In this day of electronic equipment that can flash a picture or even a film clip on the screen, perhaps we don’t need to think about verbal illustrations. But our sermons should be prepared so carefully that if the power fails, the people will still “see” what we’re saying. Let’s try to answer some basic questions about sermon illustrations.
Spurgeon compared sermon illustrations to widows in a house through which the light came in. Ideally, our preaching should be so clear that we don’t need that much extra light, but it doesn’t hurt to work hard to enlighten the minds of the people who are listening. We need to make abstract truth concrete so they can grasp it and take it home. A difficult area of theology can become much easier to understand with the help of a story or even a quotation.
But effective illustrations do more than enlighten the mind; they also stir the heart. We’re not referring to the old-fashioned “tear-jerking” stories that produce emotionalism and not true emotion, but rather the kind that probe deeply into the heart and shake up the listener just a bit. If we don’t reach the imagination and the emotions, we may not be able to capture the will. Illustrations can move the will and help convince the listener that it’s time to act.
Apart from these practical purposes, the right illustration helps to balance and “season” the message to help pace it and keep it interesting. Congregations can’t handle a sermon if it’s like a rocket going off at NASA, upward and onward with no interruption. Listening to a sermon is more like climbing a mountain, and you need to stop occasionally at a plateau and take stock of things. The wise preacher knows it’s time to level off a bit and give the people opportunity to relax, and illustrations are like those plateaus. It would be intolerable to listen very long to a piece of music that has no rests.
We do not use illustrations like condiments, just to “spice things up.” To change the metaphor, either the illustration is a part of the fabric of the message and fits, or it’s one of those cheap patches that will rip the whole fabric. We don’t use illustrations to embellish, nor do we use them to entertain. It’s tragic when people go home remembering the stories but not the message. To force a family story into the sermon just because it’s interesting and may get a laugh is to abuse our opportunity to glorify Christ and call people to trust Him. Preaching is serious business. We once heard a man preach a sermon on a very serious subject and in the middle of it take ten minutes to tell a series of jokes that were funny but cheapened the message.
What kinds of illustrations?
Anything that helps the people say “Aha – I’ve got it!” is an effective illustration – anything that stirs the heart and challenges the will, be it a quotation, a story, a brief poem, a simile or a metaphor. I once heard a writer say that writing a book was like “giving birth to barbed wire,” and I’ve never forgotten it. “Some people’s prayers are like mailing unaddressed envelopes – they won’t get there.” I forgot the source but I remembered the quote. If you tell a story, don’t let it get too long or too complex. We once heard a gifted preacher use an illustration about the human heart that was scientifically accurate but impossible to understand. Later on he used an illustration involving soda crackers that I can never forget. Not everybody can process scientific data, so use it sparingly.
Humorous illustrations must be used with caution. If it’s about something that happened to you, and you don’t come out too much of a jerk, it may get the point across; but if you end up in the spotlight, the response may not be what you want. More about this later.
Where do you find them?
Again, anything acceptable to a congregation that helps us get the point across, and make that point clear and persuasive, is permissible to use, and variety is the key word. We’ve used cartoons from newspapers, and magazines, sentences out of obituaries, quotes from the news, startling quotations from celebrities, lyrics from songs, even sentences out of church bulletins – and they have worked. Sensitive preachers with the right “homiletical mindset” will instantly recognize good illustrations and will take out their pocket notebook or palm pilot and make note of them. Back in the study, they file it where they can find it again.
But the one place you don’t want to look for illustrations is in illustration books. By the time these stories have been collected and condensed, the material is out-of-date (especially the statistics) or just doesn’t apply to today’s generation. Even worse, it’s remarkable how many errors pass from one illustration book to another and then from one sermon to another. But most illustration books talk about dead saints from bygone eras, people that 90% of today’s congregations never heard of. Granted, they ought to learn about the faith of “Praying Hyde” and George Muller and the remarkable “exchanged life” of J. Hudson Taylor, but not from a sermon illustration. We’re not saying that every illustration in every illustration book is useless, because that isn’t true; but if you use these books, heed the warning of 1 Thes. 5:21- “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (New King James Version).
Personal experience is the best source of effective illustrations, but be careful not to hang the family wash in public or make everybody a hero. And never tell a story about a family member without first getting his or her permission. Other people can be very cruel when they get their hands on an open secret. It doesn’t hurt to let people know we’re human, but don’t carry it too far. It’s fine when people laugh with us because they identify with the experience, but it’s dangerous when people laugh at us and conclude that we must be fools.
