We all know that good sermons are turned into great sermons with vivid illustrations. ( Tony Merida, (2009-10-01). Faithful Preaching (p. 107). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition).
Illustrations Help Clarify
James Braga defines an illustration as “a means of throwing light upon a sermon by the use of an example” (How to Prepare Bible Messages, 231).
Haddon Robinson says an illustration can either be like a beautiful lamp and a streetlight. When you walk into someone’s expensive den and notice an ornate lamp, you compliment its beauty to the owners. But if you are walking down a city sidewalk at night, the streetlights provide you visibility but you hardly notice them. A sermon illustration should be like the streetlight. It throws light on the subject you are preaching but doesn’t unnecessarily draw attention to the illustration. The illustration is always a handmaiden to explanation. “Illustrations are a means, not an end” (Bryan Chapell, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power, 148).
Because our illustrations are subservient to explanations of the text, our sermons should not be “skyscraper sermons” i.e., one story on top of another story on top of another story, ad infinitum. “Twenty minutes of illustration with two minutes of traditional exposition signals a sermon out of kilter. And twenty minutes of argument to two minutes of illustration is just as lopsided for most congregations” (Ibid, page 150).
I heard Haddon Robinson once say in a lecture, “Poor communicators are always saying, ‘In other words.’ Excellent communicators are always sayings, ‘For example.’” You are preaching, and you notice your audience is not getting it, and you say, “In other words,” and explain some more. And they still don’t get it. But if, after observing their blank looks, you say, “For example,” and provide a concrete example, most likely your listeners’ countenance will improve. Paul followed this pattern. In Romans 3, Paul writes some heavy theology about justification by grace through faith and not by the works of the law. In Romans 4, he fleshes out these truths in the life of Abraham. In Romans 3, you have Paul’s explanation and in Romans 4, his illustration.
Illustrations can help clarify a text and therefore illustrations often follow the explanation of a text. Illustrations can also help apply a text and is most of the time placed between the explanation and the application in a sermon.
Illustrations Help Persuade
But another purpose of the illustration, that is overlooked because of abuse, is to persuade the listener.
Bryan Chapell believes that the primary purpose of illustrations is “not to clarify but to motivate.” I agree with Chapell’s rational: “Preachers who fail to understand this purpose will assume that when the point they are making is clear, they do not need an illustration. Preachers who grasp the true power and purposes of illustration know that the most clear points often deserve the best illustrations to make the truth as significant to the hearer as it is in Scripture” (Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 186). Therefore our illustrations should touch both the heart and the mind.
According to a lecture by Stephen Olford, there are three reasons why preachers lack good illustrations.
1. Lack of Imagination.
You must think like a preacher to be able to use good illustrations. How do preachers think? Preachers are always looking for good illustrations. One of the great sermon illustrators was Donald Grey Barnhouse, who said, “All of life is an illustration of Christian doctrine.” Barnhouse saw illustrations everywhere. For example: When Barnhouse was driving his young sons to their mother’s funeral, they had to stop at an intersection. As they waited, a delivery trunk slowly lumbered through the intersection, and its shadow slowly passed over their car. Barnhouse asked his boys, “Boys, would you had rather be hit by that trunk or its shadow?” They answered, “Daddy, of course we would rather be hit by its shadow.” Barnhouse then captured that teaching moment, “Boys, that is exactly what we have experienced with the passing of your mother. Because Christ removed the sting of death for believers in his death and resurrection, we walk through valley of the shadow of death today. Your mother is with Jesus and we will see her again.”
There are three places where we should be looking for illustrations.
1) In our imagination. Hypothetical illustrations such as Nathan made up when preaching to King David in 2 Samuel 12:1-4. Jesus’ parables were fictional examples he created i.e., The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.
2) In our personal experiences. Personal illustrations were used by the Apostle Paul as in Acts 14:27. This is the account when Paul returned to his sending church to report concerning his first tour of missionary service. Paul sets a good example on how to tell a personal story. He is not the hero of his story, but he gives God the honor: “When they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearse all that God had done with them, and how He had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).
The caution here is not to have to many personal illustrations and always be patting yourself on the back in your personal examples. Bryan Chapell heard a preacher once begin an illustration by saying, “As you know, I have resolved never to go to bed without witnessing to at least one lost soul that day.” He hardly had the words out of his mouth before the man in the pew behind me muttered under his breath, “Another notch on the gun belt for ol’ Wyatt Earp” (Chapell, page 166).
