A Formula for Sermon Illustrations That Always Work

It’s deflating when you tell an illustration and it falls as flat as last week’s Diet Coke. You thought it was a jaw-dropper, but it turned out to be an eye-drooper.

What changes can you make to your illustrations so you can tell them with more power?

I’ve been working on ebook on illustrations that I’ll give away as a free download from this site. Now that I’m half way through it, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern that effective illustrations follow.

A formula for powerful illustrations

This pattern can be packaged in the following formula:

Start with something familiar + Reveal something unfamiliar about that thing + Connect the unfamiliar – but now understood – part of the illustration to the spiritual truth you want to communicate.

The familiar part is critical because it enables your hearers to visualize what you are saying. Nailing your point home by relating it to your message is a non-negotiable.

But most preachers go right from the familiar experience to the spiritual connection, cutting out the unfamiliar anecdote.

Why this works

Adding something new to what is already known accomplishes two things.

First, it creates a sense of awe and wonder. It’s the “I never knew that” effect.

Second, surprising your hearers with something new disposes them to receive even more of something new. Thus, you prepare the way for your main goal: hitting their hearts with spiritual truth.

A disclaimer

Like all formulas, nothing is guaranteed.

If you try to plug in boring details and far reaching connections to your passage, this formula will not work for you. It’s not meant to make stupid illustrations stunning.

However, if you let the formula guide you as you brainstorm killer illustrations for your sermons, you will notice a steady increase in the impact your sermons make from week to week.

Types of illustrations that apply this formula

What are some ways to use this formula effectively? Here are seven, off the top of my head.

1. Illustrations that reveal the marvels of nature or science.

2. Illustrations that provide behind the scenes info of a well-known historical event.

3. Illustrations that show how an everyday device works.

4. Illustrations that quote lines from popular songs or movies that unknowingly reflect the gospel. Or if the quote is far from the gospel, but reflects the worldview of our culture, show how the gospel confronts those ideas.

5. Illustrations that turn common clichés on their head, or prove their accuracy in an astounding way.

6. Illustrations that show how a major feat was accomplished, or why it was unfortunately left unfinished.

7. Illustrations from the life of famous politicians, businesspeople, entertainers, etc.

Of the making of illustrations there is no end…

There are lots of sermon illustrations that are effective. I’m not saying these are the only effective ones. But when you are in a tight spot, reaching for just the right illustration, I think this formula will give you the boost you need.

(Image credit)


  1. To that end, I’ve found Dan Lewis’s Now I Know emails [http://nowiknow.com/] to be a good source of unfamiliar information about the familiar.

  2. Ethan Johnson says:

    Excellent. Simple. You have a gift for conveying your thoughts in a very understandable way. I love the formula. Great reminder about how to constantly improve sermons!

    • Eric McKiddie says:

      Conveying thoughts in a simple way is the product of being a jr. high pastor! Glad you enjoyed the article, Ethan. I always appreciate your comments!

  3. Tami Wright says:

    Thanks for the great e-book- such amazing illustrations!! Will definitely make the most of them and love that it is in PDF and also that you can click on an illustration in the contents and it will take you straight there! Thanks so much