Why some illustrations work better than others.
At any Fourth of July fireworks display, some rockets capture more attention than others. There are the delicate sprays that gently "puffph," sending to one side a dozen streaks of red or blue. There are the dazzling sky-fillers that radiate spokes of fire into a gigantic wheel of light. Then there are, what I called as a boy, the "boomers." Their launch sounded a bit louder. I would spot a small flash in the sky; a moment later the intestine-vibrating concussion thundered over the golf course, kids squealing with ear-aching delight.
Like fireworks on Independence Day, illustrations put light, color, and excitement into our sermons. They celebrate the sermon's ideas and principles. The small ones—allusions, analogies, and clever turns of phrase—are designed to support small points. But when we want to drive home the major theme, we best send up our most powerful and illuminating illustration. As a preacher and as editor of PreachingToday.com, I've reviewed literally thousands of illustrations, and I've noticed seven elements of the most powerful.
Specific rather than general
Being specific means saying Luger rather than weapon; '89 Taurus rather than vehicle; adultery rather than sin; the nails through Christ's palms rather than Christ's sufferings; Bob, the 45-year-old overweight Chicago detective with the scar on the back of his hand rather than the officer. The gunpowder is in specifics: the more precise the better.
Terry Fullam, in his sermon "Life on Wings," tells how mother eagles force their young to fly. If he had spoken in generalities, he would have said, "When their fledglings are old enough, eagles actually destroy their own nest to force the offspring to fly." But Terry used specifics:
The mother eagle stands on the edge of the nest and begins to pick up the feathers and the leaves from the lining and cast them over the edge. There they go.
"Mother, what are you doing?" Mother eagle pays no attention. She takes out the interior of the nest. She takes the great sticks, and with her strong beak she snaps them in two. She turns them up on end—pulls the place apart.
"Mom, what are you doing?" She pays no attention. She begins to disassemble the nest, and the branches go plummeting down the face of the cliff.
"Mom, we're not old enough to go out into the world." But she doesn't pay any attention. Is she trying to break up housekeeping because she doesn't like her children anymore? Not at all. She understands something they don't know. They weren't made to perch in the nest. They were made to soar, and they will never soar as long as they are in the nest.
Three specifics have dramatically improved this illustration. First, Terry details the destruction of the nest, with branches being snapped in two and feathers, leaves, and branches tumbling over the side. Second, he offers the thoughts of the young eagles. By articulating their fears and objections, we enter the story. Third, instead of fly Fullam uses soar, which communicates the nobility of the eagle's flight. One strategically specific word can make or break an illustration, turning a fluorescent light into a laser beam.
General words stir as much excitement as generic products; specific, as brand name. Specifics explode because listeners can better see, hear, feel, and experience the thing. Specifics command attention, enticing listeners.
We tend to use generalities for compelling reasons. Specifics often take research and extra thought, precious commodities to a pastor. Generalities are safe; no one accosts us after church arguing that the nails were put through Christ's wrists not his palms, for example. We can't help but use generalities when we can't remember details of a story or we want anonymity for someone. Still, speakers communicate better the more specific their language.
About people rather than things
In his sermon "What about Shaky Marriages?" Stuart Briscoe says that men and women often cannot understand each other. He could have used computers to illustrate this: "Your IBM computer requires IBM-compatible software. If you try to run Apple software, on it, your IBM computer simply can't read the program."
That illustration would make the point, but it lacks the power of the illustration Briscoe actually used:
Clint Eastwood made a movie called Heartbreak Ridge… . There is a side story in that movie where Eastwood—the 24-year-veteran marine gunnery sergeant, Congressional Medal of Honor winner—has lost his wife, who doesn't want anything to do with him. This big macho man is quite pathetic. He doesn't know what to do, so he starts buying women's magazines. You have a remarkable picture of Clint Eastwood reading women's magazines to find out what on earth his wife really wants. The tragedy is that it's perfectly obvious to everybody else, but not to Clint.
