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?
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…)
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!