Perhaps the best analogy I have ever heard for finding sermon illustrations is that of the great Dr. Adrian Rogers. I did not hear it from Dr. Rogers directly, but it is his to be sure. Not long ago, I heard someone ask Steve Rogers, Dr. Rogers’ son, how his father always seemed to find the poignant and perfectly timed illustrations for which he was known. I will never forget his answer because it was a great illustration itself. According to Steve, Dr. Rogers explained that we should think about finding illustrations like hanging a string over a slow moving river or stream. After a while, the string will begin to “catch” the items that otherwise would have floated by – a collection of debris, a tree limb, some leaves. Not all of them will be valuable to use or to use immediately, but some of them will be.
Dr. Rogers went on to expound that he always has his string tethered to the banks of the river of his life. Regardless of his daily activity — reading the daily newspaper or a book, spending time with his family, driving down the road, or studying his personal devotion — he is always on the lookout for potentially great illustrations. He allows his string to catch all that it can. He does not discard any of them. His goal is to store and catalogue as many as possible for immediate or future use.
Wow, Dr. Rogers not only knew how to wordsmith his illustrations within each sermon, but he also knew how to paint a picture in the mind of the preacher regarding how it is that we may go about finding the illustrations we will use when we preach. We must all learn how to hang our lines on the river of our life so that we may catch and collect the illustrations that will illuminate the propositions of God’s Word in the souls of our hearers!
Therefore, next week I will provide you with the top five ways I use to find fresh illustrations – how I hang the string over the river of my life. However, this week I have listed some of my favorite kinds of illustrations to use in preaching. My rationale here is that before we can look together at how to find fresh illustration, we must have some idea of what it is for which we are looking. So, below you will find a list of seven kinds of fresh illustrations that can have an impact on your audience. With each one, I also have provided a word or two of caution.
1.Other Biblical stories and material.
Perhaps one of, if not, my favorite methods of illustrating biblical truth is by the use of other biblical references. Biblical narrative can be a great way of shining light on a concept from your sermon through a “human interest” story. This technique works on not only a macro scale but also on more of a micro one. For instance, when preaching a sermon on a New Testament text, reminding your congregation of a biblical personality from the Old Testament and his character can bring life material into your sermon. This is an effective way to begin to move your people from cognition to action, from understanding to application. Jesus used other portions of the Word of God to illustrate His teaching. Remember when the scribes and Pharisees asked Him for a sign. He used the narrative of Jonah to illustrate his forthcoming death, burial, and resurrection (Matthew 12:38-42). Also, the author of Hebrews used individual characters and their trust in God to illustrate the concept of faith in Hebrews 11.
The strengths of this method are many including showing your people the inter-consistency of the Word of God, promoting biblical literacy, and allowing God to explain and further clarify your message, and even more importantly, His Scripture. There are a couple of dangers as well. First, even though this process does promote biblical literacy, in our post-Christian society many people who even attend church regularly do not know the Bible well. Therefore, there is a good chance that many in your congregation may not know the story or not know it well. In this scenario, you may have to spend too much time explaining your illustration or telling the tertiary details of the story for it to be effective. In other words, it may fall flat.
Second, there is a danger of potentially misusing Scripture. If you cannot find what you are looking for, you can be tempted to force a narrative or a biblical personality to fit your need for an illustration in a way that does not honor the original meaning or intent of that biblical material. We must not do this! We should never change, rearrange, or take Scripture out of context for our purposes, no matter how noble the cause may seem at the time.
I also love to use personal stories, events, and experiences from my own life, family, and home to illustrate points in my sermons. Some of the same strengths apply to this type illustration as they do to the previous kind such as bringing human interest, life material, and the concept of “story” into your sermon. There are other strengths here as well. You naturally know these stories and details. You are the expert on these experiences and you have a lot of ready-made sermon material close at hand. Also, it shows your congregation and any who may hear you — including unbelievers — that you are a regular person, with a normal family, that leads a similar life to theirs. Finally, if handled correctly, it can bring some much needed and appropriate levity into your message. There is value in being able to laugh at yourself.
