A Quick 9-Point Illustration Checklist

Lamp2A lot is said about the importance of illustrations in preaching. Some of it is true. Hopefully this quick checklist will be helpful as you plan your next message:

1. People need to see what you are saying, which means preaching an image and not just a concept.

2. What images are right there in the preaching text for you?  Poetry, wisdom, and prophecy are packed with visual imagery.  Narrative is imagery.  Epistles can give less images to use, but check the context and remember the setting (that is a narrative).

3. Before you jump to adding other illustrations, could you do a better job of describing what is in the text more effectively?

4. Don’t add illustrations.  Be more purposeful than that.  Add explanations where necessary.  Add proofs where needed.  Add applications where you can.  Remember, an “illustration” is a vague entity often used without good purpose.  Much better to purposefully add exactly what is needed at any given point in a message.

5. Are you adding material to add interest?  Slow down, what are you saying?  Is the text boring?  Are you boring?  You might be, but the text shouldn’t be.  Consider whether you are underlining the relevance of the text by what you add, or are you underlining the assumption that the text is irrelevant?  If you aren’t convinced the text is incredibly relevant, please spend time in prayer and personal study, not in searching for illustrative material.

6. Explanations should add light to your presentation of the text.  Proofs should add weight to your preaching of the text.  Applications should add relevance to your explanation of the text.  Whatever you are adding, is it distracting focus from the text and from the God revealed in the text?  If so, think twice.

7. How long does that added material need to be?  Sometimes we can get so caught up in the “illustration” that we take an age to emerge the other end.  That is unfortunate and will mean that the weight of presentation is imbalanced.  Sometimes we offer added material too quickly and don’t allow time for the necessary clarity to emerge.  This is unfortunate because such material would then qualify as “distractions” rather than “illustrations.”  Actually, if we take too long or are too brief, either way we distract and the time is wasted.

8. How relevant is your added material? If you are taking listeners to a whole new realm (i.e. the civil war or feudal Japan), then you are going to have to paint a whole new picture with lots of detail.  Is it worth it?  Try to add material that is both relevant to them and helps with a sense of the relevance of the text.  (Incidentally, this means that illustrating with other Bible passages may not be as helpful as you were trained to believe!)

9. Preach so that the main idea is communicated clearly and relevantly, so that listeners encounter the God revealed in the text and are invited to respond to Him.  Where necessary and helpful, “illustrate.”  And when you do, make sure listeners are still pointed toward God and not distracted by gazing at themselves.

What would you add to this list?

New Covenant Ministry – Part 6

NEW2And the final post in this series.  Looking at the last paragraph of 2 Corinthians 5 –

17. Too many will boast about outward issues in ministry, but God evaluates the heart (2.Cor.5:11-12) God knows what is going on inside the minister of the Gospel.  Others will only ever evaluate based on externals since that is what they see.  Don’t evaluate your own ministry based on what “fans” say who only watch the outside stuff.  They may be impressed, but prayerfully ask God what is going on inside you and you will probably get a clearer glimpse in a few seconds than others see in many months.  We must not rely on handshakes, compliments and twitter comments to overshadow the reality of our own hearts.

18. The New Covenant minister is constrained and controlled by the love of Christ (2.Cor.5:13-15) While we may be considered out of our minds for not going the way all others go, it is not our thoughtful strategies that drive us, it is the love of Christ.  The New Covenant means that we are so gripped by the death of Christ that we live each moment in light of that love.  It is only in the death of Christ that we can know the cure to the self-obsession of the human heart.  So because he died, we don’t live for ourselves.

19. We must stop evaluating people according to worldly measures (2.Cor.5:16-17) We humans once evaluated Christ by worldly measures and he was found wanting.  But he lacked nothing.  How wrong we were.  Now anyone who is in Christ is a whole new person.  So we must stop judging each other the way the world does.  How impressive is he? How outwardly pretty is she? What are they wearing? How powerful is their ministry? How knowledgable are they?  How will I benefit if I connect with them?  STOP!  If anyone is in Christ then they are a new creation . . . and if we are spiritual, then we will find them to be fascinating and infinitely more valuable than what this world offers.

