Step 6: Illustrate Your Message
Your essential guide to sermon illustrations—why they matter, what makes them work, and how to make them stick.
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A box of clamshells hugs the cash register at a student café on Turl Street in central Oxford, UK. On the back of the box customers may read an invitation to take a clamshell to their tables if they wish to talk with a stranger while eating. The box of shells played with my mind while I sipped lentil soup from an oversized white porcelain coffee cup. The biting winds that blow and then suddenly go made me hold the soup bowl with both hands. This café sits in the middle of 10,000 of the brightest young adults in the world. In addition, hundreds of tutors and fellows occupy the same dreaming spires. Why would such folks need to take a clamshell to a café table to indicate openness to a lunchtime conversation?
As a Texan alone at the Bodleian Library next door to the café, I wondered, Am I supposed to take a shell? How would it be perceived among the best and the brightest if a superannuated visiting Texas professor plopped a shell down by his soup? What if I put a shell down at my little spot and nobody wanted to talk? What if this whole thing was just a shell game and I was an unwitting player?
On the other hand, what if this shell display was the best idea for getting connected since Bluetooth and Wi-Fi? What if this quaint singular display became a universal custom? What if every Waffle House and I-Hop with lonely folks offered clam shells for willing lonely talkers? Perhaps some overfunded foundation would shell out to make this conversation starter go global. The result would be the end of loneliness and a golden era of koinonia would fill this lonely planet.
Yet preacher that I am and story sleuth that I be I could not help but think of biblical insights related to that little display. The Psalmist complains, "You have put away all my acquaintances" (88:8). A clamshell would have mocked his situation. Paul is obviously alone in his Roman cell (2 Timothy 4). He needed more than a clamshell. Or what of the Psalmist's cry in Psalm 25:16, "Turn to me and be gracious to me because I am lonely and afflicted?" This isolated singer needed more than a clamshell. Shortly after seeing the clamshell in the café I knew that this mollusk was going to show up in a sermon.
Rather than belaboring conceptual ideas about sermon stories consider this clam story. The vignette above demonstrates the qualities of sermon stories that work. Let's examine some of those qualities moving from the particular of this homely story to some generalities.
You can understand it.
Anyone of any age anywhere able to listen to a sermon can grasp this simple story. You do not have to be an art historian, medievalist, literary critic, Hellenistic linguist, or NFL fan to understand and identify with the story. A preacher of memory was discoursing on Christ's statement: "I am the Light of the world." He wandered into an exotic explanation of wave and particle theory, angstroms, lumens, photons, and the like, leaving his congregation in the dark while talking about light. If you have to give an exposition of the illustration you have the wrong story. Sermon stories are like jokes. They either work or they do not. If you have to illustrate an illustration find another one. You do not have to explain a box of clamshells.
The story comes in a larger frame of reference familiar to the preacher.
I was there in front of the clamshells. I did not read this in Dr. Smellfungus' anthology of 10,001 Sermon Illustrations That Do Not Sound like You. William E. Sangster, the greatest Methodist preacher of the 20th century, gave us one of the best books on illustrating sermons, The Craft of Sermon Illustration. Concerning all collections of sermons stories he recommended burning such books. When you get sermons stories from collections of other preacher's sermon stories you are finding jewels without their setting. You are discovering odd shaped, used windows without knowing whether they came from an ancient castle or a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. Those windows just don't fit your house. When you discover a story in a book you are reading or a café where are sitting you have both the jewel and the setting, the house and the window. When you stand in front of Ruben's Descent from the Cross (1611) and look and ponder and peer and search every square inch of the painting you find it in context. Then you can read the notes on the museum wall beside it and compare it with other paintings of the Cross in the same museum. You have an experience in a larger frame, pun intended. I walked across the street to the café. I ordered the soup. I was in the context and knew it as a lived experience, not a secondary source. I pondered picking up a clamshell.
The story found me—I did not have to find the story.
You already know that the best sermon stories are not the stories you frantically seek at 1:00 A.M. Sunday morning on Google because St. Augustine himself could not understand what you are saying about Romans 9 without some analogy. You are begging God like David Brainerd praying for conversions to give you any lived experience or something that even remotely connects your scholarly exegesis of the Greek with some aspect of the harassed 21st century lives sitting in front of you. Stories run from you screaming "I don't want to go to church this morning" if you try to stalk them at the very door to the sanctuary. You run up to the story like a matchmaker at midnight and introduce the story to your sermon: "Get married right now." The story shouts, "We haven't even had a date."
