Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


Grafting in the Third-Person Illustration (part two)

How to make illustrations that do not come from your own experience into an organic part of the sermon.
This is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.
Far from hurting a sermon, third-person illustrations that are chosen with discrimination, modified with skill, and grafted organically into the sermon add enormous benefits.

What is intended when discerning homileticians scorn " canned " illustrations or when savvy preachers say, " I illustrate only from my own experience " ? What problem have they rightly recognized? A discriminating view of third-person illustrations finds that the problem is not third-person illustrations, per se, nor their medium, but rather the quality of third-person illustrations and the skill with which they are used.

Not all third-person illustrations are aluminum; some are like a tree cutting that we can graft into a bountiful olive tree. Chosen with care and used with skill, these illustrations can bud and flourish and bear fruit like a branch native to the tree.

I see six real problems with some third-person illustrations and how they are used. This final article looks at numbers three through six. For each problem I offer discriminating solutions.

3. Some third-person illustrations have made the rounds. People have already heard them. This is especially risky with old illustration books and Internet e-mails forwarded countless times. For example:

A young boy carried the cocoon of a moth into his house to watch it emerge. When the moth finally started to break out of his cocoon, the boy noticed how hard the moth had to struggle. In an effort to help, he reached down and widened the opening of the cocoon. Soon the moth was out of its prison. But as the boy watched, the wings remained shriveled. Something was wrong. What the boy had not realized was that the struggle to get out of the cocoon was essential for the moth's muscle system to develop. In a misguided effort to relieve a struggle, the boy had crippled the future of this creature. Trials are necessary for growth.

One Solution: Use illustration sources that regularly provide fresh illustrations.

Another Solution: Use older illustrations only if they have five-star quality and make the point better than any other illustration available. If a classic illustration is too good not to use, introduce it in a way that shows you know it is familiar: " You have probably heard this story before, but it bears repeating because it is a classic, " or " This illustration may be familiar to you, but it is no less true. "

4. Some sermons use too many third-person illustrations. They crowd out exposition. Preachers who find a mother lode of illustrations in a book or Web site are tempted to overuse them.

I heard one sermon that had a skillfully-developed outline derived from the text. The outline was developed with around 12 anecdotes, most of them of the Reader's Digest variety. Judging from the main points of the outline, the sermon was biblical, but it did not feel biblical because it devoted far more time to the illustrations than the text. The outline of biblical principles seemed only to serve as a spare platform for the real players in the sermon: the illustrations.

The result of this avalanche of illustrations was the sermon lost its center and focus. The sermon's center was not the interpretive point of view of the preacher, not a biblical metaphor or phrase, and certainly not the explanation of the text.

Illustration overkill also made the sermon lose its purpose. It felt more like entertainment than an encounter with the living Word of the Lord.

Solution: Limit the number of third-person illustrations.

5. Some third-person illustrations sound churchy. They may be overly sentimental, preachy, or moralistic. Especially to the unchurched and the young, they come across corny. For example:

The story is told of two artists who were putting the finishing touches on a painting high on a scaffold in a church. The younger artist stepped back to admire the work and became enraptured with the beauty of what he and his mentor had created. His master saw his pleasure and realized that in the emotion of the moment the young man was continuing to step back, inching toward the edge of the scaffold. In another moment he would plunge to his death. Fearing he would frighten his student by a warning cry, the master artist deliberately splashed paint across the painting. The young man lunged forward in shock and cried out, " What have you done? Why did you do that? " Upon hearing the reason, his anger and confusion melted into tears of joy and thankfulness. God sometimes uses trials to protect us from ourselves, especially from the naive enthusiasm that could lead us to disaster.

Solution: Don't use these illustrations, or edit them to get rid of corny elements. Use illustration sources that limit churchy illustrations.

