3 Bad Illustrations to stop using in Church

3 Bad Illustrations to stop using in Church

“Once upon a time…” 

We probably have used or heard a lot of stories and illustrations in church during teachings and preachings. These are powerful tools that enable us to push our messages across. However, over the time, I realised that we tend to use bad illustrations that are either false or disproved by latest research. These are bad illustrations that seem to be based on science. In my opinion, there are at least three of these bad illustrations we should stop using in our teachings. 

Bad Illustration 1: The Boiling Frog Analogy

We heard this illustration before. You put a frog into a pot of boiling water, and it jumps right out. But if you put it in a pot of nice comfortable water and then turn on the heat, you will boil the complacent frog will complacently. In itself, this is a nice story to tell to let people know how sins creep into our lives. But I am of the opinion that we should not use illustrations that people can dispute. This is one of them. 

Some investigations have found the analogy to be totally false. In at least one report, a professor from Oklahoma actually found that the frog does jump out of the water when you turn on the heat slowly. In another experiment, it was reported that the frog actually dies immediately when you drop it into boiling water. 

As I tried to research on this analogy, I came across one quote, apparently from Douglas Melton, a professor from Harvard who said:

If you put a frog in boiling water, it won’t jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot—they don’t sit still for you.

If the science does not support the analogy, then I do believe that we should remove this from our teachings, sermons and all other self-help materials. This is after all a highly disputable illustration. But this is not the last of those bad illustrations.

Bad Illustration 2: The Stanford Prison Experiment

We may also quote from the Stanford Prison Experiment to highlight how humankind can descend into a sinful state. Or this can be used to illustrate how absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

The experiment took paid participants and assigned them to be “inmates” or “guards” in a mock prison at Stanford University. Soon after the experiment began, the “guards” began mistreating the “prisoners,” implying evil is brought out by circumstance. This suggested innocent people, thrown into a situation where they have power over others, will begin to abuse that power. 

This is yet another compelling but misleading illustration that we need to stop appealing to. Based on some of the articles from credible websites, they have found that the researchers behind the experiment have actually doctored the outcomes. The prison guards were apparently coached to be cruel while the prisoners simply reacted to what they thought the researchers wanted from them. This means the experiment, while it sounded intriguing, was staged. 

This therefore pulls a lot of questions on the conclusions that the experiment supposedly made. Given its ethical controversy, I do not think that any decent university will conduct such an experiment again. So there is actually no way to double check whether the conclusions will still apply when they do not stage the experiment. I therefore believe that we need to stop using this illustration. 

It is that disputable.

Bad Illustration 3: The Marshmallow Test

One supposedly awesome illustration that we would use to illustrate the importance of self-control and delayed gratification would be the marshmallow test. 

It worked like this: Stanford researchers presented preschoolers with a sugary or salty snack . Sometimes they placed a marshmallow kids in front of the kids. At other times it was a different food, like a pretzel or cookie. Then, they told the children they’d get an additional reward if they could wait 15 or 20 minutes before eating their snack. If they held off, they would get two yummy treats instead of one.

Researchers then traced some of the young study participants through high school and into adulthood. They discovered that a kid’s ability to resist the immediate gratification of a marshmallow tended to correlate with beneficial outcomes later, including higher SAT scores, better emotional coping skills, less cocaine use, and healthier weights.

However, the experiment was, again, a flawed one. Apparently, the original study limited its test participants to children who were offsprings of professors in universities. This means they were kids from higher socio-economic background. When subsequent researches included a more diverse group of people, they found that the marshmallow showed no indicators of the children’s future development. Based on this article, it suggests that the original marshmallow test may only have measured how stable a child’s home environment was, or how well their cognitive abilities were developing.

What this means is that anyone trying to use this illustration will find themselves being mocked at by learned psychologists who know the limitation of the original study. This also means that we perhaps need to stop using this illustration to illustrate the importance of delayed gratification. 

All in all, we need to continue to use stories and illustrations to push our points. But we do not need to rely on cliche and unreliable bad illustrations. These may make sense but if they are totally untrue, then we need to stop using them. 

What are other bad illustrations you have come across. Do share with me in the comments so that we may learn together. 


I graduated from the National University of Singapore where I came to know Christ during his undergraduate days after studying the historicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My personal mission is to lead adult Christ disciples to engage the world with sound and biblical reasoning. And I am married to my pretty wife Angelina.

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