Biography and autobiography are saturated with excellent illustrative material, but don’t go so far back in history that your congregation thinks you’ve been at the Bureau of Missing Persons. Recent biography is best, current biography is better, but we can still use treasures from the halls of history if we know how to wrap the package. Don’t assume that everybody in the congregation will recognize John Donne, Billy Sunday, Jim Elliot, Helen Keller or H. G. Wells. It’s remarkable how quickly the famous become the forgotten. However, movies, plays and TV specials have brought many historical heroes back into the public eye, such as Gandhi, Mozart, Helen Keller, and even Martin Luther. The careful preacher can resurrect forgotten people in history and make them very much alive by building some bridges to our world today. By the way, check with your local post office to see whose face is on newly minted stamps.
One of the finest sources of illustrations is the Bible itself, and while you’re illustrating your message, you’re also giving your people more Scripture! Of course, biblical illiteracy abounds, and we dare not focus on some obscure character from a genealogy. Ps. 19:10 and 119:103 tell us that the Word of God is like honey, but Samson got himself in trouble because he wanted the honey and not the Word of God (Judges 14). Nazirites weren’t supposed to touch dead bodies, not even for honey! Sometimes a Bible personality is the perfect illustration of a Bible text, such as Mary of Bethany with Phil. 3:10 (see Luke 10:38-42, John 11-12) and Paul with Prov. 4:18 (see Acts 9:3, 22:6 and 26:13). As you study your text, let your mind walk through the Scriptures and find men and women who will help you illustrate the truth you want to convey.
One word about using contemporary news stories as illustrations: you may not have all the facts, and your interpretation and application will be wrong. News stories have to mature. People don’t always tell the truth, new facts emerge and old facts are ignored. This especially applies to statements about high-profile Christians, some of whom the press might want to discredit. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. You may be embarrassed when the six o’clock news comes on.
Finally, give thought to hypothetical stories, not unlike our Lord’s parables or the story Nathan told David (2 Sam. 12). “Just imagine yourself walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City, and a total stranger approaches you – well-dressed, very polite – and says, “Please come with me into Tiffany’s. I want to buy you a gift – anything you want.” Take it from there!
Are there dangers to avoid?
Absolutely! We’ll list some of them without too much comment.
Illustrating the obvious. So you found a great story and you’re dying to use it. It will get a good laugh, but will it accomplish a good purpose? Does a parent’s love have to be illustrated?
Stealing illustrations. Some fine contemporary preachers are preaching over the media and writing books, and your people may be familiar with them. Beware! If you use a story from one of these popular preachers, be sure to document it and repeat it accurately. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t use this kind of material too often or your church will wonder if you have anything original to say. If you aren’t careful, you’ll get so attached to the story that you’ll think it happened to you!
Telling too many stories. This makes for what we call “skyscraper sermons – one story on top of another.” Some men are so good at this craft that they can get away with it, D. L. Moody, for example. But the admonition we’re supposed to obey is “Preach the Word!”
Using illustrations that aren’t natural to you. The non-athletic preacher who tells stories about popular sports figures or football games just isn’t going to come across with conviction, nor will the preacher who isn’t the outdoors type who talks about boating and fishing. Stick to your interests. This doesn’t mean we can’t use a good story related to sports, but let’s tell it with the delight of a spectator and not the pain of a participant.
Confusing characters or sources. We once heard a preacher confuse the Swiss reformer Johann Bullinger (1504-l575) with the British 20th century British religious leader Ethelbert Bullinger, who edited The Companion Bible. It was a disaster. And please don’t confuse Winston Churchill, the American novelist (187l-l947), with Sir Winston Churchill, British statesman and author. Checking an encyclopedia or a good dictionary of biography will help you clarify things, and the best quotation books identify people accurately. Getting material from secondary sources (like somebody else’s sermon) is dangerous. Get back to the original source of stories or quotations when you can.
Sharing pastoral experiences. A Scottish lady was dying and said to her pastor, “Now don’t you go making a story out of me!” What you hear in private must not be heralded from the housetops, even if the person is now dead. If the people give you permission, and the story glorifies the Lord, go ahead and use it; otherwise, keep your distance. Nobody entrusts personal and private concerns to a preacher who announces them from the pulpit.
Even though it’s difficult, finding and using the best illustrations to convey God’s truth is one of the joys of ministry, and we want to do our best. You’ll know you’re making progress when other preachers start “borrowing” your material!
©2002 WWW Used by permission. This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use. Reproduction for any other purpose is governed by copyright laws and is strictly prohibited. This material originally appeared in Prokope, March-April 1986.
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).