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5 Surprises about Illustrating Sermons

And it only took me 30 years to discover them.

Average Rating:  [see ratings/reviews]5 Surprises about Illustrating Sermons

A year ago I was out in Colorado, and went for a run in some parkland along the South Platte River. It was a beautiful day and my run got off to a great start. I was keeping an eye on my watch to see how the altitude was affecting my pace, but was also enjoying the scenery—the winding river, the wildlife, and the snow-covered Rockies on the horizon. As usual, I was letting my mind ponder an upcoming series on evangelism.

As I came around a bend I noticed a couple of women standing beside the trail handing out flyers. I wasn't about to break my stride or concentration, but as I ran by they put a flyer in front of me and I couldn't help but take it. I gave it a quick look as I ran. It had a picture of a young man and a few sentences explaining that he was lost. He'd gone out for a run the night before and hadn't come home.

Over the years I've discovered that it's less about 'finding' illustrations and more about 'seeing' them.

Troubled, I turned around and ran back to the women and asked them a bit more. They explained that he had suffered a brain injury, and sometimes got disoriented. I assured them I would keep my eyes open.

With that, I got back to my run. But suddenly, everything felt different. I wasn't admiring the scenery and watching for wildlife any more. My eyes were scanning the river bank, looking for signs of a lost young man. My pace didn't matter anymore, as I stopped more than a few times to check a stand of brush or river grass. I wasn't just out for a run anymore. I was on a mission. Someone was lost, and needed to be found.

Then it occurred to me. What if I lived every day of my life like that—on the lookout for lost people? I wouldn't be worried about my reputation and routine. What if our church made that our top priority? We wouldn't be fretting over worship styles and our own agendas anymore. We'd be on a mission, and that would change everything.

Haddon Robinson says that illustrations serve at least five purposes: they gain attention, clarify truth, aid memory, stir emotion, and establish rapport. When I told that story in the opening message of the series, it captured the imagination of the congregation and fulfilled all five of those purposes. We all know how powerful a good illustration can be, but where do we come up with them week after week, and how do we use them appropriately and effectively? After 30-some years of preaching, I've made five discoveries about illustrations.

They're hiding in plain sight.

Finding illustrations is every speaker's obsession. We search the web. We scavenge the newsfeed. We go to Preaching Today's site. We rack our brains. And in dark and desperate moments we go to our bookshelves and pull down 1001 Sermon Illustrations, hoping that none of our colleagues will be listening the next morning.

Over the years I've discovered that it's less about finding illustrations and more about seeing them. In other words, they're all around us. We simply need to train ourselves to recognize them.

Have you ever walked through an art gallery with a real live artist? You're both looking at the same paintings, but they see things you never do, because they know what to look for—the interplay of light and shadow, the gradations of color, etc. In the same way, seasoned speakers know what to look for as they make their way through the week: a startling statistic, a heart-warming story, the plaintive lyric of a song, a celebrity's confession.

I was working on a message from Romans 5 dealing with humanity's sinfulness and Christ's redemption. How would I bring these complex and abstract realities down to earth for my listeners? Reading myself to sleep one night, my eyes picked up a small article on the op-ed page of the paper, describing the archeological discovery of an ancient massacre. The grim find revealed that human beings were brutally killing each other from the very dawn of civilization. "For just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin … " Later in the week, we were watching a play downtown. A rough and tumble character was trying to explain to a naïve young woman what he did to get sent to the reformatory. He replied, "Honey, I was born. The rest took care of itself." I snuck a pen out of my pocket and scrawled the line down on the back of the playbill. " … and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned … " Then one morning, while skimming through emails, I noticed an intriguing tease from a Christian newsletter that I usually send right to Trash. For some reason I clicked on it, and found a moving missionary account of a Chinese believer laying down his life to save a group of orphaned children from pursuing soldiers. " … so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men."

All three illustrations found their way into my message, bringing clarity, emotion, and plausibility to my argument. I didn't go looking for them, they were sitting there, hiding in plain sight, waiting to be found. If we can train ourselves to walk through life with eyes and ears wide open, we'll find that nature, culture, and human experience abound with illustrative material.

It helps, of course, to know where we're going with the message early in the week or month, so we know what we're looking for. So when we see, hear, or feel something that captures our imagination, we pause for a moment to ask ourselves why, and to turn it over in our heads and hearts for a few moments.

Train yourself to ask of the biblical text: "When in life have I experienced this truth?" Or, following the genius of C. S. Lewis, ask of a biblical idea, "What else is this like?" Recently I was trying to illustrate how our love for Jesus helps us to remain true to him when we're tested or tempted. It occurred to me that it's "like" a travelling businessman who sets a picture of his family on the hotel nightstand. It's harder to do something stupid when you're being reminded moment by moment of the ones you love.

Filing doesn't work, except when it does.

