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…)

We Are Not Performers

Whenever we preach we will be tempted to perform – our flesh will see to it. We know it is not supposed to be a performance, and we may feel strongly opposed to any notion of entertainment, but still the temptation is always there.

We do not preach to fill time. We preach to stir people and see lives being transformed by God. And we will notice how dull presentation has less impact than enthusiastic, or passionate presentation. In fact, we may notice quite a number of things that seem to make a difference, and before we know it, performance can sneak into our ministry.

Here are three ways to protect the pulpit from you . . . I mean, three ways to avoid performing:

1. Let preparation marinade. Last minute preparation can lead to pre-sermon desperation. In that state we may start to believe that certain strategies and tactics are our only hope. (Last minute preparation is sometimes necessary, but how quickly we forget that God understands that and is so gloriously gracious!) As much as possible, give your preparation time to soak in. Generally plan your schedule so that you are not living in the desperation zone. Let your messages, and even your series, soak in so that they become part of who you are. Then instead of “lines through an actor” it has more opportunity to be “truth through personality.” Preach what you truly believe, not what you only latterly found or formulated.

2. Avoid the natural presenter’s fallacy. I just made up that label, but what do I mean? I mean the idea that if I prepare less then my presentation will come across more naturally. Fallacy. Prepare less and you will come across unprepared. Not preparing on purpose is a path that leads to meandering introductions, illogical transitions, incomplete thoughts, unhelpful illustrations, mistakes in explanation, missed objections, circling and looking for a landing spot, etc. Put in the work: craft your message, sweat during preparation, wrestle, pray, think, think more and talk it through with others. That kind of work does not lead to performance, it leads to better preaching. In fact, good preparation should lead to more genuine, from the heart, textually solid and sensitively targeted preaching.

3. Pray as if this matters. Over time we can grow really complacent. I’ve done this before and I can do it again. Really? Stop the “bless my sermon” prayers and pray as if you are actually reliant on God. Wrestle with God who is at work in you. Persist in wrestling for those who will be listening. There is a great spiritual battle raging around you and around them. Don’t step into the pulpit to fight a battle you have not first heavily engaged, and even won, in the prayer closet.

What would you add?

Asking Better Questions

As preachers we often think in terms of giving answers. After all, we are the ones who need to study for hours in order to communicate God’s Word in a way that emphasizes its relevance to the people in front of us. Here are a few quick thoughts, not about answers, but about questions.

1. Every unit of thought in the Bible is answering a discernible question. In preaching terms, this would be the Subject-Question – that is, what is the passage about? We need to discern that question in order to then identify the answer being given – the Complement-Answer, that is, what is it saying about that? We will always help people with our preaching more effectively if we discern the implicit question being answered by the text we are preaching.

2. Every listener of a sermon has questions. Some may be technical theological questions stirred by hearing the Bible passage read. Most will be more mundane, but critical: why should I listen to you? Is this message relevant to my life? Is there any hope for someone like me? We need to make sure we are not so soaked in academic thinking that we preach only answers to questions that most will not be asking.

3. Our culture is training us to be controlled by certain questions. Take the situation we find ourselves in today. Our culture has proactively shaped the question that dominates our thinking and therefore our lives. Where the question maybe used to be, “how can I be happy?” or “what will satisfy me?” or whatever variation of self-concerned worldviews were dominant, now the question seems to be: “what must we do to stay safe?” In just a few months our culture has made this question absolutely dominate the thoughts of the people in our church.

4. The questions controlling our minds must be questioned. Identify what is driving the people you speak to each Sunday. Then question it. Overtly. In fact, let the Bible’s values offer a transformative interrogation of assumptions that nobody dares to question in our culture. For example, how many biblical passages would support something different driving us in these days? Surely there is more to life than just trying to stay alive? Merely articulating that query could stir significant change in people. Yesterday I preached the final message in our Christmas series and we landed on Simeon and his “Now dismiss me…” prayer. His eyes had seen God’s incarnate, controversial, global salvation and he was ready to die. In a time when all are overwhelmingly concerned about staying alive, it was very timely to ask a Simeon-shaped question: “are you ready to die?” and the other side of that same coin: “what does it mean to really live?”

5. As preachers we must continually grow in our ability to ask questions. We need to question the biblical text. We must question the values and thoughts of our listeners. We should be asking lots of questions about the paradigms and agenda driving our culture. We would do well to question our own assumptions, influences, etc. And when we preach, let’s look to not only prepare using better questions ourselves, but also help our listeners to also ask better questions too.

Christmas Wonder

One of the greatest dangers we face in ministry is losing the wonder of what we speak about. The demands of ministry are always high, and this year, maybe even higher. There are the expectations of people, the burden of creativity (only two pairs of Gospel chapters to preach from!), the pastoral concerns that don’t lessen in the dark days of December, extra responsibilities and expectations at home, and so on. How easy it is to lose the wonder of Christmas!

I don’t want to try to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all this Christmas. I just want to suggest that we do. What will it take? Time with family – proper time? Extra guarded time alone with God? Is there music that triggers your awe at the Incarnation? Or a good book? Whatever it takes.