The very best stories find you. Karl Jung late in his career wrote a final book on synchronicity, Synchronicity: As Acausal Connecting Principle. He invented the word. The noun refers to events that are apparently random and without causation but come together meaningfully. There is correspondence without known causation. My wife is shopping for Christmas dinner while I dutifully push the grocery basket. She has a recipe calling for hazelnuts. I am somewhat vague about hazelnuts among the nut family. After trekking into the house with the groceries I ask her for a small dish of the hazelnuts. Settling down into my red cracked imitation overstuffed reading chair I open a new book edited by Richard Foster. For every one of an annual 52 weeks Foster introduces another new spiritual formation guru. The book randomly falls open to the writings of a woman I have never read, Julian of Norwich. I am curiously eating my hazelnuts. Nut in hand I read:
And in this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind's eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, "What can this be?" And the answer came to me, "It is all that is made." I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, "It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God." In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it. But what does this mean to me?
Have you ever swallowed an entire hazelnut?
I needed that message. Yet a sermon I was writing waited for just that very thing. Jesus sends two anonymous disciples into Jerusalem to meet an incognito stranger carrying a jug of water on his head. He will lead them without GPS to the house of another stranger where they will ask to borrow what would become a very famous Upper Room. All of it was apparently random, a hazelnut moment (Mark 14:12-16). Finding a clamshell at the café was another such moment: right thing in the right place. Hazelnuts and clamshells find you.
The story is personal without exalting the preacher.
The late J.D. Grey wrote a humorous book, Epitaphs for Eager Preachers. Each chapter began with a tombstone icon atop the first paragraph. One chapter had this epitaph on a preacher's headstone: "He hugged himself to death." How many personal stories are an exercise in self-display? The preacher prays more, sacrifices more, has a more perfect family, and is generally three feet above contradiction. I remember reading John Wesley's journal as a freshman ministerial student at Baylor University. He awoke at 4 a.m., chanted psalms, read the Greek testament for an hour, prayed for an hour, mortified his flesh, and so forth. I tried it … for three days. It turned out that I would either imitate Wesley or flunk from sleep deprivation. In contrast with that story a number of personal pastoral stories leave more than a faint impression that the preacher is a creature at the upper limits of spiritual imitation far beyond the poor souls in the pews.
My humble clamshell story shows my own reluctance to take a shell to the lunch table, reticence to try it and even my Walter Middy-type thoughts of universal clamshell koinonia. That is, the story is one that reveals my own clay feet. I did not take a clamshell, stand on a chair, pray for everyone in the café, and start a clamshell church. When you tell a personal story tell the story in a gentle self-effacing way that shows the kryptonite weakening your Superman image. The people will love you more and your sermons will help them more.
Consider a further reminder. Limit personal stories. Today the default story for many preachers much of the time is the "guess what happened to me" story. It is a cheap way to find an unrelated story that screams while you drag it into the pulpit, "I don't belong here." Let me tell you a little secret. Lay folks get tired of the three-cute-things-that-happened-to-you-and-your-family-this-week stories. There is a world of literature, art, music, sport, biography, and clam shells out there. Finite mortal that you are you cannot have enough personal experiences to illustrate the richness of the gospel. Tell the clam story once and clam up.
The story sounds lifelike rather than dramatic.
Since the Victorian Era sermon stories have suffered from histrionics. Missionaries boiled in oil or feet frozen off in the tundra for Jesus have arrested the attention of congregations who nevertheless tell themselves, "I can't be a Christian in this little town if it takes that much drama." My earliest memories of sermon stories in the 50s were World War II dramas, ambulances with sirens screaming, little boys caught up in crushing machinery, endless stories of fire trucks, Napoleon, emergency rooms, Alexander the Great, Vesuvius, and other such dramas. Here is the rub. Most of them had nothing to do with the quiet lives of the folks in the pew. None of the folks listening to those sermons expected to conquer an empire and about once in a lifetime they would go to the emergency room. Such stories produce the illusion that Christian discipleship is possible only in pulse-racing heart-pounding crises.
That has nothing to do with the schoolteacher who has to pay for supplies out of her own pocket. The engineer who has to make yet one more international flight to explain a jet to buyers in Kuala Lumpur while missing his son's basketball tournament does not feel like Napoleon; he just feels worn out. The divorced single mother working three jobs does not think of D-Day; she just wants to survive. You need to find kitchen-sized stories for meatloaf moments in Peoria not eleven course dinner stories on the Ile de Cite in Paris.
