By Daniel L. Akin
Few things are more difficult for a preacher than finding the right illustration, using it in the right way, and telling it at the right time. However, few things will yield greater fruit. In Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon rightly noted,
“You may build up laborious definitions and explanations and yet leave your hearers in the dark as to your meaning; but a thoroughly suitable metaphor [illustration] will wonderfully clear the sense.”
Many people see preaching as dull, boring and irrelevant. The ideas are complex, theological jargon is unclear, and little if any specific direction is provided for commitment and action. A good illustration can mean the difference between an average sermon and an outstanding sermon. It may be the difference between a sermon that changes lives and one that does not.
Good illustrations serve several important purposes. These purposes fall into both theological and practical categories. It is not surprising to find some overlap with sermon introduction and conclusions. In fact, illustrations are often the key to the effectiveness of both.
- Illustrations inform and instruct. Our goal as gospel heralds is to teach our people the ways of God. The use of illustration recognizes that people more readily grab hold of pictures and images than they do propositions. However, the purpose of a picture or an image is to shed light on the proposition or principle that undergirds the picture.
- Illustrations explain and clarify. Explanatory power resides in good illustrations that make the truths of the Bible apparent. Good illustrations will evoke an “Aha” moment or provide a “Now I see” experience.
- Illustrations can help the preacher connect and identify with his people. Good communicators learn how to touch the souls of their congregation and take hold of their hearts. This personal touch is a natural component of good illustrations. You and your people come together as you weigh the issues of real life that touch all of us.
- Illustrations are a tremendous aid to memorization and recall. People remember stories. Remembering our stories or our striking and memorable statements will pave the road back to our exposition and aid in its recall.
- Illustrations help to capture and regain attention. The average mind begins to wander after extensive and lengthy discourse. Good illustrations help refocus attention on the message. My friend Alistair Begg says if he has a really good illustration, he allows it to “float” along with the message until it is needed to recapture the attention of his congregation. Having listened to Alistair many times, we do not think he struggles to keep the attention of his audience. Still, his point about the usefulness of a powerful illustration is right on target.
- Illustrations motivate, persuade, and convince. Illustrations are not meant merely to clarify; they are primarily meant to motivate. Scripture teaches us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27; Deut 6:5). Engaging exposition with good illustrations moves the whole person as the Holy Spirit through biblical truth impacts that person’s total being.
- Illustrations allow for mental relaxation. The mind naturally shifts gears when listening to a story. The need for intense concentration is lessened, and listeners are allowed to catch their “listening breath.”
- Illustrations help our people see the immediate relevance of the biblical text for their lives. The Bible is relevant. We do not have to make it relevant. However, making it relevant and showing it to be relevant are two different things. “Does God have a word for me today?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” Good illustrations will make this answer abundantly clear.
- Illustrations personalize and particularize the general/universal truths revealed in the Bible. When we structure and outline the biblical text, we want to capture that which is true any place, any time, and under any circumstances. Illustrations allow us to take universal and eternal truth and show how it impacts and changes lives now. Illustrations reveal how God’s truth changed the lives of others and how it can change our lives as we respond to the same truth in repentance and faith.
- Illustrations make biblical truth believable. Sometimes the Bible seems otherworldly. However, God is in the business of changing lives and making things new today (2 Cor 5:17). Stories of real life transformations reveal the beauty of God’s amazing grace found in King Jesus.
- Illustrations create interest. The experience and stories of others fascinate people. A good illustration can capture the ear of a listener who had every intention of tuning you out and taking a nap.
- Illustrations explain biblical doctrine and personal duty in an understandable and compelling way. Good preaching impacts the whole person. It recognizes that the mind, heart, will, and emotions are intertwined and interrelated. It understands that what impacts the heart and emotions can and should find its way to the mind and the will. It provides what I call a visual commentary on the inspired text. It allows us to see what God is doing.
Illustrations bring clarity to biblical truth and reveal how God’s Word works and has worked in the lives of others. They help us turn the ear into an eye so that our listeners see biblical truth more clearly. Illustrations make abstract truths concrete.
Humans are visual by nature, and we live in a visual age. Crafting “mental pictures” taps into this reality and engages the emotional aspect of human nature. Good illustrations move the emotions, stir the heart, and heighten our senses. We become more alert and sensitive to what is being said.
The fact that we emphasize the teaching of Bible stories to our children is instructive. They remember them. The aid to memorization makes these stories a valuable and powerful ally both for children and adults.
Adapted from Engaging Exposition (B&H Publishing Group, 2011)