6. Some third-person illustrations sound mythical. They don't have the ring of truth and real life. They are general, lacking names and dates and places. They cite general sources or none at all. For example:

A carpenter hired to help restore an old farmhouse had just finished up a rough first day on the job. A flat tire had made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup refused to start. As he rode home with a friend, he sat in stony silence. On arriving, as he walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. Then, opening the door, he underwent an amazing transformation. His tanned face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss. Why the transformation? The tree in his yard was his " trouble tree. " He knew he couldn't avoid having troubles on the job, but one thing was for sure — troubles didn't belong in the house with his wife and children. So he just hung his troubles on the tree every night when he came home and, in the morning, picked them up again. The funny thing was that when he came out in the morning to collect his troubles, there weren't nearly as many as he remembered hanging up the night before.

Solution: Generally we cannot fix mythical-sounding illustrations because we lack access to the truth. Avoid illustration sources that do not distinguish between fiction and reality (the common fiction signal today is " The story is told " or, as Jesus commonly used, " A certain woman was. " ) When unsure, assume an illustration is fiction.

If we find a mythical illustration that is useful, introduce it in a way that identifies it as fiction, as parable. For example, " There is an old legend that makes a helpful point. " Or, " Here is a parable that gives us a useful metaphor. " After all, a story need not be true to make a point. The problem comes when we tell a parable in a way that makes it sound like fact. Hearers will assume we are nave and gullible.


Far from hurting a sermon, third-person illustrations that are chosen with discrimination, modified with skill, and grafted organically into the sermon add enormous benefits:

They broaden the message. Listeners see examples of the truths of Scripture that transcend the small world of the preacher and spouse and kids and dog and yard and hobbies. Sermon illustration is not all about us.

They deepen our reservoir. One person can have only so many illustrative experiences, and we can tell them only so many times.

They enable average communicators to use excellent illustrations. The church has a limited number of Lucados and Swindolls. For the vast majority of preachers who are so-so storytellers and poets, third-person illustrations provide an invaluable resource they cannot develop in quantity on their own.

They bring other voices into the sermon. Sometimes a third-person illustration brings in a contrasting voice, a foil, that brings energy — for example, the words of Carl Sagan on why he could not believe in God. At other times an ingrafted illustration confirms what we say as we bring authorities and respected cultural figures into the witness seat. For instance, when George Bush says he depends on prayer.

Consider one final example:

Less than a week before Martin Burnham's abduction by Muslim guerrillas on the Philippine island of Palawan in May 2001, the New Tribes missionary gave the devotional at a Wednesday evening service at Rose Hill Bible Church in his small hometown outside Wichita, Kansas.

Some of Burnham's last words in the United States were also the last words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John, said Ralph Burnham, Martin's uncle. " His very last words were, 'Follow thou me,' " Ralph Burnham said, his voice choking up. " Martin not only spoke of following him, but he took on that responsibility. Of course, at that time neither he nor any of us expected how far he was going to be required to go to. But he was willing to go. "

Martin Burnham, 42, kept that attitude throughout the 376 days he and his wife, Gracia, 43, were held captive by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.

Just before a Philippine military raid on the kidnappers that led to Martin's death and Gracia's freedom, the two huddled together in a hammock under a makeshift tent.

" Martin and Gracia had really been thinking that there would be a chance that they would not make it out alive, " said Martin's brother, Doug, relying on a phone conversation with Gracia. " Martin said to Gracia, 'The Bible says to serve the Lord with gladness. Let's go out all the way. Let's serve him all the way with gladness.' "

The two then prayed in their hammock, recited Scripture verses to each other, and sang. They laid down to rest. Then the rescue assault began, and bullets began to fly, puncturing Gracia's leg and Martin's chest.

(Citation: Ted Olsen, " Martin Burnham Went Out Serving With Gladness " ChristianityToday.com [6-10-02])

This third-person illustration is not " canned. " Whatever the media in which it is heard or read, it is worthy of being grafted into a sermon.

Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). He blogs on Knowing God and His Ways at craigbrianlarson.com.

Related articles

Grafting in the Third-Person Illustration (part one)

How to make illustrations that do not come from your own experience into an organic part of the sermon.

Illustrate Like Max and John (pt. 1)

Seven skills for finding daily life examples for preaching

Illustrate Like Max and John (pt. 2)

Seven skills for finding daily life examples for preaching