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Podcast Episode 1 | 15 min

The Ladder of Abstraction

Using illustrations in your sermons.
The Ladder of Abstraction

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Matt Woodley: Welcome to Monday Morning Preacher where in each episode we look at one tool and one master preacher to improve our preaching. I'm Matt Woodley, editor of Preachingtoday.com, and I'm here today with this week's guest host, Kevin Miller, one of our featured preachers.

Kevin Miller: Hey, good to be here, Matt.

MW: Great to have you here, Kevin. So let me start with a story. When the Star Wars film, The Force Awakens came out, it earned $517 million worldwide in ticket sales in just its first week.

KM: That's not too bad.

MW: Not too shabby. It eventually became the third-highest grossing film of all time with worldwide gross of more than $2 billion.

KM: Wow.

MW: Yeah, that's a lot of money. So why the huge success? Well, let me quote a film studies prof at a swanky 50K/year university named Jeanine Basinger. Here is what she said about the film: "The studies finally seem to be remembering after years of over-reliance on visual effects that moviegoers like a story. It could be a story we are familiar with but give us, please," she said, "we're begging you, a story of some kind." Sometimes I wonder if the people who listen to me and other great preachers giving great content and great concepts, that they might be saying the same thing. Please, we are begging you, give us a story.

KM: Yeah, and I think that raises a particular challenge for people like you and me as preachers, Matt, which is this: So we know if we've preached at all that people like stories, but how do we tell stories that really connect with a biblical text and are hearers. That seems to be the challenge.

MW: There is a great tool for not only how to tell great stories but why to tell them. It is a tool actually that comes from Communication Theory. It is known as the Ladder of Abstraction, and it's a great tool that preachers can use to think about how they can illustrate their sermons. So think of a ladder.

KM: Okay, I've got a picture in my mind.

MW: Okay, twelve steps?

KM: Nope, four.

MW: Aluminum?

KM: No.

MW: Make it twelve.

KM: Okay.

MW: So now up at the top of the ladder write the words “Abstract Concepts,” then come down the ladder and write the words “Concrete Example.” So let's say up at the top of the ladder you have an abstract concept like finances. What do you picture in your mind when I say finances?

KM: Nothing right now.

MW: So let me give you a concrete example. Look at this wad of $100 bills that I am waving in front of your face right now.

KM: Where are the $100 bills? I want those $100 bills.

MW: Yeah, I do too. But anyway, that's a concrete example of finances. Let's say you're preaching on excellence, and that's an abstract concept so you need a concrete example. Hmmmm. How about Steph-an Curry, basketball's most valuable player, swishing a three-pointer from 32 feet. Now, that is a picture of excellence, my friend.

KM: And real excellence would be giving an MVP his accurate name: Stephen Curry.

MW: Well, I bumped into him at Target and he told me that I could call him Steph-an Curry.

Let's turn to our master preacher for this episode, and we're going to hear the Ladder of Abstraction used very well by Bryan Wilkerson. In this Easter sermon “What’s Your Story,” from our Preaching Today archives, he is talking about the futility that comes to every human life because of sin and death. Well, futility is a very abstract concept, but here is how he comes down the ladder to make it concrete for us all.

Bryan Wilkerson: Quite a few years ago when our kids were still young, we were out one evening at one of those themed family restaurants with TV's on all the walls, and the five of us were just kind of enjoying the conversation, waiting for our food to come. But our youngest, who was about three at the time, had his eyes glued to one of the TV screens, and he was watching a continuous loop of Road Runner cartoons. Watching as Wile E. Coyote strapped jet rockets to his roller skates, or as he shot himself out of a cannon, as he launched himself from a giant bow and arrow in pursuit of the elusive Road Runner. He watched for a long time, very intently, and suddenly had an epiphany. Without taking his eyes off the screen, he announced to the table: "No matter what he does, he's never going to catch the chicken." And that pretty much says it, doesn't it? Pretty good life lesson. It's the basic human storyline. No matter what we do, we're never really going to get the life we want, we're never going to beat sin and death. No, it's not as though we never live a good life, it's just that it's never as good as we'd like it to be, and it's certainly never as long as we'd like it to be. No matter what he does, he's never going to get the chicken, and neither will we. As long as sin keeps thwarting our dreams and death keeps robbing us of life. So that's our story. How about if we take a few minutes and think about the Jesus story.

MW: “No matter what he does, he's never going to get the chicken.” I love that. That is hilarious. But for sermon illustrations, or coming down the Ladder of Abstraction, it's not all about being funny or getting some laughs or even moving people or making them cry. It explains the biblical text, but they do even more than that. So Kevin, what do you think Bryan accomplished with that story about futility?

KM: Well, that was a genius illustration of what you want to do when you come down the Ladder of Abstraction, you want to help people see something and feel something. So I can't see futility, but I did picture in my mind as I heard him, I did see Wile E. Coyote with his eyes big, strapping dynamite sticks onto his rocket-propelled roller skates, and I saw him crashing at the bottom of the canyon and a little puff of smoke coming up after he hit. I can see all that, and as I do I start to feel this futility and think, Oh man, no matter how smart he is, no matter how hard he works, no matter how much technology he gets from ACME, he cannot catch Road Runner.

MW: It's an illustration that speaks to me about futility because I remember watching that growing up and thinking, Oh man, in one episode, couldn't that chicken just get flattened by something?

KM: Work that out with your therapist there, Matt.

