There are many important components to a sermon. I would argue all of them are important: the introduction, the body, the conclusion, the exegesis, the examples, the supporting texts.
And the illustrations.
Many years ago, when I was young and stupid, I didn’t see the need to spend much time on illustrations. My position was, “I’m not going to mash-up your peas and carrots for you. Feed yourself.”
Young. And. Stupid.
That was then, this is now.
One goal those of us tasked with preaching have is growing people from a milk to solid food diet. Peter acknowledged the need for all to grow (1 Peter 2:2) while Paul acknowledged the difficulty we sometimes face (1 Corinthians 3:21). Good illustrations are not used to water-down the truth; they are used to clarify it, to make it understandable. They can help people get from milk to meat.
Illustration can be serious, reflective, humorous, personal, abstract, visual, verbal, physical, or interactive. They are what help the listener move from the broad to the specific, from “out there” to “right here,” from the theoretical to the practical.
What are some good sources of illustrations that will help listeners understand the truths we are presenting?
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:6 and 11 about Old Testament stories:
Now these things took place as examples for us, so that we will not desire evil things as they did…These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction. (CSB)
Using stories from the Old Testament or the Gospels provide clear illustrations while expanding the biblical knowledge of the average listener.
Current Events and the News
Most of us are consumers of news. When an illustration begins with, “I was reading just this week…” or “Many of you may have seen in the news…” or “This cover story speaks to exactly what we are studying” you tap into a pool of knowledge shared by most of your listeners.
One thing to remember about using current events and recent news items is they may have to be updated if preaching the same sermon at a later date.
Personal Life Experiences
Life stories are often immensely entertaining ways of illustrating sermons. We all have crazy things happen during the course of our sojourn on planet Earth. These are quite effective when people in the audience have share a similar experience:
“Have any of you ever forgotten to pay a bill?”
“Do you remember your first traffic ticket?”
“I remember my first crush. I was in 3rd grade. She was in 12th.”
Often our young kids seem like wells of illustrations, but I offer this one warning: as your kids grow older, drop them from your illustration source list. Many PK’s struggle enough in the role. Being pointed out during a sermon can be extremely uncomfortable for them. Illustrations that recall some negative aspect of their lives should be omitted completely. (Getting permission in advance may clear the way, but I would make those kids of illustrations very few and far between, if ever.)
Jesus referenced well-known items from his time to teach biblical truth. Many of those are called parables. Paul referenced poems and cultural touchstones familiar to his audiences, whether in person or via epistle.
While not everything in popular culture is appropriate for a sermon illustration, these items often touch the largest swath of people at the same time. There’s a reason it’s called “popular culture.” You need not watch everything on TV or listen to every song to make effective references.
“Well, the Super Bowl is next week…”
“During last month’s Grammy awards…”
“During his acceptance speech for the Best Actor Oscar, ____ said this:”
Using pop-culture neither affirms nor places undue emphasis on things some might otherwise avoid. It does, however, allow us to use well-known points of reference to drive home a biblical truth.
Many people love history, many people consider it boring. There’s no better way to use it, though, than for illustrating biblical truth. True stories of heroism, sacrifice, danger, rescue, chivalry, treachery, kingdoms rising and falling, lives being changed, faith, and the effects of sin are powerful.
As Scott Slayton noted in his review of Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic:
[It] is filled with wonderful illustrative material for sermons, as is most other good works of history. Garfield’s affair shows us the danger of breaking our marital vows. Guiteau’s pride and presumption shows us how pride can wreck our lives. The physician attending to Garfield refused to listen to other council when he could have saved the President if the advice of other doctors had been heeded. He stands forever as a warning against closing our minds to new ideas and stubbornly refusing to listen to the wisdom of others who are around us.
Well-known Fictional Characters
Most people have not read Oliver Twist. Most people do know he was an orphan in a Charles Dickens book of the same name. Saying, “Maybe you grew up like Oliver Twist eating gruel, or worse” will find a ready audience.
Many people have either read the Lord of the Rings or seen the films. Using “like a hobbit being chased by orcs” as an illustration of Christians being pursued by Satan will ring true.
Take care on this source: fictional characters are not universally known. The story of Romeo and Juliet is more recognizable in the average church than that of Hamlet, while Jayber Crow—in most instances—is more esoteric than James Bond or Katniss Everdeen.
Do you have examples of illustrations that worked particularly well for a sermon? An example of one you thought would be a home-run that was a strike-out?
Featured image credit, edited for size.