Because I believed the #1 myth regarding illustrations, I was one of those preachers who never bothered with them. I was heavy on explanation, light on application, and neglected illustrations.
What is the myth? That illustrations are for explaining your passage. I figured if I did a good enough job teaching the meaning of the text, I could avoid the trouble of thinking up illustrations.
Then Bryan Chapell convinced me that illustrations are not to help people understand the passage. They are to motivate people to apply the passage. You have to connect emotion to cognition before you get action.
There is no motion without emotion. It’s as true in the underdog’s locker room at halftime as it is in your pews on Sunday.
3 Effective Sermon Illustrations
In my journey toward being a more effective illustrator of God’s Word (and I am at the beginning of said journey), I have utilized these three types of illustrations the most.
1. The One-Paragraph Story. This is the traditional, textbook illustration. Little stories are effective when the conflict, climax, and resolution of the story make God’s people feel what is at stake in the passage. In your illustration you want them thinking, “What’s going to happen to so-and-so?” Then when the story is over, you turn the tables on them and ask, “What’s going to happen to you?”
My OCD has compelled me to develop a formula to fit this type of illustration into one paragraph:
Sentence #1: Provide a setting.
Sentence #2: Develop a problem/conflict.
Sentence #3: Lead to a climax. Make your people wonder what will happen.
Sentence #4: The resolution.
Sentence #5: Show the audience how the illustration exposes their fallen condition in a similar manner as your sermon text.
Sentence #6: Demonstrate how the Triune God saves the day in the gospel.
I’ve used this formula for personal experiences, examples from movies or novels or history, and even examples from bugs on Planet Earth.
2. The One-Sentence Analogy. One-sentence analogies illustrate two things effectively. One is the cultural context of a passage. You don’t have to go into great detail of what life was like back then. Simply compare or contrast the norms of back then with today.
My favorite way to use an analogy is figuratively through similes and metaphors. Use these for surprise, irony, conviction, or humor. I recently heard this one: “When God tells Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals,’ he’s saying, ‘Don’t track your dirt on my carpet.’” The effect is in the pithiness.
3. The Three-Example List. Lists of examples effectively illustrate contexts to apply the passage. Pastors are under immense pressure to prove that what they preach is practical. Instead of giving steps for application (they won’t remember them anyway), provide a quick list of examples to show how one might apply the message in various contexts. They can work out the steps on their own.
The effect is in the brevity
Don’t spend too much time telling your illustrations. What could be a one-paragraph story often grows into an entire page; what could be said in a sentence is often given a paragraph; what could be provided in a list often develops into a nuanced how-to strategy.
The net result is that we quench the Spirit by focusing more on the illustration than the Scriptures we illustrate. Therefore, make your illustrations as brief as possible, and only as long as necessary.