Have you ever heard a “pulpit exaggeration”?

Have you ever heard a preacher exaggerate from the pulpit, or say something during a sermon that, while inspiring, isn’t 100% true?

In my years of church attendance, I’ve witnessed several examples of “pulpit exaggeration.” Here are some that I’ve heard in sermons or seen in church newsletters; have you come across any of these?

  • Inspiring stories and anecdotes… that I recognize as long-debunked urban legends. (For example, the “NASA’s missing day” legend.)
  • Stories so improbably moving and inspirational that they sound made-up, even if I have no proof that they aren’t true. For example, in a sermon I heard a few months ago, the pastor relayed (as if it were a historical fact) a tear-jerker story about a dying child who supposedly imparted words of great spiritual wisdom moments before expiring.
  • A Christian testimony that’s been “dramatized” for greater emotional impact—often by exaggerating the evil of one’s pre-Christian life or by adding a bit of drama to the story of one’s journey to Christ.
  • An interesting study, report, or poll that is too vague to be verifiable (“Several years ago, a study found that…”).
  • As you can see, these “exaggerations” range from well-intentioned (or even unintentional) “white lies” to a simple lack of adequate documentation. They might result from inadequate research or unconscious rhetorical flourish. I’ve never witnessed an instance where I had any reason to think the preacher was intentionally lying.

    Because they’re almost always minor supporting points in the sermon, I’m never sure if it’s worth bringing up a “pulpit exaggeration” after-the-fact, or if I should just let it go. If the entire sermon is based on a flatly untrue story, it would be one thing; but usually the “exaggerations” serve as minor embellishments to make the story more interesting or compelling for the audience.

    At the same time, Christians are called to speak the truth, even if that means spending precious sermon-prep time fact-checking those suspiciously saccharine anecdotes about dying children.

    How do you respond when you hear a “pulpit exaggeration”? If you’re a preacher, have you ever exaggerated or used questionably-accurate anecdotes in a sermon?

    7 Responses to “Have you ever heard a “pulpit exaggeration”?”

    • toni says:

      What courage it took to write/admit this. I’ve thought the same many times as I listen to people speak. And, I think I may have committed the crime a few times. Abe Lincoln once said that he would prepare 2 weeks to speak for 20 minutes. Excellence, always. Thank you for the great post, Andy!

    • I plead GUILTY. Not from the Pulpit but certainly from forwarding email accounts. I hope that I’ve learned a lesson and try and verify via “Snopes” or another source but even then rarely forward them anymore.

    • jim says:

      What I find more frequent and more concerning than this is the tendency (including myself) to support a minor point with a quick scripture reference that “makes the point” but in fact would not be a proper support if viewed in context.

      The shame is that in most cases the point being made is correct and scripturally supported, but not from the referenced passage. (perhaps a result of of the ability to quickly search our Bibles via the great electronic study tools we now have?) This practice is concerning because it undermines both the credibility of the speaker and a high regard for the scriptures themselves.

    • Sean Scott says:

      We are commanded to be holy and live righteously, being honest is surely near the top of the list of character qualities necessary to be Christ-like. Are we in Christ’s image when we exaggerate, fib, or outright lie? What does this show to unbelievers?

      Whenever we communicate, as in everything we do, it helps to approach it by asking “What Would Jesus Do?” I know that seems like a cute advertising slogan, but I’ve found it really helps when I have that thought foremost in my mind.

      “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” Proverb 10:19

      We can preach to the unbelievers simply by our actions. We do not need to be ordained ministers, priests, great writers, or even have perfect attendance in church. Just by our conduct alone, even in our ordinary communications with others, we are conveying Christ. Speak truthfully and treat others as you would have them treat you.

    • Don says:

      Dear Brothet:
      I am a senior citizen and years ago I lost count of the numerous exaggerations I heard from the pulpit. On former pastor related how that if nobody put up their hand when the invitation was given, he would say ‘I see that hand’ without seeing any. It was supposed to encourage others to do so.
      I believe all that is dishonoring to the Lord Jesus Christ since they are outright lies.
      Also, how many times have I heard people say things like “the bible says He set his face as a flint to go to Jerusalem” when in fact no such a thing can be found in scripture.

    • Audra says:

      While I do not believe I have done this from the pulpit, THANK YOU for this, it will challenge me to ensure I don’t. MUCH APPRECIATED!

    • jjs says:

      Yes, I have heard exaggerations and I have heard things that I thought can’t possibly be true and scripture used out of context…I’ve probably heard it all.

      What is a lay-person’s response/responsibility when they hear something questionnable from the pulpit?