Be gentle on your teachers. Teachers, be gentle on yourself. And next time you use one of these illustrations add a $1 to the Overdone Illustration Jar.

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