There are cautions that must be heeded here as well. First, make sure you do not “over-use” this kind of illustration. Since you do know your life so well and since these stories are readily available, you will be a tempted to fall into the trap of using this technique almost exclusively. Second, avoid always being the hero or the foil in every story you tell. People will grow tired of seeing you paint yourself in the same light, good or bad, with every personal illustration you use. Whether you intend it or not, you will begin to come off as very narcissistic. Finally, make sure you make your family, especially your wife, look good in the illustrations you employ. (I do not think this needs further explanation!) I highly advocate this method of illustrating. But, much like with any or all of these techniques, proceed with care, intentionality, and prayer!
3.Accounts from history and factual events.
I regularly use stories, quotes, facts, and details from both church history and world history to bring clarity to an explanation I have just provided. I believe this can be highly effective. Many of the same reasons that I have already mentioned above make the case for using this technique. I think there are a couple of added benefits as well. One is it helps educate people. It will expose your congregation to a discipline that seems almost lost in our society but that can be highly valuable to us – history. Something you use in your sermon may cause some people to take the initiative to go deeper and study a certain subject. Second and more importantly, however, using this method of illustrating our messages from history shows that there is really not much new under the sun. This is true both as it relates to human nature and sin and as it relates to God’s consistent, gracious, sovereign movement in His world and His answer to sinfulness. These truths are worth exposing your people to.
Regarding using this illustrative method, there are a couple of limitations as well. First, the story you tell or the facts you give may fall on deaf ears. In other words, the information you provide may appear irrelevant and even boring to some of your listeners. Second, just as some of the characteristics of our culture have contributed to biblical illiteracy, the same can be said about historical illiteracy. There is a good chance that not only will a large portion of your people not know who Martin Luther is, but they many not even know anything about the existence of the Reformation in which he played a major role. The historical account may be so obscure, unknown, or complicated to your people that your illustration takes more time to explain than the portion of the Word of God you are attempting to illustration. My advice here would be to pick genuinely interesting historical events and practice telling them well and with excitement! Not everything you have interest in will translate or be of interest to every member of your church.
Perhaps the implied question is, if you find or hear a story that is fiction, fictitious, proven to have not been historically true, or that you doubt is true, does that mean using it in your message is off the table. My answer is not necessarily! Many preachers, teachers of preachers, and homileticians may disagree with me here for the sake of preserving truth and maintaining credibility. I will return to this issue in a moment, but first allow me to give an example.
I will spare all the details, but the one that comes most readily to mind is the tale of Arnold Palmer being given a golf club (meaning an 18 hole golf course) by a Saudi prince instead of the golf club (such as a 9-iron or 3-wood) which he had agreed to receive as a gift when his efforts to dissuade the prince from giving him anything failed. Now, do I believe that really happened? I do not know, but I somehow doubt it. However, I can think of several ways this could be used to illustrate God’s nature and propositions from His Word, not least of which is “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Do we have the license to use this in the pulpit where God’s Word is preached and truth is paramount? Some restraint is necessary to be sure, but I believe we do. Jesus employed this method! He used stories that were fiction or more-than-likely not based on actual events. We call these parables. And, it appears that he used them regularly and without hesitation. That no one was confused by this practice or accused Him of wrong-doing seems obvious. Otherwise, His enemies would have taken the opportunity to use this against Him if any reason for doing so existed.
Therefore, I would say proceed with foresight and honesty, but do feel free to use these “stories” if they serve God’s Word. Certainly act with integrity and do not attempt to present them as true events if you know they are not or you are not sure. This can be accomplished in either how you introduce or conclude the account. You can either begin by saying “an anecdotal story is told” or conclude by explaining “now, this story is probably not true, but it does make the point well.” Both are great ways to indicate to those who are listening that you are not attempting to mislead or lie. Instead, you alerting them that what was told was done so to shed light and bring clarity to God’s Word.
5.Movies and media references.