I grew up listening to a master illustrator. Pastor Flynn had drawers full of sermon illustrations, meticulously filed alphabetically by topic and cross-referenced to Scripture texts. In seminary, Haddon Robinson taught us simply to gather illustrations into numbered file folders, keeping a running index as we go: Folder #1; Illustration #12—story of …. Rick Warren made it simpler yet: Buy a bucket. Throw stuff into it. When you need an illustration, rummage through until you find something. Younger colleagues have pitched me on a variety of digital filing and storage systems.

Over the years I've literally tried them all, with varying degrees of faithfulness, frustration, and occasional fruitfulness. Truth be told, I rarely "file" illustrations anymore. Personally, I've found I'm simply not disciplined enough in my collecting or retrieving to make it worth the effort. My illustration "files" these days consist of piles scattered on desks and scraps stuffed in to my journals or sermon folders.

However, the many years of working at it—collecting, cataloguing, etc.—trained me in knowing what to look for, what to save, and what mental "notation" to attach to it that would enable me to come up with it later. So I encourage younger preachers in particular to adopt some sort of "saving" system that will, over time, sharpen your eyes and your memory. Sure enough, every once in a while, with Sunday bearing down on you and your mind blank, you'll go to your files, and the system will actually work. You'll find the perfect closing illustration, and give thanks for Pastor Flynn, or whoever's system you made your own.

Let me offer a word of caution about using an illustration you pulled from your files, or off the internet. Seasoned listeners can spot a canned illustration before you've finished the first sentence. It not only diminishes the effectiveness of the illustration, it undermines the integrity and authenticity of your message.

Sometimes, I find the filed illustration can be a trigger for a similar insight or event coming out of my own experience that I can share authentically and enthusiastically. (Resisting, of course, the temptation to simply write yourself into someone else's story!) Other times, I'll go ahead with the canned illustration, but will be transparent about the process, acknowledging that I found it in a file, or sharing the backstory that led me to it. The missionary story I mentioned above was so random and dated I hesitated to use it, but it made the point, and Sunday was coming! So I set it up by telling the story of how "randomly" I found it earlier that week, which brought immediacy and authenticity to an "old school" illustration.

Technology is your friend, except when it isn't.

Some of us will remember spending tedious hours in The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, tracking down magazine and journal articles, which then had to be retrieved by a reference librarian, loaded onto a microfiche reader, and printed for a dime a page. Today, 20 minutes on Google can yield more material than you know what to do with—without ever getting out of your pajamas. Not to mention the ease with which we can project words, images, and video clips onto the screens of people's imaginations.

When I told the Platte River story, I projected a photo of the winding river, with its dense, brush-filled banks and low, dark clouds looming overhead. It helped the listeners visualize the scene and feel the vastness of the space. Technology can enrich our preaching and intensify our impact in all kinds of ways. But it can also be a hindrance and a distraction if not used wisely.

Technology isn't your friend when it keeps you from the fundamental pursuits of exegesis, wordsmithing, and unhurried reflection on the text. I am dismayed by the lack of fresh insights and biblical richness in much contemporary preaching. I typically put a time limit on myself when I go to the web in search of illustrative material, and reserve my most productive hours of the day for the hard work of study and writing. When you can't think of anything to say, instead of hopping on the internet, go back to the text. Read it in another translation. Print it out and mark it up. Check out another commentary instead of another person's sermon.

Technology isn't your friend when it takes over the sermon—too many slides, extended video clips, and putting things on the screen just because you can. Remember every time you put something on the screen, you lose eye contact with your listeners. They're now relating to that image instead of to you, and you have to win them back again. (And chances are you're not as engaging as that Star Wars clip.) I put the Platte River picture up at the beginning of the story, but took it down after my first few sentences, so they could lock onto me instead of the screen. Remember, too, that when you show a picture or video clip, the audience may not see what you want them to see. I've found it's sometimes more effective to describe a scene rather than show it, because then I can control what they focus on.

Technology isn't your friend when it occupies all your waking hours, and especially your down-time. Riding in the car, sitting in a waiting room, standing in line at the DMV—you never know when an idea or illustration is going to pop into your head. If you always have your headphones on, or are "redeeming the time" by checking your Twitter feed every time you have a few free minutes, there's no creative "space" for something to happen in your head. For that reason, I prefer not to listen to music—or sermons—while I exercise, and find that I get most of my best ideas and insights on the run.

If it's worth using, it's worth using well.

The preacher's temptation when using an illustration is simply to write, "tell Platte River story here" in our sermon notes or manuscript. We figure it's familiar enough and vivid enough that we don't have to wordsmith it. Just tell it—and it will carry the freight. Chances are it will, but chances are it will also be far less effective and memorable than if we'd taken the time to tell it well.

Crafting an illustration is as important as crafting an introduction or transition. I could easily have told the Platte River story with little or no preparation, and people would have enjoyed it, and maybe even got the point. But I spent a couple of hours writing and rehearsing it. I didn't want them simply to get it, but to feel it, and perhaps to recall it next time they found themselves walking along a river trail or thinking about a "lost" friend or neighbor.

