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…)

When Do Listeners Switch On?

You know what I mean.  People are sitting and listening, sort of, until you say a key phrase, then suddenly everyone is really listening carefully.  Let’s make the assumption that having people really listen is a positive thing.  Now let’s consider some examples of “switch on” phrases and consider the implications for our preaching:

“How does this apply to us?” – People do tend to listen more when the message is about them, their lives, their needs, etc.  We could critique that theologically and point to the self-obsession of humanity.  Or we could be thankful that all Scripture is both God-breathed and “useful” – i.e. life changing.  And then we could stop leaving application to the last three minutes of a message and look for ways to include it throughout.  Compare and contrast an introduction infused with relevance and applicational preparation for the message to follow, with the standard switch off phrase “Last week we were deep in 2Chronicles 17, please turn with me to 2Chronicles 18 . . .”

“Let me tell you a story . . .” – People of all ages love a good story.  “Once upon a time” does wonders for children of all ages.  This kind of phrase is much more of a switch on than “let’s talk about the story.”  I’ve said it before, when the passage is a narrative, tell the story!  Even when it is not, how can the message be engaging and interesting, rather than mere lecturing and information transfer?

“Here’s how I struggle with this . . .” – People are always interested in appropriate vulnerability from the preacher.  Haddon Robinson urges preacher to neither be the hero, nor the jerk, in the stories they tell by way of illustration.  He is right, but he is not saying be absent from your illustrations.  People are far more interested in you as a real person, than they are in Napoleon or Lenin.  It is good to personalize aspects of the message, as long as it doesn’t make you look too good, or too much of an idiot.  Credibility and interest can increase or crash with personal stories.  Choose wisely, but choose some.

Some things switch on listeners, but integrity demands that we don’t use them.  Over-promising and then under-delivering, offering success guarantees in a messy world, promising healing or wealth when the text doesn’t support that application.  We must have integrity so that we’re not mere pragmatists.  However, it is easy to go to the other extreme and fail to learn from the reactions of listeners.  What other phrases switch on the listener?  What might be the implications for our preaching?

When Less is More in Content

We tend to think that we will add power to a message by adding more.  Perhaps more material or evidences or quotes in support of a point.  Perhaps more volume or pitch or speed in delivery.  It is very important to know when less is more!  Sometimes the powerful clarity of a single statement is cloaked by extra material.  Sometimes the secret to a deep impact in delivery is to do the opposite of the obvious.

When less is more in content – Long speeches are regularly forgotten, but succinct ones stand tall in history.  Multiple exhibits given in evidence may confuse listeners who are trying to remember the detail without clarity as to the main goal.  Numerous quotes may begin to feel like mere words when one pithy powerful quote might ring true, loud and clear.  A complex main idea may be accurate, but will it change lives like a carefully honed succinct statement?

Tomorrow we’ll consider when less is more in delivery.

45,000 Great Preaching Illustrations

There are numerous books available that promise to help turn tedious sermons into sizzling and vibrant power-sermons.  You simply look up your theme and then choose one of the collected illustrations, like sprinkling seasoning on a bland dish of food.  These tools can be helpful, but I’d like to point you to the best one of all – 45,000 Great Preaching Illustrations.  This is not available in print, nor on a website.  In fact, you already have it.  Using it will help your messages sizzle with seasoning, rumble with relevance and be energized by engaging with your listeners’ lives.  45,000 Great Preaching Illustrations are before your eyes every day – it is normal life.

Here is a simplified list of sources for illustrations, and the order is deliberate:

1. From the experience of both speaker and listener. This is the place to start.  You know what it is like, so you can describe it well.  They know what it is like, so they can see the image form in their minds.  Highly relevant, excellent source of illustrations (even if it seems mundane – such as getting in the shortest line at the store, and being there the longest!)

2. From the experience of the listener, but learned by you. Perhaps you don’t work in an office with non-believers, but you learn about it and draw illustrations of relevance from there.  If you learn well, then the image will form for the listener and you will seem like a relevant speaker.

3. From your experience, but learned by the listener. You can convey these personal experiences well, but you have to educate in order for them to communicate.  These take more time and will feel less relevant to the listener.  With appropriate vulnerability, these can be worth using for the connection it creates between you (even if the experience is slightly foreign to them).

4. From neither your experience, nor theirs. The pithy anecdote from some character in history, or the “canned” story from your bookshelf.  These often feel canned because they are canned.  If you use one of these, make sure the character in question has some appeal to your listeners, and be sure to look for other ways to be relevant.  The 1500’s or 1700’s may be interesting to some, but it is relevant to none.

Remember, the best illustrations come not from obscure anecdotes or historical mythology, but from the everyday experience of your listeners, so learn to be an observer of normal life – this will help you to touch down in their world as much as possible in your preaching.

Stage 8 – Message Details: Illustrations / Support Materials

I’ll take another couple of posts to focus on introductions and conclusions, but first, it’s time to focus on support material. Robinson calls this stage “fleshing out the skeleton.” You know why you are preaching (stage 5), what your main idea is (stage 6) and what your strategy or structure is (stage 7). Then it is time to carefully plan where to add support material. Where do people need clarification on your explanation? Where might your message be improved by touching down in today’s world? It is important to include illustrative material so that the message does not degenerate into a poor lecture. But merely sprinkling illustrations is not a wise approach. Illustrations, or as I prefer to call them, support material or applications (note correction here), should be planned carefully and evaluated to the same extent as every other element in the message. If they do not support the main idea and help the message to progress, then cut and find a better alternative. Remember, the best illustrations come not from obscure anecdotes or historical mythology, but from the everyday experience of your listeners, so learn to be an observer of normal life – this will help you to touch down in their world as much as possible in your preaching.

Previously – It is critical to remember that illustrations are servants, not masters in the sermon. Try to make your illustrations relevant, and banish boredom from your preaching. There can be great variety in your illustrating (see also part 2), and often you can find illustration images right in the text. The keys to effective illustration use include concrete language and taking enough time (see here too). One option that may need too much time is the use of movie clips (see also part 2). It is important to be pastorally careful (part 2). Don’t forget the power of humor, make your sermon sizzle and maybe even illustrate without illustrations.