As a 20-something preacher who had begun preaching at sixteen I was a PhD student serving an inner city pastorate. My sermon stories thrilled a blue-collar congregation with Xenophon's Anabasis attached to an occasional riveting explanation of the finer points of the pluperfect tense of the Greek verb blepo. I was attracting a fair number of university students who thought that was all cool. A senior woman, a retired schoolteacher, cornered me and exercised what you might call a ministry of confrontation: "The people who built this church do not understand a thing you are saying." She had a certain way of making that point perspicuously clear in about a dozen ways before I escaped the corner of the church hall where she had gripped me like Fritz von Erich. Senior church ladies can do that.
Charles R. Swindoll to the rescue. In Texas preachers stand at the church door in howling winter and blazing summer freezing or broiling while parishioners say such things as, "That sure was a sermon." In the late 70s more than a few who had just heard me piped up with an observation about someone else's sermon: "That was an interesting little talk you gave. Do you ever listen to Chuck Swindoll?" After getting over such an invidious comparison I started listening to Swindoll. It changed my illustrating forever. Chuck told stories about real people in Southern California where he was at that time. He told about dogs that ran off and came back, postal workers that went an extra mile and retired church members that did quiet heroic things. I cannot remember a Napoleon, Julius Caesar, or Cleopatra in his sermons. He sat his sermons down squarely in the lives of regular folks. That changed my story telling. I started telling more stories about clams and fewer about Hellenistic heroes. I still let Leonidas and the Spartans into a sermon now and then, but only for a limited engagement.
The best stories are clear windows and not stained glass.
Stained glass calls attention to itself. You look at it and not through it. You admire the stained glass itself and not what you might see on the other side. They have their place but you would likely not wish to live in a house with only stained glass windows. Most of us wish to look through the window to what is outside. The best sermon stories do not cause the congregant to exclaim, "What a story. We have a brilliant story-finding preacher. He is the Einstein of illustrating, the Verdi of anecdote, the Neil Armstrong of story stalking." To create that response is to miss the point.
Stories should be streetlights, not Tiffany lamps. The cut-glass lamps created by Charles Tiffany are now expensive collectors' items. Aficionados place Tiffany lamps in conspicuous places to call attention to the lamp. Visitors to their homes exclaim with admiration, "You have a Tiffany lamp." No one reads by the light of a Tiffany lamp. The lamps are intended to call attention to the lamp.
On the other hand, very few nighttime walkers stop, gawk at a streetlight and exclaim, "My, what a streetlight. That is the finest streetlight I have ever seen." By their very nature streetlights show the way more clearly; their function is not to call attention to their presence. So also are the best sermon stories. They are streetlights that make the way to the text clearer, not Tiffany lamps that distract from the text.
Somewhere C.S. Lewis defines the difference between looking at and looking with. When a stream of sunlight shines through a crack in an old shed you can see the sunlight cutting through the darkness. Yet inevitably you look along the beam of light to see what it falls on at the end of its brightness. You look with or along the light, not just at the light. The light leads your eye to what it strikes. The clam did not cause me to ponder the world of bivalve mollusks or the Cambrian Age. You looked through it at the strange pathos of human loneliness.
A sermon story should be no longer than necessary.
For the most part movements in a sermon explain the Bible, tell a story and somehow pin the whole thing to the practical, moving it from isness to oughtness. The relative weight of these elements varies from preacher to preacher and sermon to sermon. Craddock will have more stories and John MacArthur will have more Bible. Yet virtually all homiletics professors agree that the text should dominate, the Word should direct the sermon. Few would argue that the purpose of preaching is the expounding of good a yarn while attaching a text at the end of the tale (although this does happen with troubling frequency). The story plays a supporting role and is not there to be nominated for the preaching Oscar. The text should leave with the Academy Award, not the story.
This means stories need to make cameo appearances. They are not the stars of the show. Stories are supporting actors not the leading lady. That implies a limitation to the length of the story. When stories are so long they diminish the text, wash over the text like a tsunami of verbiage, and carry the text out to sea never to be seen again, the story has flooded the sermon.
When you look at your sermon as a created manuscript or brief, mark how much of the sermon is story and how much is exposition. In the evangelical world text dominates. By literal word count or number of lines on a page, the text has the most space. When stories gobble up the majority of words in a sermon you need to go back to your exegesis and ask yourself how you can popularize the explanation of the text without drowning it in anecdote. Text dominates.
