3 Common Sermon Illustration Mistakes And the Easy Way to Fix Them

Even though illustrations are meant to draw your congregation into your sermon, many pastors tell illustrations that push people away. It’s like trying to catch butterflies with a ping pong paddle. And everyone in the pews wishes they had stayed in their cocoons that morning.

The really bad part is that we think the paddle is working. The mistakes we will look at in this post are common because pastors think they are effective ways of illustrating. I’ll show you why they don’t work.

The good news is that fixing these bad illustrations is as easy as dropping a paddle and grabbing a net.

Mistake #1: The “have you ever?” illustration

The last time you heard a preacher start an illustration with “have you ever…” did you creep up to the edge of your seat, or did you just sit back, waiting for the punch line?

What do you think your listeners did the last time you told a “have you ever” illustration?

Preachers think “have you ever” illustrations work because they create common ground between the pastor and his people. But the problem is that these illustrations lack the two ingredients that give illustrations their zip: pictures in the mind and feelings in the gut.

Let me give you an example.

Not good: “Have you ever been camping?” A yes or no question doesn’t require you audience to picture or feel anything. And everyone who answered “no” under their breath checks out mentally.

Better: “What annoys you about camping?” Now we’re getting somewhere. You’ve triggered an emotional response with “annoys”. This will also draw in people who haven’t been camping. They are going to visualize all the things about the outdoors they hate.

Best: “The last time you went camping, what elements of nature did you find yourself at war against?” This is the jackpot. This question takes your listeners to a memory that is loaded with lots of visual footage and a bit of emotional baggage. “War” introduces a conflict – a necessary element of good illustrations – and tees up your audience to have that conflict resolved ultimately by the gospel.

As you can see, “have you ever” illustrations aren’t so great, but they are the seed of what can be a great illustration.

The easy way to fix to mistake #1: Change all of your “have you ever” illustrations into “what happened the last time you…” illustrations.

(Did you notice that this is how I started this section?)

Mistake #2: The “what if” illustration

There are two kinds of “what if” illustrations. Like the fly zappers at your grandma’s cabin, preachers should stay as far away as possible, but we just can’t.

The first type is the exaggerated “what if” illustration. The preacher paints a wild picture that is meant to illicit a reaction from the audience. The only response he gets, however, is, “That could never happen.”

The second type is the realistic “what if” illustration. It’s not quite as bad as the first, because it could happen. But it didn’t.

Preachers think “what if” illustrations work because they create a hypothetical situation that perfectly corresponds to their point. But what they don’t realize is that since the illustration doesn’t correspond to reality, the audience doesn’t attach any emotion to the story.

The argument that says, “since that is true hypothetically, you should respond this way in reality” is not persuasive.

The easy way to fix mistake #2: Switch from a “what if” illustration to an analogy with a punch line. This is what I did with my opening paragraph of this post.

Had I said, “What if you tried to catch butterflies with a ping pong paddle? Would that work? Then why do you use ineffective illustrations?” you would have clicked away from my site immediately, and vowed never to read another article here again. (If you do want to read future articles, the easy way is to click here.)

Mistake #3: The negative illustration

Also known as “the bulldozer” illustration, and the “finger in your face” illustration, the negative illustration is what the preacher uses when he wants to give his church a spanking. But this isn’t discipline, it’s punishment.

And since the preacher offers no encouragement in this kind of illustration, they are not spurred on to love or good deeds.

Preachers think that negative illustrations work because they sound bold. Really they just sound boorish. The preacher feels like he’s really preaching. But if he is, and even that is arguable, he’s preaching law without grace. Illustrations like this break your church down, but they don’t build your church up.

Here is an illustration that could be told negatively or positively. I’ve pulled this example from my ebook on illustrations that I will make available here as a free download this fall.

In 1985, Coca-Cola changed their age-old recipe in response to the popular and successful Pepsi Challenge. The Pepsi Challenge was a taste test where someone took a sip of Pepsi and Coca Cola, and then announced which tasted better. Pepsi, the underdog, won with a resounding frequency.

What few people knew was that the Pepsi Challenge was successful because it only relied on the first sip. Pepsi, being sweeter than Coca Cola, tasted better if the two were only sipped. So in order to keep up, the sweeter New Coke replaced the original Coca Cola.

Here’s how to use this illustration to beat your people up:

This is what the church is doing, too! We are abandoning the Word in favor of what suits the sinful palates of our culture!

Or you could finish the illustration this way:

How can we ensure that our age old message continues to reach the current generation? Not by changing the message, but by sticking to the whole message. If the church can help people drink up the whole gospel – not just sip it – then our generation will see how satisfying Jesus is to their soul.

Which ending to this illustration will motivate your people to stay true to the gospel, even in the midst of a culture that is growing more and more hostile to the Christian message?

The easy way to fix mistake #3: Find the redemptive and encouraging way to conclude your illustration.

It’s about what illustrations do, not just what they say

An illustration works because of what it accomplishes, not just what it says. You can catch butterflies with a ping pong paddle, but they will be dead. As preachers, we need more our illustrations to do more than relate. We need them catch our congregation’s attention, and then release them into the world again, invigorated toward living in a way that glorifies God.

(Image credit)


  1. Tom Hester says:

    Thanks, this message was very helpful.


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