Illustrations are an interesting subject. Actually, my concern is that often illustrations are seen as the source of interest in a message. Therefore the best speakers, that is, the most interesting, are those who seem to be a repository of well-researched illustrations. But here’s my concern – do we rely on illustrations to be interesting?
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we are relying on illustrations to be interesting. What does this imply? Does it imply that really entering into the text as we preach is boring? (That is to say, explaining, understanding, encountering, experiencing the text is actually boring?) Or does it imply that actually we often aren’t really engaging and entering into a text at all?
In some preaching you do get the sense that the text serves as an introduction to the next illustration. Personally, I don’t believe the text itself is boring and in need of our help to make it interesting. I do believe that a lot of preaching somehow seeks to explain texts without really entering into them. The text is offered at arms length as exhibit A, but is not a living and active revelation in which the preaching thereof engages the whole listener in an encounter with God. (I’m not really arguing for some kind of neo-orthodox “text becoming word” concept here, but I am suggesting that the Bible is written with affective and emotive function in the different biblical genre that requires it to be somehow experienced and well-understood – as opposed to “mentally understood” from a safe distance leaving the heart largely untouched.)
So no illustrations then? I’m not saying that. If their main function is to offer interest, then I would suggest revisiting the text some more and discovering something more of its wonder as engaging inspired revelatory literature. But what if the illustration serves to explain some aspect of the message, or help to validate or “prove” the truth of the text, or assist the listeners in imagining effective application of the text? By all means, use explanations, or proofs (maybe a better term would be supports or validations), or applications. Personally I prefer to call them what they are – explanations, or supports, or applications. If I call them “illustrations” then I might be tempted to fall into the illustration equals interest trap. For many, that is what illustrations are. They don’t have to be. May we convince people of the inherent interest value, and personal value, of the Word of God. If we fail to do that, what is it we are doing again?