3) In our reading. Again Paul is our mentor. Paul used examples from his secular reading in Acts 17:28 when he quoted Greek poets. Preachers should not only study deeply, but read broadly. Read Spurgeon’s sermons and note the multiple sources of illustrations and examples. ”He typically read six substantial books a week” (John Piper’s sermon, Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity).
Learn to illustrate not only from biblical examples, but also from other types of literature. Read history, fables, fiction, allegories, newspapers, magazines, popular mainstream books, Web sites, and even books in which you have little interest. It is amazing how many illustrations you will find as you read naturally. I subscribe to National Geographic, Newsweek, and several other magazines for enjoyment and for illustration sources. I usually keep a history book at my side, along with a philosophy book, and a theology book that will get me angry. By reading widely, your illustrations will attract more people. Of course, reading will also help you become a better communicator and a more rounded scholar (Tony Merida, (2009-10-01). Faithful Preaching (pp. 108-109). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition).
2. Failure to find and file good illustrations.
“The weakest ink is better than the strongest mind. Write down illustrations” said another great illustrating preacher, Adrian Rogers. “Illustrations, like babies have a habit of being born at awkward times” (Preaching with Freshness, 166). That is why it is good to have pen and paper, or a recorder (i-Phone), nearby at all times so that when the illustration comes you can record it. Most preachers have experienced thinking of a great sermon idea or illustration in the middle of the night but in morning could not remember it.
Once you have discovered a good illustration file it textually or topically. To file the illustration textually means you create file (electronic or nonelectronic) folders beginning with Genesis through Revelation. If you are just starting, make 66 folders, one for each book of the Bible and as you preach through a book create a new folder for each chapter or paragraph you preach.
To file topically, means you create a filing system alphabetically from A to Z. Sometimes you will hear or come across an illustration that you don’t know which text it can illuminate, so you file it topically. You could start with a file on “Adoption” or “Abortion,” etc.
3. Unable to tell a story.
“There is nothing you can do that will help you more to communicate than to collect illustrations. Collecting illustrations will help you to think in terms of pictures and to preach in terms of pictures. Practice on your family at meal time” (Haddon Robinson). If you have small children, you know how much they love a good story. We older kids love them too.
There are two kinds of illustrations according to Haddon Robinson that will help your preaching and communicating God’s Word.
1) The specific instance. The specific instance is a short one or two line illustration given to help with your explanation.
2) The longer, story illustration.
Here are examples of the two kinds of illustrations in a sermon outline.
I. We cannot defeat giants by running from them (1 Samuel 17:1-11)
A. Giant problems can be intimidating (17:1-7)
1. Explanation: Goliath was dressed to intimidate.
Specific instance: “The weight of the spear’s head weighted more than an official shot put” (James Rose).
2. Illustration: Story illustration of the believer who spent his whole life running from problems at work, church, and marriage.
3. Application: “In the same manner” or “So must we” transition to the application.
How to improve your story telling skills
God was not only a poet (see Old Testament Poetic books) but also a story teller (see narratives throughout Scripture).
How can I emulate God and improve at telling the stories of Scripture and illustrations?
1. General preparation
a. Read good secular storytellers like Garrison Keillor and Paul Harvey.
b. Read and listen to storytelling preachers like Barnhouse, Swindoll, and John Maxwell.
c. Practice telling stories to your family and friends.
2. Specific preparation
a. Relive the story. Know the story so thoroughly that when you tell the story you are reliving it. This will take time not just to memorize all the details of the story, but to meditate so that you become the character in the narrative. Thinking in terms of 1st person rather than 3rd person will help in preparing to tell or preach a story.
b. Use sensory appealing language as Jesus did in His parables. Read Jesus’ true story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-25 and pick out the words that appeal to your sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Once you are almost through preparing your sermon, hold it in your hand and ask yourself, “What in this sermon can I taste, smell, see, hear, touch, or feel?”
c. Contemporize the story. Swindoll’s attention step for 1 Samuel 17 puts this ancient story in the 21st century: “Goliath reminds me of the cross-eyed discus thrower. He didn’t set any records . . . but he sure kept the crowd awake” (Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns, 13).
It would be a wonderful compliment to have others say about our preaching what the enemies of Christ said about Him: “Never man spoke like this man.”
- Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Chapter 13 “Introductions, Illustrations, and Conclusions by Richard L. Mayhue).
- What are your thoughts on video clips and drama in the church service? Answer by John Piper
- Tom Pennington on Preaching with Purpose
- On Sermon Introductions by H. B. Charles, Jr.
- The Value of Sermon Introducitons by Eric McKiddle