Just a few practical thoughts on the issue of finding and using “illustrations” in preaching:
Bring Description to Life, Not Just Application –Listeners will tell you that you have great illustrations in your preaching, even if you technically have none. If you are effective in your description of the narrative, the life situation of the author, the image conveyed in the poetry, etc., then listeners will often feel as though you used what they might call an “illustration.” For more on this, click here.
Don’t Always Aim for the Ultimate Knockout Illustration – Sometimes we get intimidated by a message we hear, or by the pressure we put on ourselves, and we set the “illustrative bar” too high. You know what I mean, the one that is deeply personal, moving, compelling, tension-filled, intersecting with every point of the message, etc. Now and then you may have a humdinger of an illustration when you preach. It’s nice when you get them, but often it will be the passing comments or observations that demonstrate you are a real person rather than a poor history lecturer. Often the “choosing the wrong line in the supermarket” illustration is more effective than the “my death-defying fall from a cliff in a car” illustration (which will almost certainly overwhelm the text and the main idea of the message – warning!) People live normal lives in a normal world with normal issues, so don’t feel like every illustration needs to be supra-normal or extraordinary. Normal is usually ideal!
Describe Application Encouragingly – Don’t waste energy hunting down an obscure, witty, intriguing interchange from Elizabethan parliamentary discourse. Much better to focus your energy on describing what it will look like to apply what you are preaching. How might someone react in the days ahead in light of this passage? What will faith look like when worst fears are confirmed, or when unexpected crises hits? What does living in the light of that truth about God mean for normal life? Describe listeners applying the truth, the instruction, the change of attitude, the deeper intimacy with God, etc., describe them applying it and encourage them with that “illustration.”
One last one, unless you’d like to add other ideas:
Create a Filing System, and Use It – Basic, but most of us don’t do this and should. Make good notes of potential illustrative material, observations, quotes, comments, incidents, clippings, etc. Then file them. Perhaps in a searchable Word document with key words next to each entry. Then use the file. Something from life experience this week will probably not fit with the message for this Sunday . . . but in three weeks time, it may be perfect. Now where was that quote again?