6 Questions About Illustrations – part 2

Yesterday I gave four questions to get us thinking purposefully about what we are doing with an illustration and where we are getting it from.

Here are two more questions that we need to consider:

5. Even if it is a good illustration, is it self-destructive? You might have a great idea for an illustration, but beware of some that self-destruct. Here are some to watch out for:

  • The Overpowering Illustration. If the emotional impact is too great, then people won’t hear the point, or even the sermon. (Details of your car crash, your surgery, your pet dog’s death, etc.)
  • The Morally Questionable Illustration. If the morality of your illustration raises concerns, then people won’t hear your point, or even the sermon. (It doesn’t have to be sinful to trigger this outcome – referencing some movies, or hobbies, etc., might trigger a “sin!” reflex in some of your listeners.)
  • The Complicated to Explain Illustration. If the backstory or complexity is such that it takes too much effort, then people might forget your actual point. (Many movie illustrations trigger this outcome – unless literally everyone knows the film, or the set-up can be really swift, it may be worth looking for something else.)
  • The Tribal Illustration. If the story elevates a sports team where the listeners may be tribal (some don’t like that team), or where some listeners are tired of sports illustrations, or if you push a political perspective or person (and some aren’t onboard with your perspective), then people will likely remember their reaction to this rather than the point you were making.

6. Are you missing the value of the non-illustration? Sometimes we can be so in the habit of finding illustrations for our preaching that we forget the value of the non-illustration. I don’t mean speaking in a monotonous complicated and academic lecture. I mean recognizing that sometimes the explanation of the context of a passage, or the presentation of the passage itself, can be so vivid and engaging that it feels like you are illustrating when actually you are not. Narratives tend to offer us the potential for powerful storytelling. Poetry tends to offer vivid imagery. Even the epistles sometimes offer illustrations built into the passage. Don’t rush to your illustration file before checking if the text can engage the listeners with a vivid presentation and a sense of resonating relevance.

Illustrating a sermon is not easy, but hopefully these questions might help. What else would you add?

6 Questions About Illustrations

Good preachers make illustration look effortless, but for most of us it can be a real struggle. Here are a few questions that I find helpful:

1. What’s the purpose of your illustration? Too many preachers default to simply adding in illustrations because there hasn’t been one for a few paragraphs, or because they think they should. It works much better to define your purpose. At this point in the message will your listeners be needing explanation to clarify the point you are making? Or will they need support to prove the point? Or perhaps application to picture themselves applying the point? Generally it is better to identify what you are trying to achieve and you will probably achieve it more successfully. Explain, prove, apply . . . or perhaps give a break in the intensity to allow them to re-group. Decide what is needed and then you are more likely to find it.

2. Are you relying on their knowledge, or does it touch their experience? People will always connect more with what they have experienced than what they know. People are more likely to remember cross-country running at school than have experience of running in the Olympics. They know what it feels like to get stuck in traffic, but probably not what it feels like to step out of a spacecraft. Instead of going for the more exotic, consider if more mundane might connect better.

3.  Have they experienced it, or are they simply having to hear about yours? The best illustrative material tends to be experienced by both speaker and listener. It is easy for you to describe and easy for them to imagine. If this isn’t possible, then consider whether you can do the learning and speak of what they know personally, rather than always asking them to imagine what you have experienced personally. It won’t always be possible, but worth the effort when you can.

4. Are you falling into the laziest and weakest forms of illustration? There are plenty of illustrations that fall outside your experience and knowledge, and their experience and knowledge. The illustration anthologies are full of them. Obscure anecdotes and clever quotes from yesteryear. Wartime speeches, heroic moments, distant pithy quotes. Generally speaking these will seem far more effective on paper than they do in actual preaching. At the very least, can I suggest that if you love this kind of illustration then at least try to balance these with something more immediate and normal? (You may love your 1950’s football stories, or WWI trench poetry, but your listeners may not be so enthused.)

It takes work to illustrate well. Sometimes we have to go with something weaker than we’d prefer. That is preaching. But let’s try to do the best we can. (And tomorrow I will share the final two questions…)

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 3

So far we’ve mentioned cross-referencing, quoting scholars and meandering in part 1, then apologizing and illustrations in part 2.  Now, let’s finish this list of seven quick fixes with part 3 of the list:

6. Stop trying to be funny.

To put it bluntly, either you are funny or you are not funny.  But trying to be funny is not funny.  It is annoying.  That is not to say there can be no humour in our preaching, but let it be more natural.  Unless you are a great joke teller, don’t invest minutes of a sermon in telling a joke.  Trying to entertain or seek approval by laughs is not fulfilling your role as a preacher.  Instead let your demeanor be saturated with genuine gospel joy and enthusiasm that comes from living in the text you are preaching and walking closely with God.  It will be more sincere and people will appreciate it more.  If they want stand-up comedy then the internet is replete, ready and waiting.