I chose vivid words that would enable them to picture the scene unfolding before them—"snow-covered Rockies," "break my stride," "river grass." I wanted them to feel the freedom of a care-free run in the woods, and then the sudden change of mood with the news of a missing young man. It had to be long enough for them to enter into the story, but not take so long that they got impatient, and wondered where it was going. I wanted them to get a glimpse into my soul as I experienced it, but didn't want to make the story about me. My point is that every phrase and movement of the illustration was thoughtfully prepared and delivered for maximum impact and minimal distraction.

As important as it is to craft the illustration well, it is equally important to craft the next line after the illustration. Many effective illustrations have been lost on the listeners because the speaker failed to connect the dots for them. Remember that any vivid story, statistic, or image is going to stimulate people's imagination in all kinds of ways you hadn't predicted. In the Platte River story, for instance, mothers will identify with the worried women, tourists will be remembering their visit to Colorado, and runners will be wondering what my pace was. The speaker needs to reel them in at the close of the illustration and call attention to the point of comparison or insight. It's nice to do that artfully when we can, but often the best approach is a simple, "In the same way that …"

As important as it is to craft that transitional sentence precisely, it is equally important to deliver it seamlessly, without breaking cadence or losing eye-contact. There's no more uncomfortable feeling than coming to the end of a killer illustration, having every eye in the room on you, and having no idea what you're supposed to say next!

It's important, as well, to be sensitive to the emotional impact of an illustration. This is especially important when using a negatively-charged story or report. If you open with a disturbing story of tragedy or loss, you'd better have an equally powerful illustration of redemption or hope later in the message. A mistake I made with the Platte River story was to neglect to tie up the story later in the message. I was assaulted by people in the lobby wanting to know if they had found the young man. As it happened, I couldn't give them a verified answer, (which is why I hadn't said anything), but since all my efforts to track down the story had come up empty it was likely it had a happy ending. It would have been wiser to have told them that somewhere along the way so they could focus on the rest of the message.

The best illustration is a life well lived.

I often say to pastors, "If you want to be an interesting preacher, be an interesting person." In other words—get a life! I'm all for hitting the books and doing the hard work of writing. I still put in 20 hours on a Sunday sermon. But all work and no play makes Bryan a dull preacher.

So, find a hobby. Go to the museum. Run a half-marathon. Ride public transportation. Walk for cancer. Join a health club. As you do those things, talk to people; strangers, even. Ask questions: "What do you like about your work?" Ask yourself, "What am I learning here—about people? About life? About myself?" Guess the backstory of people's lives. Imagine what their lives might look like if they knew Christ and his good purpose for them. Picture Jesus stepping into the scene. What would he notice? What might he say, or do?

Cultivate a reflective lifestyle. Keep a journal by the side of your bed, and jot down memorable moments and reflections on the day. Let your mind run free on your day off. I don't work on Tuesday, but after a couple of hours of study on Monday, the text and ideas are rattling around in my mind as I mow the lawn or go to the movies. Instead of hurrying out of the theater as soon as the movie ends, sit for a while as the credits roll and ask yourself: "What was the big idea of this film?" "What did it reveal about human experience and the world in which we live?" "Where did it intersect with the biblical narrative and gospel message?" (Warning: It will drive your kids nuts.)

The most powerful illustration you will ever share is the life you live, and the person you are becoming. People look to us not only for exposition, but exhibition. They need to see the life of faith lived out by a real human being, who is willing and able to be transparent with their growth and failures. I have plenty of illustrations on the importance of community, because Karen and I have been part of a life group at our church for 15 years. The congregation knows that personal evangelism doesn't come easily to me because I've shared my foibles and awkward moments with them. But they know I'm seeking to grow in that area, and when I can tell them about a meaningful airplane conversation, they not only rejoice with me, they begin to believe they can get better at it, too.

So over the years I've discovered that illustrations, like songbirds, are all around us, and even in our heads. We have to tune our ears to hear them. Then, with enthusiasm and directness, point them out to our listeners, so we can all thrill to the music of heaven.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Marshall Shelley

May 04, 2016  9:55am

Yes, indeed. Very helpful and winsomely told!

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Greg Hollifield

April 29, 2016  1:19pm

Excellent! Thanks for sharing. If I may, I'd add this bit of advice: "Don't apologize for using a personal illustration." Somewhere in days gone by, aspiring preachers were told not to refer to themselves in the sermon. Some of them actually took that advice to heart and passed it along to their friends. Those preachers succeeded not in making more of Jesus and less of self but in making themselves and their messages seem distant, aloof, leaving only the shadow of a human in the pulpit. If preaching is indeed "truth through personality," there's no need to apologize for sharing either one.

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Damien Parks

April 19, 2016  5:37pm

Pastor Bryan. Excellent article full of insight and wisdom so much so I have to read it over asgin.5 stars.

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