20. God has given us a ministry of reconciliation as ambassadors in a fallen world (2.Cor.5:18-21) God is appealing to a world of self-absorbed fleshists through us to be reconciled to him.  What can overcome the total corruption of human rebellion?  God made the perfect Christ to be sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.  This message is no legal fiction or contractual loophole, this is the glory of the New Covenant gospel – sins forgiven: fully, finally, freely, forever!; new hearts given; and the Spirit dwelling within us that we might be reconciled to full relationship with God in Christ!

Let me encourage you to chase the theme of the New Covenant throughout the Scriptures – there is more there than we tend to realise!

New Covenant Ministry – Part 4

NEW2Continuing the thoughts in 2 Corinthians 3-5, so why is ministry glorious, yet so tough?

11. We should not expect our lives to match the glory of the gospel in respect to our strength, but rather  to manifest the glory of the gospel in our weakness. (2 Cor.4:7-12)  Others may look down on us because we are not impressive.  We may long for superhero strength in ministry – every spiritual gift, perfect life, abundant tangible blessing, being liked by everyone, etc.  But the treasure that we have is held in jars of clay.  Unimpressive, weak, fragile, often cracked and inadequate.  Life is worked into others as death seems to reign in our experience.  These are key verses for us in ministry.  How often do we feel afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, physically weak, struggling to sleep, discouraged from every angle?  Yet we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, destroyed, or finished.  Just as Jesus was given over to death for the sake of others, so that is our privilege in ministry.

12. The challenges of life tempt us to be silent, but trusting we speak. (2 Cor.4:13-15) As we experience the trappings of death in our bodies, in our emotions, in our circumstances, in our ministry experience, so we are tempted to be silent, but instead, we speak.  Why?  Because we trust the God who raised Jesus from death to do the same with us.  We give ourselves as servants in proclaiming Christ, even at the cost of our lives, confident that God will raise both us, and those that He reached through our ministry.  What a day that will be!  So we may feel like we are being spent and extinguished, but God’s grace is extending to more and more people.  As more thank God for the gospel, so God is more glorified, and we are satisfied that He is worth it.

13. We are encouraged, not by externals, but by the lasting internal reality. (2 Cor.4:16-18) Sometimes we can grow discouraged internally because of all the struggles externally.  Many do burn out, and this is very different than be spent for Christ.  Let us pray that we can discern the wonder of what God is seeking to do in our inner selves day by day.  The expenditure and investment of life now is actually preparing an eternal weight of glory that will never bear any comparison to the cost to us in this life.  One day we will see the eternal fruit of our weak and simple ministry of grace in this life.  We will see the lasting treasure that is invisible now, but is more real than anything we see in this life.

Next time we will venture in to chapter 5.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 3

NEW2I am walking through 2 Corinthians 3-5.  The first two posts are here and here.

7. There will be many reasons to lose heart, but one main one. (2 Cor.4:1-6)  With the most exciting news, we will struggle with the apparent lack of response from many.   It will seem as if unbelievers have their thinking veiled so that they cannot see what is being offered – and that is exactly what is going on.  The god of this age is actively at work in the world, (and in the church), to keep people concerned with other things.  The lack of response will tempt us to force the issue . . .

8. New Covenant ministry will always face the temptation to trust something else.  (2 Cor.4:1-6)  Just as listeners struggle to see the gospel of the glory of Christ, so we will be tempted to force the issue.  We will be tempted to twist arms, force compliance, apply cunning, add to the message, etc.  But instead:

9. Our confidence is in the God who brings light to darkness.  (2 Cor.4:1-6)  The God who spoke light into existence across the cosmos is the same God who shines the light of knowing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ into hearts.  He has awakened an appreciation, yes, a love for Christ in our hearts, so we will trust Him to do the same in others.  Our world is full of people blinded to the wonder of knowing Christ, the very image of the good God who they need to know.  In fact, our churches contain many people for whom the gospel remains a concept, but their emotions are driven more by life issues than life Himself.