MW: Thanks, Kevin.

KM: Okay, so Matt, let's say that you're working on your sermon for next Sunday. How would the Ladder of Abstraction guide the way you go about that sermon?

MW: Well, you're always starting with a specific abstract concept and that is your preaching theme. So you're going to say something about that theme. So it could be God's grace, God's mercy, God's judgment, the gospel, or something like that. So for instance, I was preaching on 1 Timothy 2, which has the passage, "There was one God and one mediator between man and God, the Man, Jesus Christ." So my theme was religious pluralism. In this pluralistic world that we live in, how can Christians say that Jesus is the only way to God the Father. So that's the abstract concept, so I needed a concrete example so I talked about my pharmacist. I will call him Joe; that's not his real name. But Joe is a really nice Hindu guy from India who really cares about his clients, who goes out of his way, who knows them by name, and I described Joe and my relationship with him and how much I appreciate him. Then I asked the question, “How can I ever say to Joe my religion is better than his religion? Or how could I talk to him about Jesus in a way that's meaningful. Or should I even talk about Jesus?” So there's a very concrete example of that abstract concept religious pluralism.

KM: Well, that's a great example because I could kind of see you in my mind's eye at CVS or Walgreen's talking to your pharmacist and I also could feel that kind of inner tension: Wow, I don't want to offend this guy, he's a nice guy, and yet I'm committed to my faith. So great job there. I recently had in a message about false teaching that similar challenge of how do I make heresy or false teaching something that people can see and feel. So I told about how in the 1950s a baby born in America had a 1 in 30 chance of dying. It was not much better odds than during the Civil War. Nobody knew how that could be changed. Part of the reason was there was this teaching, this – now we understand false - teaching among obstetricians and delivery room nurses that if a child was born not breathing well, a little small, maybe blue or something malformed, that you mark the child as stillborn, you set it to the side and you waited for it to die. Only through the work of Virginia Apgar, who created the Apgar score and others, did the whole false teaching get reversed and challenged, and now only 1 in 500 children don’t make it in America today.

MW: Yeah, great way to come down the Ladder of Abstraction. We both talked about stories. I don't want to give people the impression that the only way to come down the Ladder of Abstraction is by a full-blown story. You can do it with a quote, a stat, a metaphor, an image, a picture, and you can give some specific examples as well, some real quick examples. Like for instance, at another point in the same sermon that Bryan Wilkerson gave, he was talking about the concept of how every good story involves conflict or tension. Well, that's kind of abstract. So he came down the Ladder and he gave these real quick examples of that abstract concept.

BW: Take Romeo and Juliet. Two young lovers who want to be together but they have to overcome their feuding families' opposition. I asked the pastoral staff, a few of them, just to kind of help me come up with some more contemporary illustrations of this story pattern. They quickly came up with quite a few. Frodo has to destroy the golden ring to save Middle Earth. Rudy wants to play football for Notre Dame, but he's got to overcome poor grades and a puny stature. Katniss has to survive the Hunger Games in order to get home to her family. So I was impressed with how thoughtful and cultured our staff was until one of them mentioned a character named Lloyd Christmas from the film Dumb and Dumber, and this is when I began to despair. A character who wants something and has to overcome conflict to get it.

MW: So Kevin, what can we learn from how Bryan came down the Ladder with those quick examples?

KM: Well, when you give a quick list like this, there are two things you want to remember. The first is since you are keeping the list short you need to choose items that have wide familiarity because you don’t have time to explain them. So he chose films that were huge in the box office, seen by just about everybody, like Lord of the Rings. The second thing to remember is you want to choose examples so they touch different parts of your congregation. So he chose Hunger Games which might appeal maybe more to the younger female listeners, and then he chose Rudy which might appeal to sort of your midlife male listener.

MW: And Dumb and Dumber to appeal to intellectuals like me.

KM: Alright, Matt, I've got a question for you. Let's say you're getting ready to preach a 30-minute sermon this Sunday. How often in that message would you think you should come down the Ladder of Abstraction?

MW: That's a great question to think about and as a preacher to start being intentional about that. There is no law, but one of Preaching Today’s featured preachers, Joel Gregory, who is a preaching prof at Truett Seminary, has a great little rule of thumb. We will call it the first law of Gregory. He says basically every three to four minutes you should come down the Ladder of Abstraction in some way, in some manner. So if you're staying up on top, like eight, ten, twelve minutes, laboring through, explaining an abstract concept, you're going to probably find your people losing energy, losing focus. They get that kind-of glassy-eyed look like, “I'm trying to stay with you, preacher, but it's kind of tough right now.” So if you think about coming down the Ladder every three to four minutes.

KM: Do you find more preachers spend too much time at the top of the ladder or more preachers spend too much time at the bottom?

MW: I think you can do either one. I've seen some preachers that stay too long down at the bottom of the Ladder and they really don't give that biblical concept enough breadth, depth, and explanation that's required. But I think probably more preachers are under the assumption that if it's a truly deep sermon, if it's truly biblical sermon, then I have to stay up at the top of the Ladder of Abstraction the whole time, or at least too long. So that's probably the more common error.

So preachers, I really encourage you to find your own ways, means, and style of moving up and down the Ladder of Abstraction. Don't leave your people saying, “Please, give us a story, preacher.” Start at the top of the ladder but come down, move back and forth, and let your people see what you're talking about. Ladder of Abstraction: Great tool for preachers.

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

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