As we head into this unusual Christmas season, there are definitely pressures building on us. Let’s look to be captured by the grace of God as he chose to step into our messy world. Let’s look to be gripped by the hope held out in the Christmas story for a dark hurting world full of sinners – sinners ruled by sinners, threatened by death, worried about issues local and global (true then as it is true now!) Let’s look to be stirred afresh by the history-hinge of the Incarnation.

Ponder the first Christmas in all its gritty reality. Ponder the Incarnation in all its theological wonder. Ponder the questions raised for the first characters as they watched it unfold. Ponder the answers given to any willing to probe the truths of biblical revelation. Ponder the journey Jesus took from Bethlehem to the Cross. Ponder the everlasting nature of Christ taking on flesh. Ponder the hope that we have of seeing him one day for ourselves. Ponder. Ignite the wonder. Whatever it takes.

Preaching to Students in a Pandemic

[Thank you to Peter Dray of UCCF for asking me to write this post, which he included in Connect, September 2020.]

Preaching to students is one of the very best ministries. But what about preaching during an unprecedented pandemic when many of our teaching opportunities are virtual?

Here are six quick thoughts that may be helpful – three on what they need to hear, and three on communicating online.

1. What is true now is always true, so the message does not change.

2020 does not feel normal at all! There is uncertainty all around us, political turmoil, people divided against each other, and a world living in fear of dying. But that description was also true last year and will be true five years from now. 2020 has just made some things feel more vivid.

God loves this broken and hurting world. He loves it so much that he sent his Son on the greatest ever rescue mission. He loves it so much that He has sent His people out, empowered by the Spirit, to proclaim the glorious news of Jesus. So, since the need is as great as ever, our message does not change.

2. What is felt now is far more vivid than before, so speak from God’s heart to theirs.

Since the comfortable culture bubble has been burst, people are potentially more prepared for a message of life and hope. They are feeling concerned, fearful, confused, upset, and vulnerable. When people are feeling more intensely, we can’t simply present cold hard facts and expect them to connect. Yes, our message is a set of truths, but those truths come from the loving heart of God. Seek to speak from God’s heart to theirs: sensitively, passionately, directly, and clearly.

3. What is needed is today’s good news, so speak the truth with targeted relevance.

Don’t just preach a message from last year. The gospel is, by definition, highly relevant – that is why Jesus became a human in the first place! Let’s look for ways to speak into the lives of our listeners with the highly relevant message of what God’s love has done for us in Christ.

4. Anticipate the difference of preaching without hearers in the room.

When you speak to a group of students there is energy in the room, sometimes distraction, often responsiveness. When you speak to the back of your phone or a webcam, the room feels really dead! Know that you will find the experience more draining than normal preaching and be sure to go to God as a top priority to make sure you let Him minister to you before you try to minister to others (like Mary in Luke 10:38-42).

5. Adjust your content to consider two crowds.

The students listening to you may be the same as before, but there is a difference: they’re no longer sitting together in a big group. Your style needs to be more personal and direct. Focus less on addressing the student group as a crowd, and more on speaking directly to your hearers as individuals.

At the same time, given that whatever is put online can be seen by anyone, remember another crowd too. You probably won’t go viral and be watched by millions, but you still need to be careful. Do not to speak carelessly, even in humour, in a way that could be clipped or misappropriated by antagonists to our faith.

6. Apply some basic principles to communicate effectively to camera.

Try to get your camera at eye level, beware of a distracting background, and get as much natural light as possible. Get closer to the camera as if you are on a Skype call with a friend, not standing several metres away as you might in a meeting. Learn to make eye contact in a single lens (not easy).

Test your setup before you preach. Trim content and get to the point quicker. Your viewers have just a screen, rather than the energy of a room full of people. It’s harder to concentrate on a preacher on screen, so do anything you can to help them listen.

And one bonus thought – be sure to get helpful feedback from others and watch what you are expecting others to watch… we are all on a steep learning curve this year, but what we have to share is so worth sharing!

When Preaching Is Restricted

This year has thrown up all sorts of challenges for the ministry of preaching. Many of us have been learning quickly how to adjust to preaching to a camera, taking church online, etc. But still, something is missing. Maybe we can’t gather, or maybe the gathering is restricted. Is this restriction actually curtailing the work of God?

The Book of Acts offers us an encouraging section to read when we feel our preaching is restricted. As you know, Acts shows the progress of the witness of the Apostles from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (see 1:8).

The Jerusalem section, chapters 1-7, is thrilling. We see the church birthed and growing rapidly. We get to enjoy the boldness of Peter’s preaching, Peter and John before the authorities, even Stephen’s courageous final proclamation. It feels like preaching to crowds is central to the growth of the church. But opposition is building along the way. The apostles are warned in chapter 4, beaten in chapter 5 and then there is the execution of Stephen in chapter 7.

This brings us to the middle section of Acts, the Judea/Samaria section, if you like. It stretches from Acts 8 to Acts 12, where the summary statement is found in v24: “the word of God increased and multiplied.”