This seizes our interest. The average church attender finds People magazine more engaging than PC User. Listeners identify with people's emotions, thoughts, opinions, appearances, problems, successes, strengths, and weaknesses. While illustrations drawn from nature, mechanics, or mathematics can help clarify, people illustrations are more likely to stir emotion. They are alive.
Story rather than image
Images, which make abstract ideas concrete, are crucial to good preaching. For example, in his Christmas sermon, "Glory to God in the Lowest," Bruce Thielemann says:
We have an observatory in California called Mount Palomar, where there's a great telescope that can look out into space and pick out light so far away that it takes one hour of focusing upon that light for it to make even the faintest impression upon a photographic plate—tremendous capacities for focus in that telescope. But that is nothing compared to the way in which God focused himself in that baby. One little girl said Jesus was the best picture that God ever took.
While such images can be effective in sermons, when it's time to make a larger impact, a story works better. Howard Hendricks tells this story:
There's a running controversy in art circles as to who is the greater: Michelangelo, the pupil, or Bertoldo, the teacher. The great teacher Bertoldo knew gifted individuals are prone to ride rather than develop. He warned Michelangelo repeatedly, but with no effect.
One morning he walked into the studio and watched Michelangelo as he was piddling on a little piece of statuary. Bertoldo went over and picked up a sledgehammer and batted it into a thousand pieces that ricocheted all over that room. In the stunned silence, he shouted, "Michelangelo, talent is cheap; dedication is costly.
Stories, even more than images, provide impact through their plot, conflict, resolution, curiosity, human interest, climax, life, surprise.
Both emotional appeal and logical appeal
In his sermon, "The Wisdom of Small Creatures," Haddon Robinson says:
A while ago I was trying to fix our garage door. I came to that one screw I had to get loose, and the more I worked to loosen that screw, the tighter it seemed to get. A neighbor came over and saw my plight. He looked for a moment or two and said, "Oh, this has a left-handed thread. It's a reverse screw. You have to tighten or loosen it going in the opposite direction."
It took me fifty years to find out how screws work, and now they change the rules! There's a sense in which all of the Bible is kind of a reverse screw. Everything in the culture that seems right, in the Bible comes out wrong. The way up is the way down.
This story is effective emotionally and logically. We identify with Haddon's frustration over the stubborn screw and his surprise that a reverse screw exists. When he ties these common human emotions to a grand truth, the story is complete for us.
Less powerful would have been a merely logical illustration: "American League hitters struggle if and when they are traded to the National League. They've been accustomed to a higher strike zone, so for a while, they tend to get a lot of called strikes on low pitches, which they have trained themselves to lay off. It's the same way when you first read the Bible; God seems to change the rules. What was once a ball is now a strike, and vice versa."
Emotion alone can be as empty as cotton candy. Logic alone can be clinical, a tasteless meal of vitamin pills. Together, though, they are a full course meal.
True rather than hypothetical
Again, in his sermon "The Wisdom of Small Creatures" from Proverbs 30:2428, Haddon Robinson is describing the destructive power of locusts. He could have said, "Imagine a plague of locusts sweeping through the breadbasket of America, consuming all the wheat and corn standing in the fields. They would leave behind a natural disaster costing millions of dollars." Instead he said:
What the locust and grasshopper cannot do alone, it can do in community with others. Back at the turn of the century there was a plague of locusts in the Plains of the United States. In a matter of a few days that swarm of locusts swept over the states of Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. In less than a week they did over 500 million dollars worth of damage (in the currency of that time).
Robinson's true story rings with authority. It's interesting. While someone can argue or doubt a hypothetical situation, a true account "proves" its point.
Show rather than tell
Instead of standing between listeners and the story, telling people what to think, a preacher can show listeners what happened and let listeners learn for themselves.
"Johnny was mad," is telling; "Johnny turned red, clenched his teeth, and pounded his fist on the table" is showing.
