Chapter 139

Limits of Personal Illustrations

Why stories from your experience are not always the best way to illustrate

A few months ago I was talking about preaching over a pancake breakfast with Lee Eclov, pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire in Lake Forest, Illinois, and he surprised me with this observation: "Personal illustrations are cheap."

Preachers know the effectiveness of using stories from their own experience, so my eyebrows raised, and I asked, "What do you mean, 'cheap.'"

Lee explained we often use personal illustrations because they are easy to come by. Though easy and close to home, they are often weak stories, metaphors, or examples. If someone else tried to quote our personal illustration, we would immediately see how lame it is. Even so, because the illustration is immediate and concrete and we need something, we use it rather than search for something better.

Since that breakfast I have thought a number of times about what Lee said and realized I have indeed often used cheap personal illustrations in my sermons. They had the interest of the congregation because of our relationship, but they really didn't add to the sermon anything beyond a breather.

I thought of another conversation with a preacher I talked to years ago who, when I asked where he found good illustrations, said, "All my illustrations come out of my daily life."

That may sound good—I don't stoop to using "canned" illustrations!—but there is a danger there. Doesn't that become narrow for his congregation after a while? Don't his people tire of hearing about his hobby, his kids, his feelings? After a few months or years, don't people roll their eyes at excessive autobiography even from someone they love dearly?

Certainly well-crafted personal illustrations are some of our best illustrations, but they can never meet the majority of our needs. I must illustrate from a world bigger than my own. My listeners don't relate to everything in my life. They relate as well to the pervasive world of media and the experiences of other people.

That is why publishes sermon illustrations. What can make an illustration "canned"—ineffective—is a cut-and-paste approach. Skillful communicators know just because a sermon and an illustration are both about love does not mean the illustration will suit the sermon. When you consider using an illustration from our database, I suggest weighing the following factors:

  1. Tone and associations
  2. Suitability and relevance for your audience
  3. The purpose an illustration must serve at that point of the sermon
  4. Whether the illustration fits who you are

I've also found when I use a prefabricated illustration, I have to do extra work to become familiar enough with it to where I can deliver it with authority and sincerity. The point is, such illustrations usually take more work, not less, but they are worth it.

Our purpose is to help you find credible, fresh, interesting, usable, helpful illustrations and thereby to increase the effectiveness of your preaching and in the end change lives.