Now this does not mean that you stop preaching when you tell the story. An organic story that truly roots in the soil of the text is as much a part of the sermon as the explanation of where Ur is or the significance of a biblical covenant. Yet the narration of the text dominates the truly biblical sermon in time on the clock and words on the page.
Stories work because there is an analogy between the created world and the spiritual world.
Once upon a time there was a famous debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner over the point of contact between the transcendent spiritual world and the imminent physical world. Barth famously maintained that the transcendence of the Word of God is without analogy. Brunner opined the opposite. Jesus has his own opinion. He compared his kingdom in analogies to farmers and birds, servants and kings, plowmen and pearl merchants. It seems that he settled the theology of analogy.
Between the tangible, mundane physical world and the unseen, transcendent spiritual world any point of contact is called the ground of comparison, or to be rhetorical about it, the tertium comparitionis. Consider the ground of the comparison in the Parable of the Talents. The faithful disciple of Jesus is like the five-servant-talent in one way only. The disciple today does not literally have five golden coins that he takes to the stock exchange. The ground of comparison is willingness to take a risk for the sake of the master. Discipleship is like the natural world of human investment in one way: it requires risk.
I once had the privilege of sitting next to Eugene Peterson at a luncheon and asked him what principles he used in translating The message. He replied quickly, "The natural world is illustrative of the spiritual world." That is, God has so ordered creation that there is an analogy between nature and super nature. Sermons stories work because that is the case. I am not like the entire situation of the clam in the box by the cash register at the café because I am a bi-valve mollusk. I am like that entire story because I too need to take a risk to talk to a stranger. That is the ground of comparison. I am not like a clam in a box in any other way.
Consider this. Stories are extended metaphors. When David wrote "My God is a Rock" he did not imply that God is made up of sediments under pressure or lava. The ground of comparison is stability. Sermon stories are extended metaphors or similes that emphasize the ground of comparison. The preacher must be very clear about that ground of comparison. I would not tell the clam story to prove, for example, that Noah put two clams on the ark. I would tell it to frame the one way in which my human situation is like the situation. The entire framework of clams in a box at a café enabling conversation with a stranger suggests my reluctance or insecurity to do so. Do not strain the metaphor. Metaphors are both like and unlike the source they compare to something else. Think through the ground of comparison and emphasize that ground in the sermon to the exclusion of others. Otherwise you might be like the politician who exclaimed, "I smell a rat. It's in the air. We must nip it in the bud." That would suggest a flying blooming rat!
Behind the use of sermon story as analogy hides a theology of revelation. Austin Farrer maintained that God only can know God and have direct access to God and we can only know him by analogy to creaturely existence. We cannot even name God without analogy and at the same time knowing the limits of that analogy. That is to note that the sermon story as analogy is not a mere appendix but belongs to the theological necessity of talking about God in terms of human analogy.
Sermon stories may be point or counterpoint.
You will miss half of the possible illustrative material if you do not consider in each case what the opposite of the illustrated truth might look like. If you are speaking of generosity you may also use a counterpoint illustration of greed. If you wish to underscore humility you may contrast it with a story of hubris. Should you want to picture life with divine guidance you can display that truth against a backdrop of someone who became hopelessly lost. All stories may be on point or the opposite of the point.
That suggests a use of secular literature in preaching. Bill Anderson goes further than I would but asserts that there is "sacred" Scripture and "secular" scripture. The latter refers to the mirror that literature holds up to life. In that regard literature serves as an analogue of redemption. When you use literature in your sermon that demonstrates the cost of a non- or anti-Christian life you are using literature as a counterpoint. James Joyce is no friend of evangelicals. He was educated as an Irish Jesuit Roman Catholic but renounced the faith. His dour, depressing, and hopeless book Dubliners in each of its depressing short stories demonstrates the consequences of a life without a living faith. The disappointed characters in that collection of futile stories act as a "secular" revelation of life without God. Surely care would be taken before introducing the modernist Irishman into a sermon. With students, college chapels, or literary enthusiasts his stories are a counterpoint to a life of faith with hope.
A clamshell is just around the corner. The living Christ is your friend and helper in preaching. Fifty years of experience preaching has taught me that he has prearranged stories awaiting your discovery. Perhaps you will consider the qualities suggested above as you sift through your own shells.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Professor of Preaching at Truett Seminary, Distinguished Fellow of Georgetown College in Georgetown, KY, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.