Illustration Variation – Part 1

Abstract truth served up without some form of illustration is like a rich steak without accompanying vegetables – after a while it is just “too much.” So generally we look for ways to have truth touch down on the tarmac of reality. I tend to prefer the concept of relevant applications rather than illustrations, but for this post, I’ll stick with the traditional term. Today let’s take an inventory of our typical illustrations, then in part 2 we’ll have some pointers for adding variation.

Beware of your default source of illustration – It is so easy to get into a rut. We tend to naturally think in certain ways and illustrate accordingly. Take stock of your illustrations and where they come from. Perhaps you default to a certain sport, or to sport in general, or to movie scenes, or to classical literature, or to poetry, or to a chunky book of random pithy quotes and anecdotes. Try to get out of your default at least for one illustration in every sermon – preferably more than once!

Beware of other defaults in your illustration – It is easy to profile in your illustrations. Perhaps the character that looks good is always you, or someone you love, or always male, or always female. Perhaps your illustrations are always quotes, or one-liners, or two-minute twenty second stories. Predictability can become a distraction once people pick up on the patterns.

People always say they’d rather hear lots of illustrations than none. In reality, if there is little variation in illustration type and source, the majority of listeners will not feel touched by the truth of the sermon. A rich steak needs vegetables, but remember that asparagus is not to everyone’s liking. A sermon of truth plus sports illustrations is like a plate of steak and asparagus for a good chunk of your listeners!

2 thoughts on “Illustration Variation – Part 1

  1. Ordinary Illustrations
    Good advice. One of the best illustrations I ever heard was Dr. Tony Evans who talked about the frustrations of rinsing soap out a dish soap bottle. As the water quickly flushed into the tiny nozzle, the bubbles would overflow and frustrate him. When he did it slow and steady he accomplished his goal. He whispered the moral at the end. We get illustrations from the majestic, but we should never forget the mundane too.

    I once had cheap, dried-up dollarstore basil to illustrate tired Christian lives. I used fresh, green, leafy basil that still had roots to show the vitality and attractiveness of an abundant life. I even described the people in the checkout line smelling the fragrance and running to get some themselves. Out of all the latenight tireless exegesis, that resonated most with my first church >:-(

    Those incidents are object lessons, but when we describe our “a-ha!” moments of reflection, they become illustrations. Nonetheless, we can get stuck in a mundane mode too. Peter’s point is well taken–“Vary your illustration resources”.

    Thanks Brother Mead; send us your bill. 🙂


  2. Admittedly, illustration variety is not my greatest strength, but I almost always disappointed by the sermon illustration books I’ve bought.

    They all seem to have the same tired and/or outdated stuff and they’re often hard to navigate categorically.

    I also find illustrations of a personal nature, particularly where children are involved, get the audience’s attention.

    Good stuff. Thanks.

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