John Broadus in his classic preaching text, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons asserts, “The importance of illustration in preaching is beyond expression. In numerous cases it is our best means of explaining religious truth, and often to the popular mind our only means of proving it” and “Illustration of religious truth may be drawn from the whole realm of existence and of conception” (E.C. Dargan ed., 23rd edition, 228, 230).
A sermon illustration is a story that helps explain, make clear, and connect listeners to a biblical truth. Consider three vital guidelines for effective sermon illustrations.
Throw your illustration books away.
Regurgitating a story that captivated the heart and mind of another preacher, as it intersected with a biblical truth is an impersonal, sure fire path to stale, anemic preaching. Effective sermonic illustrating is far more dynamic and challenging than spending $29.99. Powerful illustrations are gained by the preacher’s commitment to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). The gathering of illustrations must not be confined to office hours and formal study time, but is a 24-hour a day intersection of biblical truth with life. Your meditation on biblical truth should intersect with your daily thoughts and life. The preacher who is effective at illustrating has the biblical text take residence in his heart and mind in a way that he cannot help thinking about it as goes about his day. The voice recorder on a smart phone is a great way to capture thoughts as they arise.
Think of an illustration as a window and not a painting.
The design of a painting is to be examined and appreciated as a focal point to draw your and captivate your attention. That is the way many people use sermon illustrations, they become a focal point in the sermon. A better metaphor for sermon illustration is to conceive of them as windows. Windows exist for the purpose of providing an opportunity see something else clearly. They are indispensible but are designed to focus your attention elsewhere. Sermon illustrations are indispensible windows that are designed to focus the listener’s attention on biblical truth in a personal and concrete way. Thus, illustrations should be brief, clear, and concrete. Think of Nathan confronting and arousing David’s righteous anger with an illustration of a rich man taking a poor man’s only ewe lamb and then concluding, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7). After Nathan confronts him, the story of the rich man and the ewe lamb fades from David’s thoughts and he now says, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13). The illustration was a powerful window into biblical truth.
Illustrations concretize the message of the text.
Sermon illustrations should never be utilized as an end in themselves. A potential illustration is not acceptable because it is compelling, humorous, encouraging, or convicting. An illustration is only acceptable to the degree that it helps concretize biblical truth for listeners. Preachers should prepare with the presupposition that listeners are trying to avoid the force of the text and always assume the application of biblical truth is for someone else. Therefore, sermon illustrations must not be clichéd, vague or abstract; but rather, precise, vivid, real world stories that keep people from personally evading the force of what is being communicated. Concretizing illustrations are a primary means to communicate to hearers, “I am talking to you” and “You must apply your life to the biblical gospel story.”
Illustrations open the door for the expository sermons to go beyond biblical information by urging listeners to respond to the demands of biblical truth in order to reach the whole person by developing Christ-likeness, and developing moral discernment based on Christ and his gospel. The biblical message is to be grasped so that hearers walk in line with the gospel today. The aim is that the biblical text be proclaimed in a concrete way so that listeners personally and communally encounter God himself for the purpose of cruciform application. Listeners are urged by effective illustration to press their thoughts and lives into biblical truths as they unfold in the biblical gospel story.