Pop culture is the known world for most people today. By definition, it is the “popular” and dominant culture, heavily influenced by mass media, in America and in much of the world.

At Christianity Today, I worked with a colleague who was extremely bright and working on her doctorate in English. One time, she and some friends were standing in the hallway talking about a friend who is a TV-watching junkie. I added, “Yeah, some people actually know the name of every person Taylor Swift has ever dated.”

The conversation stopped dead. This young woman looked at me and said, “I know the names of every person Taylor Swift has ever dated.” I realized I had accidentally insulted this person I cared about. I had looked down on her world, a pop culture world.

That conversation moved me to preach from pop culture better than I had been. And it forced me to ask, when looking for sermon illustrations from today’s music, movies, and shows: What can I use, and what can’t I use? How do I preach from pop culture in a way that connects with my hearers, yet always shines a light on the Gospel?

By illustrating from contemporary culture, I’m actually following the example of Jesus. When you read the parables of Jesus, they’re filled with the known world of his listeners. There are many references to sheep, for example. I’ve hardly ever been around sheep. I don’t know anyone who herds sheep. But that was common for Jesus’ listeners, part of their first-century agrarian world, so he used it.

Jesus wanted to teach people about the unknown world of the kingdom of God, and he knew he couldn’t start talking about something unknown without a reference point in what they knew. Today, my people’s world includes Married at First Sight and Colin Kaepernick, Beyoncé and Duchess Meghan, Call of Duty and UFC. How can they enter my sermon without taking over?

3 Questions to Ask When Preaching from Pop Culture

1. Have I gotten the right illustration?

Every sermon illustration I use must make a point the text makes. But a pop-culture illustration, more than almost any other kind, must pass another test: Association. What will my people associate with that illustration when they hear it? Will it be positive or negative association?

If I illustrate from my life, I don’t have to worry about that. If I illustrate from 19th-century England (“As Mr. Gladstone said to Mr. Disraeli…”), I don’t have to worry about that. But with a pop-culture illustration, I do.

Suppose I want to illustrate from a movie. When I stand up as a pastor in a worship service and I name a movie, it comes across as an implied endorsement of that movie. I may want to use only one scene, which is morally impeccable; but I can’t assume my hearers are going to hear it that way. They’ll hear, Oh, he went to that movie. He must have liked it because he’s talking about it.

But there may be something that’s morally reprehensible in another scene of the movie, and I don’t want an implied endorsement of that. What am I going to do?

My thinking on this is that I should preferably have seen the movie. At the least, I should know the MPAA rating, level of violence and sexuality, and general worldview. To illustrate from this movie, I should feel that overall, people can see it. That means that sometimes, I can’t use an illustration I would otherwise want to. It fails the Association Test.

Can you use an illustration with a caution: “This particular scene is great, but I don’t recommend the overall movie”? Yes, but when you say to your people, I can see it, but you can’t, that can come across as elitism or lack of discernment. I would make that rare.

2. Have I gotten the facts right?

When I use a pop-culture illustration, I hope people will start to think, If you know that about my world, then maybe I can trust you when you talk about the world I don’t know yet, the world of heaven and the gospel and the riches of the kingdom.

However, if I as a preacher mangle the facts about the pop-culture world, I lose points. It’s okay if I admit I don’t know. But if I act like I know and I don’t, then I lose points.

For example, I once mispronounced the last name of Nick Lachey, and my daughter, embarrassed for me, corrected me. Details make all the difference.

For one sermon I wanted to use an illustration from The Lord of the Rings. Scores of people in my parish have read the trilogy many times and seen every scene in the director’s cut. So before I used that illustration, I looked up those pages in the book to make sure I was quoting it correctly. When I retold that story, I could see people nodding.

Fact-checking pop culture references—in addition to all the other work of sermon prep—takes time. But it pays off.

3. Have I gotten the tone right?

This is even more critical. It is the tone even more than the content that will make or break you. Every hearer must feel, deeply, “You care about the people in my world.”

This can be challenging for us as preachers, since we sometimes need to prophetically confront the values of that world. If you say, for example, “I heard Gwyneth Paltrow say something the other day, and it sounded like Goop,” that immediately distances you from anybody in your church who likes her.

I reserve the right to fully and forcefully disagree with someone’s values, but I want to do it in a way that respects the person. Jesus was a friend of sinners. I want to have that same tone.

One Easter, I was (naturally) preaching about the resurrection of the body. In my first draft of the sermon, I wrote,

Rolling Stone interviewed Natalie Portman, who played Queen Amidala in the Star Wars movie, and they asked her about the afterlife. And Natalie said, ‘I don’t believe in that. I believe this is it.’ Well, she may be a good actress, but she’s a terrible theologian.”

When I was reviewing my message before I preached it, I realized, That’s a slam. If she were in the room, how would she feel? And how will her fans who are listening to me feel? 

So, I rewrote to:

I wish I could have been in the room during that interview and asked Natalie some more questions. I might have said, “Natalie, are you sure? Are you 100-percent confident that it is physically impossible for an afterlife to exist?” And then I’m sure she would have asked me, “Well, Kevin, what makes you so sure that there is one?” And then I would have said…

Then I went to the part of the text where it talks about the Holy Spirit as a down payment guaranteeing the life to come. When I presented it that way, it’s as if I were conversing with her. I wasn’t preaching down at her. I wasn’t using her as a cardboard caricature. I engaged her viewpoint. I engaged her as a person.

Is it worth the time to carefully select a pop-culture illustration, fact-check it, and ensure the correct tone? Absolutely. To preach to people, I must speak to their heart, their life, their world. And that’s a pop-culture world.