They’re powerful but can be really difficult to use effectively. Sure, you can throw a sermon illustration in here or there that has somewhat of a point and get by, but powerful sermon illustrations are tougher.
A powerful sermon illustration helps a sermon get to a different place for the listener. People love stories. There’s a reason Jesus talked a lot in parables and did much of his teaching around the current culture of the day.
Several years ago, I was preaching a sermon on what to do when it feels like you’re being forgotten by God. I had outlined much of the sermon but felt like something was missing. I really felt like if I could get the audience to understand that this subject was something that others go through and they weren’t alone, it’d have much more impact. So, I did what many of us do when we need a sermon illustration, I googled it. I googled it, read through several of the results, and just didn’t think any of them did the job. None of them really seemed to say what I wanted to say. A day or so later, I was talking with my Lead Pastor at the time and he said, what about the story of you and your wife trying to have children?
At first, I was a little skeptical. Wouldn’t that kind of be self-serving? Wouldn’t that be trying to get them to have pity on us or something? He assured me it wasn’t and insisted I try it. I did and learned a valuable lesson… personal illustrations work.
From that point on, I’ve been kind of fascinated by storytelling and sermon illustrations. I’ve preached a lot more sermons since then and I’ve listened to a lot more illustrations since then. There are a few things that make sermon illustrations more powerful. Not all of these have to be in every sermon illustration, but all of them can certainly be used in different amounts to make a point more obvious and understandable to your congregation.
The best illustrations are personal illustrations. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think I have an idea about part of why. It helps us relate to our audience. Whether it’s a story about yourself or a family member or even a story you were just personally involved in, the illustration seems to be much more powerful when it’s personal.
Personal sermon illustrations are often the most powerful.
There is a little bit of a caution that comes with using personal illustrations, however. There are definitely lines you don’t want to cross. You certainly never want to disclose something that was meant to be private and you definitely don’t want to say something that could be perceived as inappropriate. Some people would say to be cautious about telling a story where you are successful or you did the right thing. I don’t think that’s true. I think people can relate to our strengths and victories as well as our struggles and defeats.
Many people have an extreme when it comes to giving illustrations. Many people either put way too many details into a sermon illustration or they leave too many out. The danger is that not only does it cause the illustration to lose power and come across disingenuous and slightly made up or exaggerated, but it is also really hard to relate to.
An illustration should be vivid in the mind of the listener as you talk through it. Without giving unnecessary detail, give detail about where it happened, the mood, the people around, the events that lead up to it and even the weather if necessary. Vivid stories are the best sermon illustrations. It’s really important that we take the time and build in the time to give the details that really make the sermon illustration relevant. Often times, that means we share more than just the plot of the story, but some detail as well.
Well Transitioned Into and Out Of
How do you get from the bulk of your sermon into the transition? How will you transition out? That is extremely important when planning illustrations. One of the worst things you can do is have a great sermon illustration but a terrible transition. Without a good transition, a story can feel forced and out of place. It can feel as if you’re just looking for fluff or to include a random story. Talk through your message. How will you effectively lead into the illustration? What part of your sermon or text needs to come just before it?
Be sure you transition well out of the sermon illustration as well. If people never connect the illustration to the main concept, it’ll miss its impact. Sometimes, that means being emotionally involved in the story at the end, sometimes it even means pausing before you tell the tie-in. Be sure that you directly correlate the sermon illustration to the text or point though. We’ve all heard someone tell a story and we leave thinking, “What did that have to do with anything?” Don’t be that guy in your sermon illustration. Be sure you have a bridge to it and out of it.
Sermon illustrations can’t be a sermon, but they can theme out a sermon. In other words, if you have a really powerful illustration or concept, it can be great to build out around that. Of course, you always begin with scripture when constructing and delivering a sermon, but you can also theme it around a great tie-in.
For instance, I recently preached a sermon about Jesus being the bread of life and talked about how I fill up on chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant and am always too full for the main dish. The title of the sermon was, “I’m full already,” and the main idea was that Jesus fills our deepest needs.
Themes not only help relate a biblical concept to a common concept in people’s minds, but they can also be great for designing sermon series and artwork.
Returned to often
A sermon illustration doesn’t have to be revisited, but it is really effective when it is. One of the oldest tricks in the book is to open with some sort of an illustration and then return to it at the end. It can be even more effective when we open up with a personal sermon illustration at the beginning and then hold something back for the end. In other words, make your point up front, but save a little something to go back to. It triggers your opening in the minds of your listeners and often wraps a bow around the entire message.
It doesn’t have to be an opening sermon illustration that you reiterate throughout the sermon, however. Like a comedian revisiting the main joke throughout a comedy bit, sometimes the main point or subject of an illustration can carry out throughout the message, especially if you’re preaching off of a theme or one point.
All sermon illustrations certainly don’t have to be funny, but there’s certainly a place for ones that are. So often, pastors and preachers are stereotyped as serious and uptight kind of people. What better way to break that than to tell a funny story or sermon illustration? Now, there are several cautions when it comes to humorous sermon illustrations. One caution is to be sure you don’t make fun of anyone. You never want to talk down to someone in an effort to be funny or make a point.
Another warning is to be sure that the sermon illustration is actually funny. We’ve all said something from a stage or in a personal conversation that we thought was funny and it fell flat. There’s nowhere to run and hide when you’re preaching to get away from the embarrassment. Be sure the story is actually humorous if that’s what you’re going for. Tell it to someone beforehand and get their feedback.
Another caution is to be sure you don’t kill momentum for the sake of humor. In other words, be sure it fits, not just scripturally, but also contextually in where you are in the message. You don’t want to kill a moment for the sake of being funny.
A Closing Word on Sermon Illustrations
Don’t miss the power of great sermon illustrations. While personal illustrations certainly are often the most effective, don’t be afraid to borrow stories and ideas from others as well. The key is that you tie them in effectively.
The truth is, as a preacher, our job is to serve the meal. We’re called to help people digest what they could read on their own, to help them understand what may be a foreign concept to them otherwise. Stories and sermon illustrations help do that like nothing else can. Don’t miss their power in your message.
Jonathan Pearson is the Connections Pastor at SpringWell Church in Taylors, S.C. Jonathan is the co-host of the Next Up Podcast and author of Next Up: 8 Shifts Great Young Leaders Make (June 2014) and the upcoming book Be the Switch. He is married to Melissa and has a son named Riley. They live in Greenville, S.C. Find Jonathan online at JonathanPearson.net.