7. Stop scratching at your passage.

Ok, this is probably not a quick fix, but it is significant.  A lot of preaching barely scratches the surface of the preaching text.  No matter how much you add careful illustration and clear structure, you can’t overcome the lack of biblical rootedness in this kind of preaching.  Instead of adding filler, or jumping around the canon, or whatever else you might do, dig down into the text you are preaching and make sure the message has the fingerprints of this specific passage all over it.

That was quite a random list, but maybe one of two of these quick fixes fit for you?  Feel free to comment with other things you have tweaked that helped you, or what you need to do next!

Get the Idea? – Part 1

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Over the past few years I’ve come across quite a number of people who talk about preaching and recommend Haddon Robinson’s book, but don’t really understand Robinson’s teaching on the subject.  It seems that some people are impressed with aspects of the book, Biblical Preaching, but don’t really grasp some of the core teaching of it.  In particular, the nature and power of the Big Idea in preaching.  Today I’d like to focus on communication, but will continue the series tomorrow in respect to biblical studies, then finish with a focus on the Spirit of God.  Do we really get the Big Idea?

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The Theology Bridge

When we think through the expositional process, we are really concerned about three stages.  The first stage is understanding the text (exegetical).  The final stage is producing the sermon (homiletical).  The link between the two is the bridge in John Stott’s metaphor (in Between Two Worlds).  The bridge is the theological abstraction process.  In Haddon Robinson’s book you’ll find reference to the exegetical idea, the theological idea and the homiletical idea.  You could equally refer to the “at that time” – “timeless” – “at this time” progression of the stages.  This basic concept is important to grasp.  In order to accurately preach the message a passage today, we have to first consider the timeless theological abstraction of the main idea.  Here are a couple of questions to consider as you move from the exegetical to the theological stages of the process:

1. What does this passage say about God? Whether God is mentioned directly or not, every passage should be considered and preached theocentrically.  The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and since He doesn’t change, the timeless truth of a passage will relate to God in some respect.  This does not mean that the passage is stripped of human interest, but that God is recognized as the key character, whether or not He is mentioned in those specific verses.

2. What does this passage say about humanity in relation to God? Throughout the Bible we see humanity interacting with God.  Some respond with faith, others with self-trust.  Some love Him, some hate Him.  Bryan Chappell refers to the Fallen Condition Focus that can be observed in each text.  In respect to a fallen humanity’s response to God, contemporary listeners will always have a point of connection.

3. Where does the teaching of the passage fit in the flow of progressive revelation? It is always worth thinking through where the passage sits chronologically and progressively in God’s plan of self-revelation.  Technically I suppose that asking this question in the exegetical stage of the process might lead to presenting the meaning of a text in a way that the original readers could not have understood it.  Nevertheless, contemporary readers have to understand a passage in light of the whole canon.  Whether the broader understanding needs to be emphasized will depend on the particular passage and audience.

We study the text to understand what the author meant at that time (exegetical idea).  We abstract the timeless theological truth of that idea (theological idea).  Then we shape our presentation of that idea for our particular listeners at this time (homiletical idea).

Preaching Story: Make the Switch

A switch that could make a big difference when preaching narratives.  How do you preach a story?

Common Default Approach – This is the approach that begins the message with the reading of the text, then moves on to talk about the story, noting elements within the text and giving both explanation and application based on those observations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – It is easier to read a text straight through than to interrupt the reading of the text, people know the whole story from the start and it allows great freedom in terms of what you do with the rest of the message.  These are strengths to one degree or another.  However, there are also inherent weaknesses in this approach.  The story becomes a specimen to examine, rather than a narrative to be experienced (once the reading is over).  The inherent tensions within the narrative are essentially lost, although a good preacher will attempt to rekindle them in the elements of retelling the narrative that follows the reading.

Original Force Approach – Okay, I made that name up, but it does convey my point here.  The simple switch I’m suggesting is instead of “read the story and talk about it,” rather try to “tell the story homiletically.”  What I mean by that is allow the form of the story, and the telling of it, to form the spine of most of the message.  In the process of telling the story, combine explanation of context, culture, historical setting, etc., with deliberate application for contemporary listeners.

Strengths & Weaknesses – The weaknesses that stand out to me with this approach are the greater challenges involved in telling a story effectively such as vivid description, maintaining tension, etc. Thus it may be slightly harder to preach well in this way.  However, the strengths of this approach are significant.  The original force of the passage can be recreated for listeners, whether or not they already know the end of the story.  The inherent tensions and intrigue in a narrative can become strengths of the message (you don’t have to create tension with a story, it has tension inbuilt).  Explanation can feel natural as the story is told, application can carry the implicit force of the narrative.  The ability of a narrative to overcome resistance is harnessed rather than lost (in the common default approach, listeners often put their guard back up once you start “preaching” again after the story’s been read).  There are other strengths too – while it may be harder to preach this way, it makes preaching preparation more interesting as you enter fully into the narrative rather than standing over it with scalpel in hand.  So much more could be added . . .

Next time you preach a narrative, instead of reading it and then talking about it, try telling the story so that the original force is felt as the thrust of the sermon.

