This article was adapted from Preaching with Bold Assurance (Broadman & Holman 2003).
Illustrations should only be used when they truly help you reach the goal of your sermon. Whether it is to aid in explanation of a difficult concept, to provide a hook that will stay with them and help them apply the truth of the text, or to show them the urgency of accepting the truth of the text, your illustrations should have a purpose other than light filler between substantive points.
If you want your supporting material to help you hit your target, we offer some guidelines that will help you create, find, and use the right kind of illustrations.
1. Use only illustrations that relate to your text.
Preachers sometimes settle for a good story instead of a relevant story. If you just heard a great sermon on tape or at a conference, resist the temptation to put that great illustration into your next sermon just because it is a good story. And let's be honest: it is easy to come up with some convoluted logic that appears to tie it in, even when you know it just doesn't fit.
Don't do it! File and save that illustration for a time when it will be appropriate to the text. If you don't, the chances are good that you will confuse your audience.
2. Use illustrations relevant to your culture.
My wife Tanya is a great communicator and speaker, frequently traveling to share in women's conferences and retreats. She used to have a presentation on the stages of a woman's life as illustrated by her purse and its contents. She used this creative and entertaining speech to help women enjoy the stages of life and rejoice in what God was doing right then in their lives.
She would begin with a little girl's purse, stuffed with hair berets, doll paraphernalia, and crackers. Continuing to speak, she would unveil the purse of a teenager, a newlywed, a young mother, a career woman, and a grandmother. She would delight audiences as she pulled items out of the purse that characterized the different seasons of a woman's life.
Once she was invited by a missionary friend to come to eastern Kentucky, the most rural part of the state, and speak to a group of women. She took her boxes of purses and made the drive from our city to the mountains to address these ladies and, she hoped, to bless them. When she got back late that night, I was waiting up for her and asked how things went. "Terrible," she replied with a dejected look. "They never laughed, cracked a smile, or even nodded with the slightest hint of enjoyment. It was just awful." "What happened? That talk always works!" I responded. "They don't carry purses!" she explained.
That is what happens when we use an illustration in a culture that has nothing in common with the premise of the illustration. Rick Warren calls these "dead Englishman illustrations," and you just can't use many of them. You run the risk of speaking about purses to people who don't carry purses. You might get away with using one on occasion – if it is well told – but most people today just don't see that Napoleon's exile on Elba is like our alienation from God. The best illustrations are the ones that get a nod of recognition.
3. Make them vivid.
Vivid language is a secret to powerful stories, illustrations, and even preaching. Word pictures, vibrant description, and strong action verbs are the life blood of engaging preaching. The great preachers and sermons of the past, from Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to R.G. Lee's "Payday Someday" to W. A. Criswell's "If We Live or Die" (and just about anything Spurgeon preached) relied heavily on vivid images and language.
To get into the habit of using picturesque speech, read a great sermon or two every day. Listen to great preaching on tape, CD, or in streaming audio from the internet. Enroll in some type of personal program to enrich and increase your vocabulary. Learn a new word or two every week and force yourself to use them. Read a lot.
4. Make them personal.
Probably nothing else we say about illustrations will be as debatable as this piece of advice, but we are great believers in using tasteful, appropriate personal illustrations. Other kinds of stories and anecdotes may work fine, but you will be amazed to discover that the people who give you their time every Sunday morning are most interested in your personal stories.
They enjoy hearing about your struggles, your victories, and even your thoughts. They don't have to be stories of earth-shattering drama or personal crisis, just little insights that shed some light on the subject of the text.
A few words of warning about personal illustrations are worth mentioning.
- Your illustrations can be personal, but they cannot be too personal. In other words, no one wants to know about your sexual practices or sins (no matter how long ago they occurred), your struggles with money, or your dislike of your in-laws. You can't talk about any sin or weakness in your life that is still unresolved or even too fresh. In the same way, you might get away with telling in a humorous fashion about an argument you once had with your wife years ago, but don't tell them about the fuss you had yesterday! They aren't necessarily sure your marriage will survive it!
- And when it comes to illustrations about family, ask permission from any family member you will mention before you dare use it. Their answer will depend on their personality and their confidence in you, but if they say no, respect it and accept that answer. Do not let your family feel like they have no privacy or control of how their private lives are presented to the congregation.
Let sanctified common sense guide your use of personal illustrations and you will find them worthwhile.
5. Look for illustrations everywhere.
If a pastor averages preaching just two sermons a week, fifty weeks per year, he will preach one hundred sermons. And if he uses one illustration for every introduction, conclusion, and three main points per sermon, then he requires five illustrations per sermon and five hundred illustrations per year! If he stays in one church for long, he will discover how difficult coming up with fresh illustrations can be.
Many pastors have actually discovered that they can repeat whole sermon series in the same church years later – so long as they change the illustrations. But if a pastor repeats an illustration, no matter how good it may be, his congregation may think of his preaching as tired, worn-out, and stale – even if the sermon is new and only the illustration is repeated.