How can a pastor come up with captivating illustrations on a weekly basis? What does it take to think up applications that actually lead toward change in your congregation? Where does that creativity come from? These topics are common in my sermon coaching conversations.
Interpreting the passage accurately is hard enough. But it is only half the battle. To pull the sermon out of Bible times and show its importance for today, you have to package it with contemporary illustrations and drive it home with challenging, non-cliché applications.
What does it take to come up with more creative sermon illustrations and applications?
John Cleese, member of Monty Python, has the answer.
Below is a video of a talk Cleese gave on the topic of creativity in which he divulges five tips for being more creative. It’s not about how to be funny necessarily, but how to be creative. The whole thing is worth watching for preachers (what takes more creativity than communicating eternal things in finite words?), but I’d like to focus on just one of his points for the purpose of this post. Watch the video from the 17:46 to 21:47 mark, and I’ll catch up with you after you watch.
Cleese’s simple secret to improving creativity is to think longer about the problem that requires a creative solution. This is the secret to coming up with more creative illustrations and applications for your sermons: spend more time thinking about them.
But this solution reveals another problem, of course. How do you finagle more time to think about the illustration and application sections of your sermon? There are three ways you can do this.
1. Increase the amount of time you spend on sermon prep
Do you start your sermon on Friday? On Saturday? Do you only spend less than ten hours on your sermon? Less than five? If this is the case you have little reason to expect to produce creative illustrations that captivate and creative applications that motivate. Spend more time studying for your sermon. Start earlier in the week and increase the number of total hours you put into your sermon.
In order to spend more studying for your sermon, you’ll have to cut time somewhere else. What can you delegate? What can you make a more streamlined process for? What can you eliminate?
Another way to log more hours thinking about illustrations and application is to use “dead space” better. If you set the habit of thinking these things in the shower and during your commute to the office, you could add one or two hours of sermon prep per week, depending on the intensity of your body odor and the distance you live from church.
If you’re thinking, “I already spend fifteen hours on my sermon, and my applications and illustrations are still lame.” That’s why I included point #2.
2. Adjust the allotment of your time in sermon prep
If you study fifteen hours for your sermon, and fourteen hours is spent on exegesis, you have some room to work with. Though anyone can make this mistake, it is particularly common for pastors fresh out of seminary who treat their sermon prep like a weekly exegesis paper. Seminary professors train us to leave no exegetical stone unturned, and we bring that habit into our sermon prep.
Unlike your profs, your congregation doesn’t grade you on your nuance or breadth of research. They use the did-he-help-me-follow-Jesus-better-this-week scale. A sermon that doesn’t contain specific examples of how to apply it will not be very helpful. A sermon that doesn’t relate the Scriptures to today with fresh illustrations will not be very helpful.
Spend less time on the niggling details of your passage and more time. Don’t worry so much about how often Paul modifies a present active indicative verb with en Xristo. You’re not writing a commentary, you’re writing a sermon. When you preach Romans 15:17, “In Christ (en Christo)Jesus, then, I have (present active indicative of echo) reason to be proud of my work for God,” it’s much more important for your church to picture in their mind what it means to be in Christ (illustration) and to know how that affects whether their pride in their work for God is holy or sinful (application).
Don’t hear me say that you should never try to stretch your church’s appreciation for detailed exegesis. Hear me say that they will only appreciate your detailed exegesis when you show them how it relates to how they live.
Now, if you’re thinking, “I already spend plenty of time preparing my sermon, and I have a healthy distribution of time spent on exegesis, illustrations, and application. But my applications and illustrations are still lame!” That’s why I included point #3.
3. Focus your attention during the time you spend in sermon prep
An hour spent preparing your sermon is only as beneficial as the amount of attention you devote during it. Do you really expect to write creative sermons with your cell phone buzzing and your email dinging the whole time? Close your web browser, twitter feed, RSS app, and everything else, so that you can devote all of your attention to your sermon.
Preaching and the Genesis 3 curse
If – after adding a few more hours, adjusting a few hours, and focusing better for a few hours – you still find that you can’t come up with satisfying illustrations and applications, your problem is in some sense unsolvable. You are simply experiencing the curse of work:
“…cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:18b-19a).
The thorns and thistles that the pastor harvests are clichés and platitudes. There is no secret for eliminating the curse of work. But, if entertainers can sometimes break through the thistles and get to the hearty crop of creativity with just a little more time, how much more can we, who preach with the anointing of the Spirit?