Make It Plain
I Cor. 10:6
My first semester in seminary included my first homiletics class. At the start of the semester we were given class assignments which included developing an illustration file for preaching. We were to fill a file box with three by five cards. Each card was to contain an illustration that we had recorded, and the whole was to be arranged in alphabetical order. I had to record every antidote, quote, and story I could find by hand on three by five cards and file them in the box. In those days, photocopiers were not available. A general lack of financial resources also meant that I could not clip articles from magazines or newspapers.
I went to the library and copied illustrations by hand. I hated the tedious time-consuming assignment. When our files were returned to us with a grade, I learned that a number of my fellow students had clipped the pages out of multiple issues of Our Daily Bread and pasted them on three by five cards. Our Daily Bread which is still around is a daily devotional resource distributed free through churches. Each day usually has a brief story or antidote of some kind. I remember thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” My irritation dissipated when the professor commented, “It looks like some of you sacrificed your Daily Breads.” There had to be a good reason he didn’t want us to taking shortcuts, but it wasn’t apparent to me at the time. After graduation and assuming my first pastoral assignment, I soon realized the value of systematically filing away potential sermon illustrations. Preaching three times a week soon used up every tried and true sermon illustration I had. There was an easier way to collect and file illustrations by then thanks to the photocopier. Since then, I have photocopied potential illustrations from newspapers, magazines, and books filing them in three-ring binders alphabetically. Today, there is a wealth of sermon illustrations online, and the search engine has replaced the need for all those three-ring binders.
Sermon illustrations are important for a number of reasons. First of all, as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Illustrations are pictures—word pictures—and the words we use to paint the picture is our brush. Illustrations are pictures of truth that we draw in the listener’s mind. They communicate concepts, ideas, principles, and actions efficiently and effectively. The second reason for using illustrations is that they enable us to present the proper application of some biblical truth. This is where an antidote or story is so valuable. It may be a biblical story, historical account, current event, or a personal experience that will demonstrate the right application of the principle under consideration or the lack of it. A third reason for using a good illustration is that a contemporary story or comparison will lift the biblical principle out of its ancient historical context and make it relevant to today’s challenges. Biblical principles are timeless, but we need to make the application culturally relevant for our listeners. The fourth reason for using illustrations is that they make truth memorable. People will soon forget the sermon title, outline, and even the text, but will retain truth contained it a relevant illustration. Good illustrations always stick in our listener’s minds. One final reason for using a good illustration is to give listeners a break from long stretches of logical arguments and intricate explanations. Minds learn best when they can take momentary breaks from serious instruction. A good illustration gives such a break and yet builds on the truths thus far communicated.
There are various types of sermon illustrations. One type comes from the Bible itself. They can be taken from biblical history, Bible stories, parables, prophecy, and more. Using biblical illustrations is an excellent way to demonstrate the results of obedience and disobedience. Another type of illustration is the historical illustration. There are unending illustrations that can be drawn from history. A third type of illustration comes from statistics, polls, and surveys done in the present day. They are useful resources for understanding how biblical issues are perceived in today’s world. Another type of illustration is a current event taken from today’s news. Finally, quotes, antidotes, and stories of all kinds also make great illustrations.
There are many sources of engaging illustrations. Nonfiction books, historical accounts, newspapers, and magazine articles are all great sources. The internet has put these sources at our fingertips. No longer do pastors need multiple magazine and newspaper subscriptions. Also, don’t overlook the many good books of illustrations available today. I have over 20 in my library and use them regularly. Databases of illustrations arranged in alphabetical order are also available online. Consulting commentaries and sermons in print can also provide excellent illustrations. Listeners including family and friends who appreciate your use of illustrations will also become a source of good illustrations often handing you clippings or photocopies of interesting stories and other information. My wife and daughter are my personal researchers. Finally, don’t forget the many personal experiences that you can draw upon for illustrations. They often make the very best illustrations. People will listen in rapt attention when they know you are speaking from personal experience.
Make every effort to find the best illustrations, the most appropriate ones, and the most engaging stories, facts, historical analogies, etc. Don’t just slip an illustration into the outline here and there, but make sure they serve a needed purpose and truly paint a word-picture.