10. So we proclaim Christ. (2 Cor.4:1-6) Anything else would be to proclaim our own wisdom (our clever plan to promote compliance), or ourselves.  As Paul will make clear moving on, our strength in ministry, or our lack of it, is not the focus – rather it is our weakness that makes it possible for the strength of God to be manifest.  So instead of promoting ourselves, we offer Christ.  We speak of Christ.  We present Christ.  And amazingly, by the mercy of God, the light will dawn in hearts and minds both in the pew and in the populace.  Jesus Christ is the image of God, he is the Lord, the supreme focus of all, and it is in his face – i.e. in relationship with him – that the riches of the gospel are to be found.

More ponderings on this coming tomorrow.

New Covenant Ministry – Part 2

NEW2Continuing on from the previous thoughts on 2nd Corinthians 3-5:

4. New Covenant ministry should generate boldness. (2 Cor 3:12-18)  Moses had to hide what being with God did to him.  Not so with us.  What happened to Moses was temporary and fading, but what God is doing in us is permanent and increasing.  It is so easy to think in terms of this life and fall for the lie of fading glory even today, but what God does in the New Covenant does not fade.

5. We cannot make people see, that is God’s work in Christ.  (2 Cor.3:12-18)  Israel experienced a hardening and a veil that would keep them from seeing the glory, and it is only by the work of God, through Christ, that it can be taken away.  We too minister to people who may still be unable to see the wonder of Christ.  We are not to focus on the veil and wrestle with it, but to boldly offer Christ so that the veil might be taken away from their hearts.

6. Transformation comes from beholding the glory of the Lord. (2 Cor 3:12-18)  Moses would enter the tent of meeting and encounter the Lord face to face, as a man meets with his friend.  Looking at that face changed him, but this would fade.  We too are transformed only by gazing on the face of Christ by faith, only now, under the New Covenant, the glory doesn’t fade.  Instead, we are transformed from one degree of glory to another.  (And one day, when we see him clearly, we will be fully transformed!)  It is the object of our gaze that determines who we are.  It is true for your listeners, so preach Christ.  It is true for you, so gaze on Christ.

10 Listener Fatigues – part 3

yawningman2We have looked at textual genre fatigues, and some preacher-related fatigues, but there are still more . . .

8. Outline Fatigue. If your sermons always follow the same structure, then you may well be draining some energy from your listeners.  I know some preachers follow a prescribed pattern and claim that listeners love to spot how they make the turn to Jesus.  But since every text has its own uniqueness, let’s look for ways to reflect the diversity of the text, and add some variety to sermon structure too.  Can you introduce an inductive approach (building to the main idea), or a combination of inductive and deductive (build to the idea and then develop the applications), or perhaps preach an epistle text with a narrative shape?

9. Text-Length Fatigue.  If you are preaching through a book, it will be easy to fall into making every text roughly the same length.  Half a chapter per week through an epistle can get monotonous.  Why not mix it up and cover a larger section sometimes, and a very tight section at other times?  Why not introduce, or conclude the series with a big sweeping overview?  Perhaps a long series needs a mid-point big picture message?

10. Disconnect Fatigue.  Listeners can’t help but grow tired if the preaching goes too long in a disconnected mode.  That is, preaching historical and explanatory information without demonstrating its relevance (or even your relevance) to the contemporary situation.  The one exception is probably narrative where it can, if told well, grip people for longer than other types of text.  Nevertheless, if you make people listen too long without any hint of relevance to them, they will grow tired of the message.

What would you add to this list?

