Last week we began by looking at Dr. Adrian Rogers’s interesting way of finding sermon illustrations. He likened this process to hanging a string over a slow moving river or stream in order to “catch” the items that otherwise would have floated by – a collection of debris, a tree limb, some leaves. His point was that he always had his string tethered to the banks of the river of his life in order to find great illustrations. I stated last time that we must all learn how to hang our lines over the river of our lives so that we may catch and collect the illustrations that will illuminate the propositions of God’s Word in the souls of our hearers!
In this two part series, we are applying Dr. Rogers’s process to our ministries in at least two ways – 1) what kind of illustrations we should look to catch and 2) how we catch these great illustrations. Last week, I listed some of my favorite kinds of illustrations to use in preaching. My rationale was that, before we can look together at how to find fresh illustrations, we must have some idea of what it is for which we are looking – illustrations that can have an impact on your audience. This week I will provide you with the top five ways to find fresh illustrations – how I hang the string over the river of my life.
First, read extensively and widely.
I am confident that this call for pastors and preachers to be dedicated readers is not new to you. As a matter of fact, many pastors who I consider to be great pulpiteers, and most professors I talked with or heard lecture on preaching, have said as much. Authors of several books on homiletics exhort their readers to the same discipline. And, there is more than one benefit of pastors and preachers being devoted readers, perhaps even the most devoted reader in his congregation. But, for our purposes here, let’s stick to one benefit – finding impactful illustrations.
How many of the seven kinds of illustrations I listed last week relate to reading? Other biblical material, historical accounts, and even fictitious anecdotes are obviously in this category. However, so are quotes, pop-culture references, media or news stories, and statistics. And many times, the only way we will find them, and thus know the information our people are being exposed to, is to read a lot and in multiple genres. Reading world history, church history, Christian theology, Biblical worldviews and historical novels can help you here. Knowing what is in vogue in pop psychology, popular opinions, other worldviews, and even fiction can bring benefit and exposure to some interesting information as well.
Also, I think regularly looking at some type of world news and social media is a must. I have often made it a regular practice of perusing the local paper or news source in the area where pastoring. Make a habit of, at minimum, glancing through the headlines on a daily basis. With the technology we now have, you do this very easily without having a “hard copy” of any newspaper. I believe reading, and specifically doing so in the abovementioned areas, helps a pastor know both how to communicate with his people and what kind illustrations will connect with them. This is the case because you will be aware of the things they are exposed to and that are close to their lives.
Second, walk through life with your eyes wide open.
This suggestion and the next two that follow it, build on or relate closely to one another. Other than the discipline of reading, this practice has led me to the most fitting and impactful illustrations I can remember using in my messages through the years. Many of the illustrations that fall into this category, I found when I was not necessarily “looking” for them. Actually, much of the sermon preparation process occurs in my ministry in this manner. I have lost count of how many times after studying for hours and then leaving my office, an understanding, a specific wording, a precise summary statement, a convicting illustration, or a clarifying illustration seemed to appear before me or pop into my head as I was going about my normal daily activities. So, what is my advice to you?
Be observant. Look at your surroundings with fresh eyes. On more than one occasion, I have heard Russell Zwerner, my assistant at NOBTS, emphasize the preacher’s need to walk through life with his eyes wide open by pointing to the example of comedians. What often makes them funny is they see everyday situations different than other people do. The job of the pastor who is a master illustrator is not much different. The major difference is they are trying to entertain people by making them laugh. Our end game is much more vital – we are trying to help people see God’s Word so that they will respond to it in faith and obedience. Do not walk through life with your head down. Work to be the most observant person you know. Think of the sermon preparation process as a never-ending. You are always preparing your messages. This is especially true with illustrations!
Third, get out and engage people.
We live in a society in which people are increasingly isolated from others. This is often intentional – we have designed it this way. We are growing in the area of shrinking our relationships. There are many reasons for this not least of which are social media, automated consumer experiences, and garage doors. I digress and perhaps that is the subject of another blog. And, let me admit, if I am not careful I can fall into a pattern of neglecting to engage people with some intentionality. I can even like, desire, and design my life this way. Most people do not believe me when I tell them that I am privately introverted. Oh, I can be, and usually am, “on” in public, but for every day that I am with people for a significant portion of my time, I feel like I need two days to recover from it. So, I have to work hard to follow my own advice here.
