Fact-Checking the Pastor
I’m pretty sure John Wesley never had to worry about some smart-aleck college student saying “You know that story you told last week? Well, the interwebs say it’s a lie!”
I’ll say it—the internet has ruined the art of making up a good sermon illustration. Even into the early-90s, pastors could repeat heart-breaking stories with utmost confidence that their sources were sound. The intent was pure, the message strong, and the audience incapable of proving otherwise…and then along came Google.
As recently as a decade ago, the pastor knew his stories were safe until people could get home to their PCs, and even then there was a good chance that they would forget what to search for while waiting for Windows to boot. Now smartphones have given parishioners the ability to fact-check before the illustration is even complete.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who is opening a mobile browser the instant I hear: “In 1859, a tightrope walker named Blondin…” But there are always prying eyes noticing that you have left the YouVersion app and are now speed-reading a Wikipedia article.
As someone who has been involved in the art of illustration fact-checking since Blackberrys were cool, I feel it is my responsibility to help the rest of you who may not know the finer points of fact-checking (a.k.a. “testing the spirits”):
- Choose a seat near the church’s wireless access point. Your church doesn’t have open access WiFi? See? They’re trying to hide some faulty information.
- Map the auditorium’s 3G and 4G coverage. This may take weeks of wondering around acting like you are introducing yourself to visitors before the service, but it will be worth it. People might start describing you as “the wireless cartologist”, “a 3G Magellan”, or “that crazy guy who is always holding up his phone and muttering to himself. Oh no! Here he comes! Go the other way!”
- If possible, get a job on the media team. This will give you access to computers and full-size browsers during the worship service. WARNING: You will lose your position on the team and possibly your church membership when the Snopes article disproving the Pastor’s latest and greatest story pops up on the screen behind him.
Searching without getting caught:
- Don’t feel the need to fact-check everything. The worship leader tells a story about his adorable Pekingese chasing an even more adorable baby robin on Easter morning? Yeah, he probably made it up, but you aren’t going to be able to prove it. Let it go.
- Don’t look skeptical, look scholarly. Nod your head in agreement and try to appear studious as you switch from the Blue Letter Bible app to your browser. With any luck, those sitting around you will think you are doing a search of a Greek word used in the main text.
- Like the overweight trainer on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out always told Little Mac, “Stick and move.” The longer you search, the better chance you have of getting caught. Look up a few quick facts then get back to your Bible app.
- Be willing to accept defeat. Sometimes that outrageous story is true. Sometimes it really happened. Sometimes Google has documented it. Sometimes tears are a good way to clean a touchscreen.
Unfortunately, we Google gurus are becoming obsolete. Pastors are on to us and are doing their own research ahead of time recognizing that we demand truth and accuracy. I’m sure it’s not just to avoid the lectures in the lobby.
Have you ever fact-checked an illustration during the sermon?
For more great writing from Jeff, check out his blog!