10 Listener Fatigues – part 2

yawningman2Continuing our list of potential preaching fatigue that we might be able to avoid for our listeners…

(Yesterday we thought about genre, key text and main point fatigue)

4. Preacher Fatigue.  After a while your listeners might just get tired of hearing you.  You may try to vary what you do, but you will always be you and that creates some limitations for your preaching.  Don’t be afraid to share your pulpit. Develop other preachers, invite other local pastors, give yourself a break and your listeners too.

5. Illustration Fatigue.  One way we can be predictable is in the use of illustrations.  Do you often reference certain sports, or your own family, or the Napoleonic Wars?  Beware of tiring listeners with something that doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to you.  Some preachers default to the same category of illustration.  Others default to a collection of specific illustrations.  I’m feeling drained just describing it!

6. Vulnerability Fatigue.  Some of us don’t share enough vulnerability in our preaching.  But some of us share too much and too often.  When listeners start to feel like they are the counsellors for your self-disclosure, they will grow tired of hearing about your constant struggles.  Do be vulnerable.  Don’t be constantly sharing your struggles.  Remember that the spotlight in your preaching is not on you.

7. Contagious Fatigue.  If you are preaching fatigued, then it will be infectious.  Sometimes you can’t avoid being up all night with a child or a church member in crisis.  Be careful that you don’t get into a rhythm of preaching fatigued.  If your preparations are draining you, maybe you need to revisit your preparation schedule.  Perhaps you don’t get enough sleep, or exercise, or your sugary snacks while you work on the sermon mean you preach in a weekly sugar low?  Be careful that you don’t simply preach tired.  Listeners will pick up on your lack of energy, or your extra edginess.

Tomorrow we’ll finish the list, but feel free to add any more at any time!

10 Listener Fatigues

yawningman2When listeners listen to preaching there are many different fatigues that can undermine the effectiveness of our preaching.  If we are aware of these fatigues, then maybe we can craft our preaching with sensitivity to the listeners.  Let’s jump into the list:

1. Genre Fatigue.  Each genre will tend to create a sense of same-ness in a series.  Let’s say you are preaching through an epistle for weeks and weeks.  Eventually, if we are not careful, the default patterns will prove tiring to listeners.  For instance, the description of historical background, the complex sentences in the text, the pattern of explanation and application, etc. can all become a bit too similar week after week.  Look for ways to be creative in such a series so that there is variation.  (Many of the following “fatigues” will help to see how this variation can be found.)

2. Key Text Fatigue.  Many Bible books contain a key text that will tend to be repeatedly referenced throughout the series.  For instance, any series in Colossians should probably reference 1:15-20, and maybe 3:1-4, to make sense of the subsequent sections.  This can get tiring for listeners, especially if the vocabulary of Colossians 1:15-20 is not really understood by the listeners.  Look for ways to reference the key text with variety – simple summaries, variations in wording, different styles of phraseology, but without losing recognition of what is being referenced.  Reference it without the reference.  Don’t always be overt, but let subtlety in reference to the key text be part of the series too.

3. Main Point Fatigue.  A true series of sermons through a book should be reinforcing the main point of the book, not just providing the launch texts for entirely disconnected messages.  But beware that listeners don’t get bored or annoyed by the repetition of the main point.  Keeping with Colossians, it is true that Paul could hardly do more to point us to Christ as the all sufficient one for salvation and growth, but figure out ways to preach the series so that listeners don’t start getting annoyed at hearing that we need to look to Christ in everything.

We’ll continue the list tomorrow…

Explain Well – 4 More Thoughts

explain2Yesterday I shared four thoughts on how to explain a biblical text well.  Here are four more.

