Before we tackle the main topic of sermon illustrations, it is important to recall a few facts about preaching.
In reading, if you miss the author’s point, you can go back and reread the paragraph. If the author’s exposition is complex, you can scan over the text or flip to the introduction to regain your bearings. It is important to remember that your congregation cannot do any of these things while you are preaching. They hear your sermon in the order that you preach it and at the speed you preach it. If they are distracted for any reason, they may miss a portion of what you say. They don’t know where you’re going until you actually get there.
Most pastors have attended seminary, and when they first begin preaching, their sermons sound like academic papers—but when they are read out loud to an audience that does not possess a printed copy, even the most readable academic papers become indigestible. Remember, your sermon is going to be heard, not read, so organize it accordingly.
Oral exposition must necessarily be simpler than written exposition, because no one can go back over the text and reread a passage they didn’t understand the first time. If your illustrations have too many details, even if they are all relevant to your point, your point will be lost. If your argumentation has too many points, even if they all build to your conclusion, your congregation will still be struggling to make sense of all the points and they won’t hear the conclusion. Make sure that your exposition is simple, direct, and compelling.
One way to do this is to include illustrations. Here are a few general tips:
- Get to the point and do not dwell on the story.
Otherwise, the congregation will remember the story and forget the point.
- Use a variety of illustrations over time.
You don’t want your congregation to tune you out because they perceive that you’re just riding your hobby horse. For example, it is moving and appropriate to talk about the last things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote before he was executed by the Nazis. However, if all your illustrations deal with Nazis, some in your congregation will hear history lessons instead of the gospel and your point will be lost.
- Keep the illustrations simple, with just the right level of detail.
While details make the illustration colorful, too much color is garish and the picture is lost. For example, if you are deriving a lesson from your observation of an anthill you saw on a picnic, don’t include information about the menu. The congregation doesn’t know where you are going with the story, so they must retain all details until they figure out which ones are important. If you load them down with too many colorful details, or if they pick the wrong details to follow, they’ll miss your point.
- Use illustrations sparingly.
If you use too many illustrations, your congregation will be overwhelmed by the picture gallery and never get the point.
Illustrations that Presume too Much
Be mindful that your congregation does not have the same shared experience. Not everyone is married, not everyone has children, not everyone has living parents, not everyone grew up in the local area. It’s okay if an illustration flies over someone’s head now and then, but make sure you don’t fly over the same people on a regular basis. If a person hears too many irrelevant illustrations, you can make them feel like outsiders, and the alienation may cause them to tune you out or even leave the church. I once attended a service that had a narrow focus. The prayers, the songs, the sermon, everything presumed that the congregation consisted solely of married couples in their thirties, whose parents were still living and who had small children. However, that was not actually the case. The service alienated everyone who was single, widowed, divorced, orphaned, adopted, childless, infertile, too old, too young, or whose parents had died, and some walked out in pain.
We should hold marriage and family life in high honor, but we should never allow even the affirmation of virtue to push the lambs for whom Christ died off the precipice and into the pit of despair.
Illustrations from Sports, Warfare, or Controversial Events
Wartime generates a lot of good illustrations, because it is a time when anxiety is high and when people learn many insightful truths about life—but not everyone in your congregation lived through the same wars that you did. You may think you are making a point, but the old people are smiling at your youth and the young people are tuning you out as an old fogy. If you dwell on the name of the war or the identity of the enemy, you may raise issues that obscure your point. It’s tempting to reminisce about the decade in which the war occurred, but that is usually an extraneous detail. Allow your listeners to concentrate on the situation and the lesson you want to derive from it. Be careful also that the inherent violence of the situation doesn’t overcome your point.
Any time you tell draw a lesson from a controversial event, be careful to focus on your point so that you do not bring in extraneous issues. If the backdrop is controversial, and you do not deal with it skillfully, your congregation will be unable to hear your sermon as they mentally debate the incidental issues. Make sure that you do not raise issues that you do not intend to deal with. If you’ve ever had the experience of preaching on topic A, but discovering that the congregation heard topic B, which was not edifying and which you wanted to avoid, this is what went wrong.
Not everyone is a sports fan. To people who do not follow football, a football story is simply incomprehensible, and whatever point you’re making is lost. Then by the time your story is over, they have found something to interesting to read in the bulletin or to whisper to a friend, and your sermon has no effect on them because they are no longer paying attention. If you relate how God answered the prayer of a football player, someone in the congregation may rightly wonder where God was in the life of the man he tackled—and instead of learning of God’s providence, he’ll question God’s justice. It’s okay to use football stories, but make sure that everyone can follow along.
