The term “illustration” is very broad, but I’m referring to those moments in a sermon when the thinking work of explanation, support or application of the text is interrupted by the color and life of something apparently more relevant to the listener. For example, when the preacher begins to tell a story, listeners tend to lock in their attention and fully engage. But it is also possible to get this same attention and engagement without using any “illustration” from outside the passage. How?
The wise preacher does not present the text itself in the form of dry analysis of “the long ago and far away.” With careful preparation and thought, most texts can be preached in such a way as to engage the listener here and now. Tell biblical narratives compellingly, present textual imagery vividly, and give explanation relevantly. Allow enough time in an explanation for listeners to enter into it and feel it for themselves. It is possible for listeners, after a sermon is complete, to feel that there were lots of illustrations used, even when technically there were none. Maybe the listener feels as if they were there (in the world of the text), or they delight in how the preacher made the text “come alive” (their words, not ours). This is possible through careful and effective description and explanation of the text. If the preacher is able to handle the text in a thoroughly engaging, descriptive and vivid manner – then that preacher will be considered a masterful communicator (even without using numerous external or modern illustrations).
So, we should work on our ability to effectively and compellingly describe scenes in a biblical story, or images in a passage. We should also be sure to use appropriate variety – some texts and messages lend themselves to vivid, engaging, and compelling description, while other messages thirst for external and contemporary “illustrations” to add to their efficacy. Wise is the preacher who neglects neither and knows when to use both.