5. Explain visually, not just conceptually.  When an idea becomes clear to a listener, they don’t say, “Ah, I grasp your conceptual logic!”  No, people say, “Ah, I see what your saying.”  What do they see?  A clear picture of the idea being explained.  We need to engage listeners at the level of imagination.  There is a screen in the hearts of listeners and by fault it begins foggy and confused.  Clear the smoke and form images as you explain the text, or as you describe the application.  If you can see it, they will.  If you are grasping for concepts, they see smoke.

6. Let the structure do its work.  As you help people see the structure in a passage, it will begin to explain itself.  Orient listeners to the “chunks” before diving into the details.  Give a newcomer to town the landmarks before explaining details of smaller side streets.  Highlight connectives or repetition in content so the shape starts to form on the page – “Notice how many verses begin ‘By faith…’ in this section.  As you scan down the page you can see, ‘By faith…’ in verse 3, ‘By faith…’ in verse 4, etc.  Eighteen times the writer does that.  But then in verse 13 that pattern is broken.  This four verse thought in the middle is being marked out as the central pivot of the passage.  Let’s zero in on that pivot…”

7. Take people there, or bring the truth here.  Decide whether you are going to transport listeners to back then and describe things so vividly that they can smell the air, or whether you are going to bring the biblical truth to today with a contemporary simile, “this is like…”  Weak explanation tends to flow from indecision about listener location.  Take them there, or bring the Bible to today.  Actually, do both, but do both deliberately and definitely.

8. Judiciously use explanation from others.  Don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of people who are better at explaining that text than you or me.  We should be ready to take advantage of that.  But they aren’t standing where you are.  They might be Martin Luther, but your listeners may be ready to dismiss him because of some perception they have of him, or they may be hard-pressed to distinguish him from his namesake in the twentieth century.  They might be a great contemporary scholar and commentator, but your listeners may be distracted by their funny sounding name (they don’t know anything else about him/her), or by your superior learning (they don’t have books like that).  When you use someone else’s explanation, start with “one preacher put it like this…” and then add further details judiciously for your particular listeners.

Explain Well – 4 Thoughts

explain2Preaching is a complex ministry, but one of the core ingredients is effective explanation of the biblical text.  If this is removed, then it is difficult to see how what remains can be biblical preaching.

Yet it can be tempting to remove explanation.  Why not simply read a bit of Bible and then say what you want to say, making the odd vague connection?  This passes for preaching in many places.  What’s more, surely that can be more interesting than dull explanation?  Of course it can, but the answer to the problem of a poor version of something good and important is not to replace it, but to do it well.  How?

1. Recalibrate your appreciation of God’s ability as a communicator.  Unless you are gripped by the fact that God is a great communicator, everything else I say here will fail to register.  Know that if your listeners could really see the richness and relevance of what God is saying in any passage, they would be gripped and transformed.  But if you don’t see it, they are going to struggle.  Many Christians trust God to have created everything, to have worked out a redemption plan and to have final justice and a glorious eternity all worked out, but at the same time to be a poor communicator.  This is mystifying.

2. Give appropriate amounts of engaging context.  Too much context will turn the sermon into a historical lecture.  Too little will strip the text of meaning.  The biblical text is not a random set of assertions that have mystical power by virtue of inspiration.  God gave us inspired text that was always set in a historical and situational context.  Rather than being dull background stuff, this is often a key way to forge connections between the text and your listeners.  Get to know the background context and determine where the points of engagement are for your listeners today.

3. Set the scene textually.  Many of the biblical books were written to be digested whole, but we tend to cut and slice.  That doesn’t mean we have to preach a whole book in every sermon (although that is an option to consider sometimes).  It does mean that we can’t just drop people into an alien text without any orientation.  Be sure to orient your listeners to what is going on in the big picture of the book before expecting them to be gripped by the specific text of your sermon.

4. Don’t explain every word with equal effort.  Recognise that in any passage there will be a gravity centre.  Take people there and help them see why that is the case.  Explaining seven introductory clauses to get there will numb your listeners and they will lose track of the point of the passage.

Tomorrow I will add some more thoughts to this list.