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…)

Intersecting “Life Experiences” – 3

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?

Intersecting “Life Experiences” – 2

Continuing on from yesterday’s post.  How can we who struggle with generating “illustrative” materials do better in this regard (to keep preaching from being historical lecture)?

Prepare Messages with Personal Sensitivity – As you prepare a message, look at your own life.  Where do you see the sin, the struggles, the doubts, the hopes, the joys, etc. in your own life, in your own heart? In the past there was an emphasis on trying to keep yourself out of the sermon.  I suppose the prayer we sometimes hear, “May the people not see me, but Jesus.”  Very well intentioned, but people are seeing you, and hopefully more.  Preaching is, by the Brooks’ definition: truth through personality.  All that to say, without being a superstar or a buffoon, let listeners see you as a real, genuine, authentic and appropriately vulnerable communicator.  This means being sensitive to how the text works in your life, before preaching it for the sake of other lives.

Prepare Messages with Congregation Sensitivity – The better you know the people you are preaching to, the easier it is to intersect biblical truth with present experience.  This doesn’t mean preaching a message at someone in particular, nor divulging confidences, or causing embarressment in illustration specificity.  However, your listeners are not the same as mine.  Tim Keller’s crowd is not the same as Andy Stanley’s.  Preaching usually calls us to pastoral care of our listeners, which means knowing what their life is like.  Being a student of people needs to combine with being a student of the text in order to preach effectively.  This does not require us to make every Biblical text into a mundane how-to list, but rather to help humans love, know and respond to a God who chooses to engage with us.  (If you are new to the site, I’d encourage you to click on Audience Analysis in the categories menu to the right and see previous posts related to really knowing to whom we preach.)

Rather than looking through endless lists of “potential illustrations” in books or online, we have very fertile ground in our own lives and in the lives of our listeners.  We should being looking there with real sensitivity in order to find the points of intersection that will help give our messages a contemporary and relevant feel.

More practical thoughts tomorrow, but feel free to add your thoughts . . .

Intersecting “Life Experiences”

Thanks to Sarah for commenting on the post about Illustration Saturation.  As I mentioned in the post, many of us struggle with finding and using “illustration” material.  Sarah asked how to improve at intersecting life experiences with the text.  Here are a few random thoughts to get us going.  Certainly this is no developed strategy, but it is a start:

Read Bible With Sensitivity to Humanity – When studying the Bible, it is right to be theocentric in our reading because the text itself is theocentric.  God is the main character of the Bible and should be the central focus of our preaching.  However, some preachers preach as if humans are irrelevant to the Biblical story and all we need to preach is God / Christ.  The reality is that the Bible is all about God as He interacts and engages with humanity.  Consequently, as we read any passage, we will also catch continual glimpses of human reality.  Bryan Chappell refers to the Fallen Condition Focus.  Are the characters doubting or trusting, in what, why?  Are they loving or hating, who, why?  What is the effect of the Fall in these people, what is God’s provision, what is their response?  These kinds of questions help us to look at people in the text and see that they are people like us.  Once we see them as real people rather than flannel-graph characters, then it is easier to highlight intersection between the characters in the text and our own life experiences.

Read Life with Biblical Sensitivity – As a preacher you are not always reading the Bible.  Once in a while you do other things too.  Whether it is watching the news or entertainment, people watching at work or in the store, enjoying the joys of parenting or whatever . . . try to read life with a sensitivity to what the Bible teaches.  Why are they acting this way?  What is this attitude called biblically?  What character in the Bible does this person remind me of?  We need to read the Bible as it is, real and living revelation of reality.  We need to observe life around us as it is, a living out of the Biblically described reality.

More thoughts tomorrow.  Feel free to comment, this issue could be addressed from many angles.

Illustration Saturation

I’d like to ponder those things generally known as “illustrations.”  I tend to refer to them as “support materials” to recognize their function.  Or even better, I prefer to call them what they actually are, either “explanations” or “proofs” or “applications” since that forces me to be purposeful in how I use them.  Notice I don’t call them “fillers” or “entertainers” or “treading waters” or “favorite anecdotes” or whatever.  They are there either to explain, prove or apply what I am saying, otherwise they are not developing the thought or moving the message forward.  Anyway, back to the point of the post – there seem to be two types of preachers when it comes to “illustrations.”

1. There are those who struggle to find, record, keep, select and use illustrations. After all, it does seem to take quite a discipline to create, use, maintain and then access a personal illustration library or database.  I take my hat off to all who achieve this and use it well, but I know that many preachers are like me – illustration strugglers.  Generally speaking, and this is very general, people in this category should probably do better with illustrations.  Having said that, and it was only in general, but nevertheless, there are other ways to “illustrate” a message than the standard array of notes, quotes, anecdotes, personal experiences, etc.  But that is for another post.  For now, this category could probably increase the frequency and quality of their illustrations.

2. There are some, perhaps a select few, who seem to constantly overflow with illustrations. Every way they turn there seems to be three or four brief illustrations or passing comments that relate to the word currently before them.  While it may be superficially something to envy for the majority of us in the former category, I would like to offer one observation to illustration fountains.  It is possible to achieve illustration saturation.  Sometimes in the preponderance of “interesting” materials the text itself can be lost.

Some struggle to illustrate.  Others struggle to stop illustrating.  Remember the goal of preaching is to effectively and faithfully explain and apply the Bible passage(s) for life transformation.  The goal is not to bounce from important term to important term, filling the gaps with a string threaded with pearls of interest and offset with other biblical quotes in order to illustrate the gospel . . .

Some of us, perhaps not many, but some, need to be very wary of illustration saturation.

Cut Unnecessary Intros

This would apply to the whole sermon, but I am thinking specifically of stories, illustrations, humor, etc.  Many of us have a tendency to set-up an element of the sermon with an introductory comment.  There are exceptions to this advice, but generally speaking, don’t.  It is better to seamlessly slide into the story than it is to introduce it.  Think of people telling jokes.  When they begin, “Here’s one that will make you laugh,” or “This is a really funny joke,” the net result is almost always negative.  Much better to hear the story and be surprised rather than expecting something good or bad.  The same goes in preaching.  Don’t say, “Here’s a startling statistic I came across this week…” (Which usually means the preacher hunted for it online!)  Just give it.  Don’t say, “Here’s an illustration that will make this notion clear…”, instead just say, “It’s like…” and say it.

There are exceptions, sometimes it helps to wisely frame or set up some element of a message.  Most of the time seamless is more effective.  When you have this kind of content in a message, think through ahead of time which will work better.  Try it both ways.  Then go with the most effective for the listeners.