Illustrations from Historical Personages
Not everyone has the same opinion about historical figures—especially if your congregation is ethnically mixed or comes from different regions of the country—so a story about Robert E. Lee’s piety may be offensive to those who associate him with slavery. Of course, you could attempt to balance it by telling a parallel story about Martin Luther King, but unless you pull it off skillfully, you may just end up offending everyone. In my opinion, it’s not good to use stories from non-biblical historical figures. If they are recent, not everyone holds them in the same esteem, and the point is lost. If they are from the distant past, the story sounds idealistic and irrelevant.
Stories About the Preacher
Personal stories can humanize you in the eyes of your congregation, by reassuring them that you can relate to their struggles and victories—but they can also backfire, by leaving them with the impression that you are defective.
If you recount an uplifting experience that is too sublime, you may think you are transporting the congregation to worlds above, but if they can’t follow, they may conclude that you are trying to glorify yourself or that you are a delusional airhead. Some spiritual experiences contain things that you should not relate—Paul and John both testify to this in scripture. Suppose you had a vision of Jesus on the cross. If you talk about it in the sermon, make sure that you keep it in proportion, or you will lose a significant part of the congregation, as they sit poised on the edge of the pew for the cue to call the men in white coats. Tone down positive stories about yourself, make sure that they are believable, that they don’t make you sound delusional, and that they are not self-serving.
If you recount a personal crisis of faith or a sin, make sure that you spend more time on the lesson you learned than on the problem itself. If you dwell too much on the negative part of the story, you may feel cleansed by the confession, but before the service is over, you will find out that you have disqualified yourself in the eyes of your congregation. Suppose you did something in college under peer pressure, but you regretted it instantly and resolved never to do it again. If you dwell too much on your attraction to vice, in an effort to empathize with those under temptation, they may be wondering if they want a delinquent as a pastor. If the story is particularly disquieting, they may despair—for if you, their leader in the faith, have lost your way, how can they possibly be on the right path? If, for example, your mother’s death leaves you in anguish and despair and without hope, then who will give them hope?
Talking to the Congregation
It is often a good idea to address the congregation in the imperative mood, to bless them and empower them. If you are requiring them to do things they are inclined but afraid to do, or conferring blessings and pardon, you’ll come across quite well. However, you must use your authority sparingly, or they will dismiss you as excessively bossy or presumptuous.
A good rule of thumb is to use “you” when you are praising the congregation and “we” when you are criticizing them. That way you include yourself in your criticism and you don’t come across presumptuous or judgmental.
Talking About Outsiders
A cheap way to denounce evil practices is to attribute them to third parties who are not present in the room and who therefore cannot defend themselves. There are two problems with this technique:
- You may create or exacerbate a paranoid us-versus-them mentality that thwarts the Great Commission by reinforcing bigotry or prejudice.
- Your description will not be valid for all the members of the group, and if anyone in your congregation knows someone who belongs to the group but does not fit your characterization, you will discredit yourself in their eyes.
For example, suppose you are incensed by a recent civil suit in which a lawyer got a large percentage of his client’s exorbitant settlement, and you want to use that as an illustration in your sermon. You might be tempted to characterize lawyers as obsessed with money. However, if a member of your congregation is related to a lawyer who nearly bankrupted himself by taking on a pro bono case, you will put that member in distress and you will lose not only him, but all the other people in whom he seeks solace.
Whenever you characterize a group, make sure that the characterization is specific. Make sure that your condemnation is conditional and admits to exceptions, and that you hold even the vilest members of the group as lovable and redeemable.
Jesus on Sermon Illustrations
Follow Jesus’ example. He never draws a lesson from the lives of historical heroes. He tells no anecdotes about Judas Maccabee or Antiochus Epiphanes, historical figures everyone knew about at the time. He doesn’t draw any lessons from the incidents that occurred during that war, even though it liberated Judea and made it an independent country until the Romans came. Jesus’ lessons come from stories about anonymous people in everyday situations.
Follow Jesus’ example. Use a broad variety of illustrations from everyday life, make sure they are pointedly relevant, use them judiciously and sparingly, keep the details sparse, and get to the point quickly.
Follow Jesus’ example. Invert the congregation’s expectations when you characterize groups to make a point. Ordinary Judeans in the first century respected Pharisees, scribes, and rich people, but they were suspicious of Samaritans, tax collectors, and poor people. So Jesus uses Pharisees, scribes, and rich people as the bad guys in His illustrations, and He uses Samaritans, tax collectors, and poor people as the good guys.