There are many good reasons for a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ to engage people. Evangelism and the opportunity for gospel conversations is the best one that I know of. Beyond this one, however, interacting with people helps you know people both individually and collectively. Engaging others helps us gain some great illustrations from our interactions. For instance, a ready-made way to help people see the value of personal witnessing in a sermon on the Great Commission can come directly from an experience you have had recently sharing your faith. I cannot think of better illustrations for sermons on being evangelistic than personal evangelism experiences that grow out of a pastor’s own commitment to interact with others.
Also, knowing people helps us learn how to communicate the illustration we discover in an effective way with the people who are listening to us. Therefore, allow me to encourage you again to engage those God puts around you and in your path. More than this, intentionally design into your schedule times and opportunities to meet and talk with people. When you are illustrating your messages, you and your people will be glad you did.
Fourth, practice making every day events into illustrations.
In my conclusion last week, I mentioned how almost anything can be an illustration. To say it another way, you can make almost anything into an illustration. Now to be sure, not everything you make into an illustration can or should be forced to illustrate any point. Finding and using the right illustration, one that actually serves the text, is still in order. Furthermore, the only way to know that it is possible to make most objects and occurrences in our environment into sermon illustrations, and to become adept at doing so, is experientially.
So my encouragement is not only to walk through life with eyes wide open and to engage and interact with people, but also to consider how your life and your interactions with those around you can be illustrations and how you may shape them into descriptions that help people better understand the Word of God. In other words, practice making everyday events into illustrations and practice it regularly in order to be effective at this exercise in your preaching and sermon preparation.
Fifth, keep a journal with you at all times.
I have a habit of coming up with the best ideas and then forgetting them before I have the opportunity to record them. Then later, I cannot remember precisely what originally came to mind. In the end, what I usually remember, thus the finished product, is not near as exact or impactful as my original thought. This has certainly happened more times than I would like to admit, or remember, regarding sermon illustrations. Therefore, several years ago I started the practice of keeping a journal with me at all times. I keep one that is a paper notebook format. (I am kind of old school – I still like reading and studying from an actual paper version book!) However, now with smart phones and tablets you can keep a journal digitally.
The point is to be able to record what you see, find, and are thinking on the spot so that it is not lost for future use and sermon preparation. Tethering your string across the banks of the river of your life in all the ways that I have suggested in this blog is not helpful unless you have a way of storing what you have caught. A journal is a great way to do this!
In the Spring of 2017, Dr. Stephen Rummage, Senior Pastor of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, FL, lead our Stanfield Preaching Lectures on the campus of NOBTS. One evening, after one of our plenary sessions, I took Dr. Rummage to dinner. On the way back to campus, we were driving through a New Orleans neighborhood in which a local bakery had recently caught fire and burned, leaving practically nothing but the concrete slab. Being stationary at the stop light directly perpendicular from the spot where the bakery previously sat, I shared briefly the account of the fire that I had heard.
A small kitchen fire started during business hours, and it was quickly controlled and extinguished, or so they thought. Later after everyone had left for the evening, at two or three in the morning, the flames rekindled, grew into a massive fire, and destroyed the bakery beyond repair. (To be candid, I did this more for conversation than anything else.) Dr. Rummage’s interest was quickly and noticeably piqued, and he said to all of us in the car – me, one of his staff members, and Russell, who are all preachers by the way – “Ok, how can we make this into an illustration?”. Soon, the consensus in the car was that the events of the night would be a great way to help people see the biblical truth that sin in the human heart must be dealt with and repented of, not simply suppressed. For, it may not be long, at a time that we are least expecting, that a forgotten sin will be rekindled and grow into a massive fire which burns your life to the ground before you realize you are in danger, much like happened at this bakery.
Wow! That will preach. And, even more than importantly, this is a man who always has his string tethered to the banks of the streams and rivers of his life in order to catch illuminating illustrations. May we learn to do the same thing! For the sake of our preaching. For the sake of our people. For the sake of the God’s Word being seen clearly.