I would include in this listing a clip from a movie, the paraphrasing of a portion of a movie, current events, references to the news or newspaper stories, and items that are currently popular on social media. In moderation and with some vetting, all of these can be beneficial in helping your people understand God’s Word and connect it to real life.
The danger here is two-fold. If you employ these in your sermon, what is it that your congregation will remember? The goal is for them to understand and retain God’s Word, not to be “wowed” or fixate on an illustration. If they have gained nothing more than a new pop culture reference or a desire to watch the movie we referenced and not a clearer picture of how to live in light of God’s Word, we have failed as heralds. To some extent, this is always the danger of illustration, and due to the media and image-rich nature of our culture, we should proceed with caution. Furthermore, what is it that your people believe you are promoting or giving them permission to view, especially when some of the content is iffy? Some will take your use or description of any portion of a movie or TV show as your permission to view and sanctioning of its entirety, and perhaps rightly so. Therefore, I would encourage assessing the whole before choosing to use any of the part.
6.Quotes of well-know people.
Quotes from well-known personalities or historical figures can likewise be effective in illustrating God’s Word. One of the benefits of using quotes is that they can provide pregnant nuggets that serve as wonderful illustrations of propositions from God’s Word without taking up much of your allotted sermon time. I find this method exceptionally helpful when the text I am preaching in some way argues for a Biblical worldview, the veracity of God’s Word, or is giving a defense of a certain Christian doctrine. In this scenario, and depending on what you are trying to help your audience “see,” offering a quote either from someone who supports the Biblical position or from someone who represents the other position can be useful.
Perhaps there are the two limitations in using quotes in preaching. First, sometimes people may not know the person who made the statement. This may certainly be the case if it’s someone from a bygone era. In this scenario, you may waste precious moments in your sermon explaining who the person is. Or, worse still, it may not carry the punch that you desired at all. The second limitation is that people may know exactly who the person is you are quoting. In other words, your audience may be aware of the individual and may hold a disrespect or disdain for him. How the person is viewed by your audience and his ethos, or lack thereof, may take credibility away from you and your message. So, make sure your audience views the person as an expert if you are quoting them as such. Or, make sure that the mention of the person will not cause such an adverse effect that your audience fails to hear anything else you say.
7.Well-timed and accurate statistics.
Finally, statistics can also be fast and effective illustrations depending on your subject matter. I tend to use them in similar situations in which I use quotes. Therefore, they can be highly effective in Christian Apologetics and Apologetic Preaching. The main guidelines here are to make sure you are not misusing or manipulating the statistic, that they come from credible sources, and that you have done your homework and know that they are accurate. Using stats that are quickly proven false or outdated, much like referencing a quote from a “wrong” person, can ruin your credibility and the veracity of your message even if everything else you have said would have been received. In the “information at your fingertips” age in which we live, it is possible and probable for people to check your facts before you have even finished preaching. Remember, 80 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot, including this one. So accuracy is paramount!
Certainly, these are not the only methods or types of illustrations. I did not mention objects or nature. Practically anything and everything can serve as an effective illustration if handled correctly. However, the seven listed above are simply some of my favorite kinds. I have found them to be helpful as I preach, and illustrate, God’s Word.
Perhaps the most significant advice I can give regarding using any illustration is to have variety and make sure that it actually does illustrate your point. There is really a danger of falling into the pattern of illustrating all of our sermons in the exact same way. Often, they become tired and ineffective to your audience. And, do not force an illustration onto your message! If it doesn’t fit, find another one that does. Your illustration should support your sermon, not detract from it. Beyond this, notice how many of these different techniques relate to “stories” in some capacity. Why is this? Perhaps it is because nothing captures, holds, or regains the attention of people like a good story well told. Finally, notice what is not here – jokes. For multiple reasons, humor seems to back fire with more regularity than any other kinds of illustrations, not least of which is because we may not be as funny as we think we are. Proceed only with extreme caution!
I hope this post helps you know what types of illustration you should be on the lookout for. Check back next week and, in the legacy of Dr. Rogers, I will share five ways I keep my stringed tethered across the river of my life in order to catch them.