I thought Spinal Tap was pretty funny. I’m not sure if pastors are supposed to admit that. One of the classic scenes is when lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, shows his amp that goes up to 11. It gives him that extra boost he needs to rock it out just a little more. (I once had a window air conditioner that went up to 11. Seriously.)
A lot of pastors rock their illustrations out at about a 3 or a 4. Which can hardly be called “rocking out”. When your illustration falls flat, there are at least three things that go wrong:
1. You chose your illustration because it was interesting. But it had little to do with what you were preaching about. This results in those “What’s the point?” looks on the faces of your people.
2. You didn’t have a goal for your illustration. You inserted an illustration because sermons are supposed to have them. Somewhere your preaching profs are pleased, but your people remain unimpacted by them.
3. You put the illustration in the wrong spot. More on this in a sec.
Each of these mistakes misses one of the three keys to an effective illustration. The keys are knowing: 1) what needs to be illustrated, 2) the purpose for illustrating it, and 3) where to put it.
Few pastors realize the importance of where you place the illustration. It’s time for you to break out of the rigid explanation-interpretation-application mold. Different purposes for an illustration require a different place for it.
The effectiveness of your illustrations will ascend to a whole new level (all the way up to 11) when you know what to illustrate, the purpose for illustrating it, and where to put the illustration. Here are five ways to combine these three keys.
1. Place your illustration before your point (the where) to prepare (the purpose) your audience for something that is completely off their theological radar (the what).
For example, how do you introduce inaugurated eschatology? I say, start with Christmas presents.
“When you’re a kid – and maybe even when you’re an adult – you can’t wait to open your Christmas gifts. They sit under the decorated Christmas tree, tantalizing you as you wonder what’s in the box. They are your gifts because they have your name on them, but the day hasn’t come for you to open them and fully enjoy them.
It’s similar with the gift of salvation we have in Christ. It belongs to us, but the day hasn’t come when we fully experience that salvation. We have it already, but not yet.”
When you tee up hard theological concepts with an illustration, you create the categories your people need in order to receive the brand new information. People understand inaugurated eschatology, they just don’t know that they understand it. But if you lead with the theological concept, you’ll lose their attention until you illustrate it, in which case they won’t really know what you’re illustrating.
2. Place your illustration after your point (the where) to ease (the purpose) the knee-jerk reaction to something controversial (the what).
Sometimes people need confidence that what you’re saying is reasonable before you tell them it’s biblical. Predestination, God’s just wrath, and gender complementarity are topics that come to mind that would require this kind of illustration. Make your point, and then provide an illustration to support it.
You could set them up for your counter-intuitive point with an illustration (a la #1, above), but I find that ruffling feathers is effective for garnering attention when you don’t do it merely for the sake of shock value.
3. Place your illustration within your explanation section (the where) to relate (the purpose) foreign Bible-times phenomena (the what) to something in our world today.
On the one hand, this is homiletics 101. And yet this is something that I don’t hear nearly enough of. The more we pastors live in the biblical world, the more accustomed we are to that culture, which causes us not to feel the texts foreign-ness as much. Be diligent to briefly illustrate anything that is not obvious at the face value of the text.
4. Place your illustration between your explanation and application (the where) to motivate (the purpose) God’s people to change how they live (the what).
This is the textbook place to locate your illustration. But remember, the placement of the illustration has to match your goal for the illustration. What is your aim when you follow the typical explanation-illustration-application model? To motivate your audience to live out what you just explained. You have to affect people’s hearts before you redirect their hands.
5. Place your illustration after your application (the where) to demonstrate (the purpose) how to apply your main point (the what).
You don’t have to do all the heavy applicational lifting for your people. Take a pass on the “three steps to apply this to your life” method. But you do need get your people imagining contexts in their life where your message needs to bring change. Use non-cliché, original, risky, raw, and vulnerable examples to illustrate ways for them to apply God’s word.
Turning up the volume on your mic won’t get your illustrations across. The more I grow as a preacher, the more I have seen precision lead to greater impact in every facet of the sermon, but especially illustrations. Perhaps precision, not relevance or interest or entertainment value, is the nob you need to crank up to 11 to increase the impact of your illustrations.