Whenever you are delivering a sermon, it is appropriate to use illustrations that help people to see what you are saying. True is the saying––a picture is worth a thousand words.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon compared sermon illustrations to windows that let light stream into a darkened room so you can see what is inside. Illustrations do the same––they help illuminate the truth in your preaching.
How Illustrations Help
An effective illustration will allow the listener to see the truth that you are giving more clearly. They help clarify what you are saying. A good illustration can also be memorable and help people retain the truth.
Further, an excellent illustration can be arresting and add a certain wow factor to your preaching as they capture the attention of the listener.
Kinds of Illustrations
What kind of illustrations can you use? What normally comes to our minds first is telling a story. People, by and large, love to hear a story. It can especially help them see the truth being presently taught.
There are also metaphors––the Puritans were world-class at using metaphors like the ones found in Scripture: “As the deer pants after the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God” (Psalm 42:1). With metaphors, you can paint a picture in the listener’s mind. That, in and of itself, becomes an illustration.
In addition, there is the use of a brief quotation that can be memorable and help the listener see what you are saying. One advantage of giving a quote is that it takes less time to give a brief citation than it does to tell a story.
Where to Find Illustrations
So, where can you find illustrations? First, the greatest source is the Bible itself. With a biblical illustration, you are using Scripture to illustrate Scripture. There is a higher authority that comes with giving a biblical illustration, because it is the inspired word of God. I would encourage you to begin there.
Second, history is another great place to find illustrations for your preaching. What I like about using history is that it has a broad appeal to a wide range of people. There is also a gravitas in depicting a historical scene that rises above the level of triviality. It could come from church history or world history. Historical illustrations hold the interest of most people.
Third, current events and culture can be effective sources for an illustration. The world of entertainment, politics, sports, music, and finance providing interesting illustrations. You should diversify and draw from different parts of the surrounding society. Using contemporary illustrations can help show the relevance of what you are preaching.
Fourth, experiences drawn from your own life are good illustrations. They can help you be transparent with people and seem like a real person as you preach. Using yourself can make people feel like they know you. They feel like they can be connected with you. Personal illustrations help establish rapport and a sense of commonality with your congregation.
Fifth, science provides excellent illustrations that are timeless. The Bible certainly uses them. Charles Spurgeon and other preachers from centuries past were skilled in using the sun, moon, stars, wind, and nature as sermon illustrations. There is a universal appeal to scientific illustrations that is appealing to most.
You can include geography, oceanic illustrations, and other topographical illustrations that cross cultural boundaries, and are true to all people no matter where they live. In all these guidelines, it is important for you to be well-read. As you read in many different areas, you will be able to draw from your reading.
Practical Principles for Using Illustrations
Here are twelve general principles to help shape and direct your use of illustrations, as you prepare your sermons.
One, do not use too many. I think one imbalance of many American preachers is an overuse of illustrations. Oftentimes, the older a man is, the more stories he tells. I think you need be aware to limit the number of your illustrations.
Second, make the point clear. It is important to give a few explanatory sentences immediately after you give an illustration, to explain the point you are making. You may even need to add a sentence that sets up the illustration to prepare your audience. It will be clear in your mind why you are giving this illustration, but you need to state the obvious for the listeners.
Choose Illustrations Wisely
Third, do not glamorize sin. Do not glorify sin to make it sound appealing. Sometimes people in their pre-conversion testimony give such a glamour to sin, that it almost sounds enticing for people to want to partake in something like that.
Be aware of whatever movies or TV shows you may quote. You do not want to use an illustration that encourages someone to go see that movie or TV show, if there is clearly objectionable content.
Fourth, do not be the hero of your own story. If you are giving a personal illustration, it is better to be self-deprecating, not self-exalting. People will relate to you better if your illustrations are not promoting yourself. I would encourage you, as you use yourself as an illustration, to use more failures than successes.
Fifth, keep it brief. Do not let your illustration drag longer than it needs to be. Restrain the use of details in your illustration. Get to the point of the story without being sidetracked and giving superfluous information. Be as concise as possible.
Avoid Repetition and Controversy
Sixth, do not repeat the same illustration over and over. It is insulting to people to be forced to listen to the same illustration multiple times. Remember what illustrations you have already used and avoid their incessant repetition.
Seventh, vary the kinds that you use. Vary the sources from which you draw your illustrations. Every illustration should not be drawn from the same well, such as from culture. Nor should every illustration be drawn from church history. Every illustration certainly cannot be a personal illustration. Diversity is important.
Eighth, be sensitive to certain groups in your church. There could be minorities, ethnic groups, or subcultures who may be hurt by you using a particular illustration. Be careful not to alienate any group of people from your preaching. Be wise. I have learned this the hard way. I have put my foot in my mouth in the pulpit by being insensitive to a particular age group, for which I had to later apologize.
Ninth, receive permission if it involves a person in church. If I use one of my children, for example, I need to check in with them so that they do not find themselves embarrassed in the middle of the sermon. If it is someone else in the church, ask, “Would you mind if I mentioned your situation as an illustration for my sermon?”
Fact-Check and Guard Your Content
Tenth, if in doubt, do not give it. As a preacher, your words hold extraordinary weight, maybe more than what you realize. When you are standing in the pulpit, be extra careful in your use of humor. If you have any hesitation, do not say it.
Eleven, have your facts straight. If you are using a historical example, you may need to do some research in order to make certain that you have the right century or the proper dates.
There are people in the pews with smartphones who can fact-check you in the middle of your sermon. If you have made a mistake, they will find it hard to listen to the rest of the sermon, because they will be thinking about the mistake that you made in the illustration. Check your facts.
Twelfth, consider writing out your illustration. I often do that for brevity’s sake, to prevent me from rambling. I realize you cannot write out every illustration, and admittedly, a certain spontaneity may enhance your skill in giving it. But I often write it out so I can have the information correct, and so I can give it with an economy of words.
As you use illustrations in your preaching, I believe these twelve points can be helpful to you. May God grant you wisdom in the pulpit as you illustrate the truths of His word.