Friends: This booklet will be done soon and I will be giving it away on this blog. You might want to download this pdf and share it with your pastor or preacher. Step One was entitled “Do the Work!” Step Two was entitled “Develop a Clear Outline!” Step Three was entitled “Expository Versus Topical Messages!” Step Four was entitled “Begin with a Great Introduction!” Here’s Step Five:
STEP FIVE: Illustrate. Illustrate. Illustrate!
Everyone loves a good story. You can see the heads of a congregation lift up when a preacher says, “Let me illustrate . . .” or “Perhaps you heard the story about . . .” We need truth illustrated!
But unfortunately many of us preachers seem to think that if we have a few extra minutes, we must pack in more Scripture or more doctrine into our sermon. However, rather than adding more material, ask (long before you get into the pulpit), how might I illustrate this point? If you get your study done early, you might look for useful illustrations during the week.
Here are several practices that have helped me: Collect good illustrations. Witty sayings. Great quotes. Strong (short) stories. Reader’s Digest is a gold mine of possible sermon illustrations. Start a Word file with your illustrations. Don’t panic over some complicated filing system. Just file your illustration under the first word that comes to your mind (“Anger,” “Theology,” “Second Coming,” “Babylon Bee,” etc.). I’ve been collecting illustrations for over forty years and my Word file, if it were printed out, would be about 300 pages. (Drop me an email if you want my file. I give it away).
Allow the Lord to use your personality in your preaching. And in your use of illustrations. You do not need to be a stand-up comic. But practice telling your story or delivering your appropriate joke. Make sure it fits your point.
I once taught homiletics to a group of undergraduate students. In one class session I talked about illustrations and how, if one messes up a quote or illustration, the preacher should just keep going. I remember one student in his sermon trying to use the famous Jim Elliot quote (“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”). The student botched the quote at the very beginning. He said something like, “As the missionary/martyr Jim Elliot once said, ‘He is no fool who loses what he couldn’t find to gain what he thought he had’”), and he kept going! I was roaring with laughter (inside), but was very proud of him for moving on with his message.
If all of life illustrates biblical truth — and it does — be observant of your everyday surroundings. Be careful not to be the hero of all your stories. Congregations appreciate a preacher who (occasionally) admits his own foibles.
I’ve been helped by the adage “Quantity equals quality.” What I mean is, collect all the illustrations you can — and many will prove to be useful and helpful.
I love finding gems from past preachers. For example, C.H. Spurgeon said to his students, “Men, when you speak of heaven, let your face radiate with the glories of the very presence of God. But when you speak of hell, then your everyday face will do.”
Keep a count of how many illustrations you use in your sermon. Most of us illustrate far too little! Make a note of which illustrations you use and when. Some people don’t buy into the idea that a good story is worth telling more than once.
Be careful not to exaggerate in your stories, especially if some in the congregation have some acquaintance with the incident you’re describing. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, tells about one time when he was preaching on Sunday morning. He was to preach the same sermon twice — once to those of the early service and again to those in the second service. Between services he would meet with an elder or two for feedback and any tweaking that he might consider.
In the first service, Hybels told a story about a six car accident he saw during the week and used the story to illustrate some point in his sermon. After the first service concluded, he met with one of the elders who asked him, “Bill, was the accident you described the one on Wednesday over at such and such an intersection?” “Yes,” Bill said. “Bill,” said the elder, “did you forget that there were only three cars involved in that accident? You didn’t inflate the number just for sermonic impact, did you?”
Hybels says that at such times, “I hate accountability groups!” But then he says, “I realized that I had committed a small act of cosmic treachery by exaggerating the details of that story.”
C.H. Spurgeon said, ”An apt illustration sticks in the soul like a hook in a fish’s mouth.” As we conclude this section, I’ve got to give you two of my favorite illustrations: Here’s one from Leadership Journal: “In 1981 a Minnesota radio station made an announcement about a car which had been stolen in California. The police were staging an intense search for the vehicle and the driver, even placing radio ads to contact the thief. On the front seat of the stolen car sat a box of crackers that had been laced with poison to be used as rat bait. Now the police and the car owner were more interested in apprehending the thief to prevent him from eating the poison than to recover the car. So often, when we run from God, we feel it is to escape His punishment. But what we may actually be doing is eluding His rescue.”
And another favorite: Many years ago a little boy and his twin sister became lost in a small community outside Boston. After they were missing for several hours, the police were called and a search party was organized. Meanwhile, the little boy and girl both showed up when they heard the commotion as the search party got organized. They asked what was going on and were told that a little boy and girl had been lost. For the next two hours they helped search for themselves!