How can I help hearers understand abstract biblical truths?
In his book The Elements of Story, Francis Flaherty says this:
Look until you see something new, for the writer is the watcher of the world.
Preachers, too, are watchers of the world. Developing illustrations, whether you are using stories and information from your own life or are adapting material from other sources, requires an ability to see connections—to draw abstract, spiritual insight from the often mundane surface of everyday life. How strong is your eyesight at present? How motivated are you to grow in it? The skill of seeing can be developed in anyone.
The techniques found in the articles Illustrate Like Max and John, parts 1, 2, and 3, provide a great jumping off point as you seek to develop this skill of sight. Begin practicing the following exercises as you prepare for your next sermon.
Continual Searching: Pause every 30 minutes and record one notable thing that you have found during each interval. Keep a small notebook with you to make this activity a seamless part of your day. After you practice this discipline for a few days, do you find it becoming a regular part of your thinking? Do you need to adapt this in some way to fit you better?
Pyramid of Abstraction: Each day, choose one of your search findings to press into the pyramid of abstraction, connecting your specific and concrete observation to its abstract potential. This step may be the most difficult for you, but with persistence and over time this ability will grow and become a natural part of your thinking.
Telling a Story: Once you've found an observation that could be of interest to others, practice telling it in narrative form. As you practice, get feedback from those around you. Are you setting up the story well? Does the story have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Are you transitioning smoothly out of the story? How good are your powers of description? Do you invest emotion when appropriate in the telling of a story?
Before you practice the above techniques, honestly answer the following questions:
How broad is your base of theological concepts? How vast is your theological vocabulary? Effectively employing the Pyramid of Abstraction requires a solid grasp on theological themes. How can you intentionally pursue growth in this area?
In what light do you view the world around you? Do you find yourself thinking in a way guided by the fruits of the Spirit and the gospel about people and situations you see? Or do you commonly see the world from a negative or cynical angle? How is your attitude, whatever it may be, affecting what you see?
Do you listen to other preachers who illustrate well to learn from their example? Do you study them, taking note of how they set up their illustrations, how they transition out of them, how they deliver their illustrations, where they get their material? Are you making use of the storehouse of great preaching and illustrating examples in the sermons of PreachingToday.com? (Providing great examples for study is one of the reasons we have sermons on PreachingToday.com.)
Typically, has using sermon illustrations sometimes merely afforded you space to tell a good story, or do you use them to enhance your congregation's understanding of biblical realities?
Once you have gotten in the habit of doing these exercises, ask trusted members of your congregation for honest feedback regarding the effectiveness of your sermon illustrations. Use these questions:
Did you find my preaching at all inaccessible? Do I need to use more illustrations? Fewer illustrations? Can you relate to most of my illustrations at some level?
Did the illustrations I used distract from the biblical message of my sermon or enhance it? How so?
Not all of your illustrations will come from your own observations about life and the people around you. Adapting stories, quotes, and statistics from outside sources also takes practice and intentionality.
Do you currently have a system for finding and capturing illustrations to use in conjunction with your teaching?
Have you taken the time to master the use of the PreachingToday.com search engine?
Illustrating your sermons well requires intentionality, thought, and insight. Above all, pray that God would give you new eyes to see the illustrative nature of the world around you.