Some preachers are offended when they think the only parts of their sermon that are remembered are their illustrations. But this should serve as a great compliment if those stories did what all good illustrations should do.
The purpose of an illustration is to clarify and help explain the truth of the text. Illustrations are like an LED flashlight into a dark corner of your attic – you knew something was there but now you see it. They function like oil on the stiff gears of your push-mower – helping the listener to move smoothly through a text. They are windows that let in the light of meaning and the fresh air of understanding. They are like outlooks along the sermonic highway that allow the listener to pause and consider and enjoy the ground he has already travelled.
In that sense, the best illustrations (whether similes or stories or something else) will be so tied to the text that one will not be able to recall them without recalling the Truth they illuminate.
This means illustrations are not time-fillers, or a tool to “warm up the crowd.” Nor are they a means to draw attention to the world or the preacher! Instead they “colourize” the text and add flavours and layers that build the listener’s understanding and deepen his experience of the truth. Good illustrations are remembered because they are felt, they engage more of our senses than pure lecture. And if you illustrate Truth, then people are actually remembering Truth in the form of your illustration.
Jesus the Master Story-Teller
Jesus barely spoke without illustration. Our Lord was quick to engage all the aspects common to that culture. Consider just a quick glance through Mark 1-11:
- Weddings and fasting 2:19
- Patch on clothes 2:20
- Wineskins 2:21
- David and Abiathar 2:25
- Naming people (like the Boanerges) 3:17
- Civil war 3:25
- Robbing a strong man 3:27
- Family relations 3:35
- Sower 4:1 (including soil types, growth patterns, weeds, etc)
- Lamp under basket 4:21
- Scatter seed then harvest grain 4:29
- Mustard seed 4:30
- Calms storm 4:39 (and all of His miracles!)
- Hypocritical pot washing of Pharisees 7:1
- Consumption and digestion (including excretion!) 7:14
- Dogs eating under table 7:24
- Leaven’s corrupting influence 8:14
- Carry a cross 8:34
- Servants and children 9:33
- Amputation 9:43
- Camels and eye of needle 10:24
Notice that Jesus left many of the conclusions to his stories unspoken. He expected the listener to work it out in his mind. His allusions always helped to make clear the main point he was getting across. He also spoke from a wide variety of experiences and vantage points, thus drawing in all types of listeners.
Jesus’ Prioritization of Story
Chronologically, he often told the story first, then followed it with an explanation and/or expected behavioral change/response. Think of the Four Soils or this event from Luke 14:7-11:
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.
Explanation / Moral reform –
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Consider how more of Jesus’ stories and parables are recorded than his actual didactic teaching. People remembered the stories and what they intended to communicate. Also consider that there has never been a better preacher than Jesus.
Where to Find Illustrations
The best illustrations are from your own experiences, observations and reading.
Personal Experience –
“Trust , again, is selected as the instrument of salvation because it has wonderful power over the heart of God. Marvelous is the influence of trust . I have aforetime illustrated this to you by the power which faith has over us, mortal men. I will venture to tell you an old story, which you have heard from me before. I cannot recollect anything better, and you must bear with a repetition. I once lived where my neighbour’s garden was only divided from me by a very imperfect hedge. He kept a dog, and his dog was a shockingly bad gardener, and did not improve my beds. So one evening, while I walked alone, I saw this dog doing mischief, and being a long way off I threw a stick at him, with some earnest advice as to his going home. This dog, instead of going home, picked up my stick and came to me with it in his mouth, wagging his tail. He dropped the stick at my feet, and looked up to me most kindly. What could I do but pat him and call him a good dog, and regret that I had ever spoken roughly to him? Why, it brings tears into my eyes as I talk about it! The dog mastered me by his trust in me. The illustration is to the point. If thou wilt trust God as that dog trusted me, thou wilt overcome. God will be held by thy trust in such a way that He could not smite thee, but must accept thee for Jesus’ sake. If thou dost trust Him, thou hast the key of His heart, the key of His house, the key of His heaven. If thou canst trust thy God in Jesus Christ, thou hast become a son of God. I see a philosophy in the choice of faith: do you not?”
A good rule here to guard your humility and help your sheep is to make sure that 90% of your stories about your own life highlight your failings or in some way expose your frailty.
What does nature teach you? David compared the HSD of God to height of the heavens. Look at the flowers in summer, so beautiful, but soon to disappear under the weight of snow. Why do stars twinkle? How far away is our moon? Why do certain people act certain ways? Learn to ask questions of everything that is happening around you and then try to relate it to some Biblical idea. This is a rather fun exercise at any time!
There are plenteous illustrations found in books. Mark them as you read them. Leave markings in the margins or front cover to identify them later on. Don’t read the news only to fill your brain with triviality, learn to look for stories that display what the Bible teaches.
Variety in Illustration
Illustrations may be long or short, at best they will be varied through the sermon.
- Long – see dog story
- Short – simile and such (as quick as a rabbit, deeper than the ocean, yelled like an angry auctioneer, etc)
We must also avoid illustrating from the same old area of personal interest. I could illustrate almost anything from the Toronto Maple Leafs, but this would get very old very fast. This requires us to be constantly learning about new things. Read the news. Check out books from the library on topics you have no interest in. Read fiction. Try to learn about people’s jobs when you are out and about. Listen to their life stories. Ask old people to tell you about their lives. Journal your life.
The best way to know if your illustrations work is to try them in advance on someone. Talk it out in fellowship with a brother and see if it helps him to understand. What good is a window that does not open? It does not let in the air! What good is a window if it is cracked? It distorts the view!
Work hard at your illustrations to ensure they accomplish what they set out to do; build clean windows.
Some Pitfalls to Avoid in Illustrating
- Liking an illustration and using it even though it does not fit the text thus making the text say something it does not.
- Repeating the same old “ringer”
- Exaggerating to make the story better than reality
- Spending more time illustrating than actually explaining the text
- Telling a story that has no specific connection to the text
- Assuming parts of the illustration are commonly understood and thus leaving out the key to the whole thing
- Not doing enough or having too many
- Speaking with authority about something you do not understand – FACT CHECK!
- Speaking in the first person about something that did not happen to you – that is called lying, not illustrating.