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?

Illustrations and Interest

Illustrations are an interesting subject.  Actually, my concern is that often illustrations are seen as the source of interest in a message.  Therefore the best speakers, that is, the most interesting, are those who seem to be a repository of well-researched illustrations.  But here’s my concern – do we rely on illustrations to be interesting?

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we are relying on illustrations to be interesting.  What does this imply?  Does it imply that really entering into the text as we preach is boring?  (That is to say, explaining, understanding, encountering, experiencing the text is actually boring?)  Or does it imply that actually we often aren’t really engaging and entering into a text at all?

In some preaching you do get the sense that the text serves as an introduction to the next illustration.  Personally, I don’t believe the text itself is boring and in need of our help to make it interesting.  I do believe that a lot of preaching somehow seeks to explain texts without really entering into them.  The text is offered at arms length as exhibit A, but is not a living and active revelation in which the preaching thereof engages the whole listener in an encounter with God.  (I’m not really arguing for some kind of neo-orthodox “text becoming word” concept here, but I am suggesting that the Bible is written with affective and emotive function in the different biblical genre that requires it to be somehow experienced and well-understood – as opposed to “mentally understood” from a safe distance leaving the heart largely untouched.)

So no illustrations then?  I’m not saying that.  If their main function is to offer interest, then I would suggest revisiting the text some more and discovering something more of its wonder as engaging inspired revelatory literature.  But what if the illustration serves to explain some aspect of the message, or help to validate or “prove” the truth of the text, or assist the listeners in imagining effective application of the text?  By all means, use explanations, or proofs (maybe a better term would be supports or validations), or applications.  Personally I prefer to call them what they are – explanations, or supports, or applications.  If I call them “illustrations” then I might be tempted to fall into the illustration equals interest trap.  For many, that is what illustrations are.  They don’t have to be.  May we convince people of the inherent interest value, and personal value, of the Word of God.  If we fail to do that, what is it we are doing again?

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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.

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.