3 Types of Effective Sermon Illustrations and How to Use Them

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.


  1. Casey Lewis says:

    Great resources here. Thanks for being OCD, it is really going to help me!

  2. michael frazier says:

    ok im new at this but after the first 6 then what(true story names changed)

    A dairy farm in the sleepy out skirts of Ferndale
    Two gentlemen 19 or 20 in age, in suits white shirts and ties were knocking on the front door Ms Floret was in the back of the house in the kitchen trying to can vegetables.
    Her 11years old son comes running in theirs two men at the door mom and they want to talk about Jesus can I let them in, mom please! Years ago around 19 or 20 years, Ms Floret gave up a child for adoption no one new well at least not the 11 year old son
    Well Ms floret was tired from canning all day and thought it wood mean she gets to sit down and rest wile they talked about Jesus
    So she told her son to ask them to come to the back door and teach us about Jesus(Like some other ladies 19 to 20 years ago Ms floret was having trouble caring for her previous kids she was raising by her self )Years ago around 19 or 20 years, Ms Floret gave up a child for adoption no one new well at least not the 11 year old son she moved up in life but her old sins still haunted her time to time.
    Well do you know GOD sent his son to die for her sins on the cross not only that he sent her adopted out son to come and teach here and help her to repent and be baptized and be for given for all her sins and she got to meet the son that grew up to be a missionary of god.