It’s a challenge for theologically inclined preachers like you and me to illustrate well. I’ve grown very, very slowly in this regard. You’re probably not as a late of a bloomer as me.
I recently went through every sermon outline on my hard drive to perform a personal “illustration audit.” I was doing research for an ebook on sermon illustrations that I’m writing. It will be free for you, and available on this blog later this year.
Reading some of those early illustrations was downright excruciating. But in the past year or so, I think I finally figured out what I’m doing. I’d like to share those that with you, in good ol’ alliterated fashion.
The 5 C’s of the perfect illustration
1. Concreteness. You need to be concrete with your words. An abstract illustration is a contradiction in terms, yet dreadfully common. Use nouns that your congregation can picture. Don’t say, “big smile,” say “teethy grin.” Don’t just say “house.” What kind of house is it? A cottage, a Victorian, a Cape Cod, a tri-level?
2. Connotation. Getting a picture in their minds is not the goal, it’s a means to another goal: emotion. Start with the head in order to work toward the heart. Which sentence has more powerful connotation: “The little girl prayed reverently,” or, “The little girl softly folded her hands and bowed her head.” Which description makes you feel something?
3. Conflict. If a story is to be a story, it must have a problem. Your vivid descriptions and sentimental movements will float aimlessly without the gravity of a conflict that demands to be resolved. The more closely the conflict of your story corresponds to the issue in the passage you are illustrating, the more effective your illustration will be.
4. Conclusion. This will state how the problem of story was solved. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can never use tragedies for illustrations. The idea is to communicate the redemptive aspect of your story, which even tragedies have.
5. Connection. Here you unambiguously say how the illustration relates to your sermon. Surprisingly, too many preachers forget this part. How many times have you heard an illustration that pertained not a lick to the passage or the sermon? (I won’t ask how many times you’ve told such an illustration!)
An illustration that doesn’t relate to your sermon – no matter how funny or entertaining or interesting – is a waste of the precious few minutes you have to impact your congregation with God’s word.
To be a good illustrator, become a “con” artist.
The danger of collecting “five elements of the perfect sermon illustration” is that you might get formulaic. But illustrations are an art, by definition.
So as you include these elements – concrete, connotation, conflict, conclusion, connection – do so with personality and craft. Have some fun with them.
And if you want a sixth “C,” make sure your illustrations ultimately point your congregation to Christ.