So what do we find in Acts 8-12? We see the gospel spreading to Samaritans and then Gentiles – a massively significant step of progression. But we also see a change of ministry opportunity. After the stoning of Stephen, we read this: “…there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (8:1,4)

They went about evangelising – that’s what it is saying here.  They couldn’t bring friends to big gatherings in Jerusalem to listen to a great apostle preaching.  They were scattered.  Challenging circumstances, scattered believers, speaking about Jesus.

We immediately get the example of Philip who took the challenging circumstances as sovereign appointment and proclaimed Christ in Samaria.  He spoke to crowds, but he also spoke to an individual in a chariot.  Normal followers of Jesus speaking to people about Jesus wherever they found themselves.

In these chapters we see the conversion and commissioning of Saul to carry the message to the nations, and we see Peter being coached by God to understand how the gospel had to move beyond traditional Jewish boundaries in order to spread.  But we also see normal believers representing Jesus.  People like Tabitha/Dorcas, who was full of good works and acts of charity.  In their words and in their deeds, they evangelised wherever God put them.

We know from Acts 12:24 that the word of God increased and multiplied, even away from Jerusalem, away from the big preaching events, away from the primarily apostolic pulpit.  But there is one thing we have to recognize to really grasp what was going on then, and what is going on today. Challenging circumstances that scattered believers who then spoke about Jesus. 

It sounds like a fruitful formula.  None of us want the challenging circumstances, but when they come we see how believers find themselves in unique situations to speak of Jesus.  So why do we hesitate today?  Why aren’t we confident that our congregations will all gossip the gospel enthusiastically in these challenging times?  Is it a matter of training, of example, of spiritual gifting? Perhaps, but not primarily. 

Perhaps it is more to do with Acts 8-12’s truth not gripping us as it should. Luke returns for a summary of the ministry of the scattered believers in Acts 11:19-27.  It tells us that the post-Stephen persecution scatterees travelled to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.  It tells us that they spoke the word.  It tells us that the message of Jesus spread to Greek speakers as well as Jews. But notice verse 21:

“And the hand of the Lord was with them.”

That is massive. They needed that. They were witnesses in Judea and Samaria because they had received power when the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). They were able to effectively do their part, not because they were really good at it, but because God did his part.

The same is true today. You may not be able to preach to a normal sized crowd this Sunday or next month. The typical autumn and winter events at the church may not be possible this year due to Covid-19. God’s plan may be to place you and me, and the people in our churches, into divinely ordained one-on-one situations where we can speak of Jesus.

Challenging circumstances that scatter believers who then speak of Jesus to anyone that crosses our path. And we can do so with confidence because the hand of the Lord is with us!

If you and your church folks are convinced that the hand of the Lord is with us this week, what difference will that make? Maybe we will discover that God’s plans are not on pause. And even if the pulpit is partially paused, God’s great plan to reach this world for Jesus is marching forwards, even in October 2020!

7 Waste Points on Your Preaching Clock

Some preachers are incredibly aware of the clock as they preach.  For manuscript readers, the clock can be entirely predictable.  For others of us, time tends to move past quickly and sometimes erratically.  It is helpful to figure out where the time actually goes.

Here is one approach that could be helpful.

Step 1 – Before preaching try to anticipate how long the message will be, and how long will be spent on each section of the message (introduction, background, first point, second point, etc.)

Step 2 – After preaching try to evaluate how long the message was (if possible don’t check your watch!), and write down how long you felt you spent on each section of the message.

Step 3 – Using an audio or video recording, take notes on actual timings of each section and the whole message.

With these three steps under your belt, you are now in a position to evaluate the whole process.  Where did reality (step 3) differ from steps 1 and 2?  You may find that you are fairly careful with your timings, but lost track of time in one section.  Or you may find that time is lost repeatedly throughout the message.

Here are seven common trouble spots:

1. Introduction – Sometimes we can struggle to generate momentum at the start of a message.  Maybe more crafting and rehearsal is needed for a strong start.

2. Textual Background – Some of us get very excited when we have a chance to dive back into the biblical world and we end up giving more background than is needed for this message.  What is the most pertinent and helpful information for this message to communicate?

3. Illustrations – Sometimes illustrations just need too much time to explain, especially if our listeners look less familiar with the context of the illustration than we anticipated (beware of needing to tell whole Bible stories to make sense of a biblical illustration, or telling a whole movie plot, plus comments about spoilers, for the sake of a movie illustration).

4. Humour – Perhaps illustrations are ok, but when you say something a little bit humorous you can end up circling around that moment for too long?

5. Explanation – Some love nothing more than making sense of a biblical text for our listeners, but are we labouring the point longer than the majority need?  We would be surprised how long it takes to be truly heard, but how quickly we can annoy our listeners if we lack momentum.

6. Transitions – Perhaps your content is crisp, but your transitions involve too much review of earlier content?  It is easy for time to drift as we try not to rush ahead too quickly at transitions – a good motivation, but may need some work to do effectively.

7. Conclusion – Would your message be better if you simply landed the plane more directly?

How Does Preaching Change Lives? – Jonathan Thomas

Here is a great little three minute clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Thank you to Jonathan for the interview for Cor Deo Online – it has proved to be a very helpful series of clips for this site too!