At the beginning of one sermon, one preacher told this story:
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time with some well-known winners—professional athletes, best-selling authors, renowned business leaders, financial authorities, televangelists, and even a few political leaders—winners, by anyone's definition. What surprised me about my interaction with many of these celebrated winners was that their victories had not seemed to satiate their desire to be winners. On the contrary, I came to understand that in many cases their victories had merely whetted their appetites to continue to succeed no matter what the cost.
This is better than no illustration at all, but it's a bunt single rather than a home run. Why? We never see the mannerisms and hear the words of these athletes for ourselves. We are forced to accept the speaker's assessment of their lopsidedness.
The illustration would have grabbed us, though, if he had let us see one of those unsatisfied winners, perhaps with dialogue like this:
I bumped into one guy who towered over me (and his biceps were as big as my thighs), and we started talking. I asked the obvious: "Are you in pro sports?"
"No more," he said. "But I played linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers a few years ago."
For the next forty-five minutes I sat nodding my head and saying nothing. He talked about himself, his records, his big plays, and he proudly showed me his Super Bowl ring.
Finally, I interrupted him. "So tell me about your family."
"Well, to be honest," he said, "I'm separated from my wife, and she has custody of the kids."
"That must be pretty tough."
He glanced away. "Yea, sometimes it really bothers me," he replied quietly. Then he looked me in the eye. "But in order to win you have to pay a price," he said sternly. "I worked long and hard to play in the Super Bowl. Nothing and no one can ever take that away."
With such dialogue, the curtain is pulled back. Showing lets listeners gain insight for themselves. It raises curiosity and brings immediacy. If that jock spilled his drink, every person in the church would get wet.
Descriptions rather than allusions
One preacher said, "Think of it. One maverick molecule running loose in this universe outside the sovereignty of God could be the very thing that disrupts every promise God has ever made to his people!"
He illustrated with this one-sentence allusion: "A grain of sand in the kidney of Oliver Cromwell changed the course of western civilization."
Allusions to stories have built-in limitations. First, ignorance: the majority of listeners would not know how Cromwell died. Listeners would understand the point but miss the emotional impact. Second, proportion: even if listeners do know a story, a glancing reference impacts less than a developed story, unless well-known allusions are piled up for cumulative affect, as in Hebrews 11. With an allusion, the listener's mind is like a flat stone skipping across the surface of a river and landing on the opposite shore; it gets wet but not submerged. The idea needs to be fully described.
The more developed an illustration, the more its details are allowed time to sink in, the more a listener's senses and memories and emotions are engaged, and the greater will be its effect. Listeners need to get interested and care about the people involved, all of which takes time to craft into a story.
In the following illustration, the preacher does more than briefly allude to Diocletian's unsuccessful attempts to stamp out the gospel of Christ. He describes them:
In one wave after another that continued until A.D. 298, it looked as if Emperor Diocletian, the last persecuting emperor, was going to destroy the Christian faith from the earth. When you look at Eusebius's church history, you find they took Christians at Alexandria, North Africa, cut their tongues out, boiled them in oil, and threw them into the sea. In the Roman Coliseum, they threw Christians to the lions. Diocletian imprisoned the preachers, murdered the Christians, and took their books and burned them to ashes. In fact, he erected a column in the city of Rome, and on that column was written in Latin Extincta Nomina Christianorum. It proclaimed in triumph the name of Christ extinct. But a strange thing happened. Diocletian divided his empire up, and the fellow who came after him in A.D. 312 looked up and said there at Milvian Bridge, "I see something strange in the sky." It was the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and next to it the words, "Under this sign, conquer." Whatever you think about Constantine and his conversion, I'll tell you this: Jesus cannot be hid.
On the Fourth of July, the explosive celebrations across our land are not staged by amateurs. Professional pyrotechnic engineers, thoroughly trained and following strict safety guidelines, plan the show, design and pack the missiles, arrange and load the mortars, and finally light the fuses.
Because these technicians can anticipate the patterns and effects of their gunpowdered art, we enjoy a fabulous show and, more important, celebrate a notable holiday.
Following these seven guidelines, preachers likewise can add both fire and light to their sermons.