Is Our View of Preaching Too Small?

As John Broadus once wrote, “Preaching is characteristic of Christianity.  No other religion has made the regular and frequent assembling of groups of people, to hear religious instruction and exhortation, an integral part of divine worship.” This is fine, as far as it goes, but I would suggest this quote alone does not go far enough.

Why might we suggest that Christianity is almost preaching-centric?  Not because preaching is somehow an end in itself, but rather because Christianity is Theo- and Christo-centric.  And what is the critical feature of our God that enables us to come to Him in relationship and worship?  It is that He communicates.  God speaks.  God’s speech is action.  He has acted through His Word written and He has acted through His Word incarnate.  God’s saving work has been fully accomplished in the person of His Son, His final revelation and message.  Consequently we gather together in worship and response to a communicating God.  Preaching is not mere instruction and exhortation, on a par with a guided tour of a museum, or a journalist’s report of an incident, or a teacher explaining a theory, or a lecturer sharing their insight, or a coach rallying a sports team, or a motivational speaker stirring salespersons to do better, or an actor reciting a poem, or a judge reviewing the facts of a case, or a politician restating a promise, or a comedian drawing a laugh.

Preaching is unlike any other speech, either instructional or exhortational.  When we preach, our goal is to preach the Word, so that the Word of God itself speaks.  When the Bible speaks, God speaks.  When God speaks, He is at work.  Preaching is not just talking about God at work.  Biblical preaching is God at work.  Perhaps we need to rethink our view of preaching, for too often and too easily, our view of preaching is much too small.

Question to Ponder – What is it we preach?

What is it that we preach?  I’m really “preaching to the choir” in this post.  I’m addressing those who are committed to expository preaching and therefore will unhesitatingly affirm – “we preach the Bible!”  Others may hesitate and desire to preach contemporary ideas or whatever else, but for those of us who, at least in theory, preach the Bible, my question stands.  What is it that we preach?  I see two approaches among expository preachers:

Option A – We preach the main thought of a text.

Option B – We preach an aspect of biblical theology prompted by the main thought of a text.

I see strengths in both approaches.  I see potential weaknesses in the way either approach might be applied by some preachers.  I see different preachers and different “schools of thought” falling under different categories in this over-simplified schema.

So how are we to select our option and move forward?  I see value in both options, but on this site I urge a commitment to option A (preach the text you are preaching), with an awareness of option B (develop the theology of the text biblically if you deem it necessary).  I know and respect others who essentially affirm option B for every sermon (always develop the thought through the canon to its fulfilment).

Identifying these two categories is an intriguing starting point for reflection on my own approach to preaching and hopefully for yours too.  Where might this reflection lead?  Is it necessary to offer rationale and critique of each?  Will people recognize that I am not setting up a permanent either/or mutually exclusive construct, but rather identifying the primary leaning of the expository preacher?

Does Preaching Via Technology Fall Short

A good friend Josh commented on the site with this question.  What do you think?

I recently heard at a pastors conference, and the speaker admitted it was controversial, that true effective preaching can only be done in the presence of the hearers. Connecting deeply, not just with their ears, but with the personal interaction that occurs during preaching. In effect, he suggested that preaching via TV, radio, listening to a sermon online (live or a replay) etc. fell short of the essence of preaching. What do you think?

I’ll give a couple of thoughts, but I’d like to hear other peoples’ opinions on this too.

I’m inclined to agree.  True preaching should be the true meaning of the text, communicated effectively by the speaker with applied relevance to the listeners.  Just yesterday I was teaching on the importance of earthing applications as specifically as possible.  This is a good habit in personal Bible study and in preaching to others.  The difficulty in preaching via media is that application may remain slightly generic.  Furthermore it reduces the interpersonal connection which occurs through multiple channels, not just the ear, as mentioned.  (Some preachers preach as if only to the ear, even in person . . . an unfortunate over-simplification of true preaching.)  So media preaching seems to undermine both “effective communication” and “applied relevance” in my understanding of preaching.

On the other hand, this was probably not the speaker’s intent, but I would be somewhat careful before criticising preaching through media.  We live in a day of incredible opportunities via electronic media.  People in inaccessible countries are hearing the gospel via radio (traditional and online) and coming to salvation.  Ministry can be multiplied, including good quality ministry.  I suspect the conference may have made CDs available, so his teaching may be accessed in the months and years ahead by people who could not be at the conference.  Nursery workers in churches are able to serve the church and its parents by watching the children and then hearing the sermon later.  We live in a day of tremendous technological possibilities.

I agree that preaching via media falls slightly short of the ideal, but at the same time I’m thankful for media that allows people access to “slightly short of the ideal” ministry, when the alternative is either none at all, or only face to face preaching that falls far short of the ideal in other ways.  Media preaching should never replace true in-person preaching of whatever standard, but it can be a blessing as a supplement, or for some, as genuinely the only option.

The readers of this site are a good group of people, what do you think about this?