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Illustrate Like Max and John (pt. 2)

Seven skills for finding daily life examples for preaching

This is part two of a three-part series. In part one, Larson explained the importance of continual observation and of moving from the specific to the general.


When we observe an interesting daily life experience and begin to brainstorm possible illustration topics or fiddle with the pyramid of abstraction, some people will have a greater capacity to generate ideas than others. What determines that capacity is knowledge.

Finding ways to turn the brief and mundane into the substantial and interesting will chisel your storytelling muscles.

Let me illustrate. As a boy, I received a clear-plastic coin-sorter one Christmas—the kind meant for kids, not bank clerks. You could watch the coins roll down a winding path and then drop through slots of varying sizes that sorted them into piles of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The sequence of these variable-sized slots mattered, proceeding from smallest to largest. If the largest slot, intended for quarters, had been first, all the coins would have fallen in the quarters pile. But with the smallest slot, intended for dimes, being first, the larger coins would roll over it and proceed down the steep path until they came to a slot large enough for them to drop. When the slots discriminate in this manner between various coins, gravity does the rest.

In the world of illustrations, the discriminating slots are concepts, which all have words. Redemption, mercy, generosity, law, prayer, adultery. You can illustrate only what you understand—what you have a concept, a category, a word for. This is why good illustrators are people who know the concepts of the Bible, of theology, of life and literature.

And so the better we understand theology, the more readily we will recognize that an experience fits the category of atonement or holiness. The better we know the Bible, the more readily an experience will call to mind a Bible verse or story such as the greed of Achan. The more we read life and literature, the more readily an experience will trigger concepts like loss or longing or frustration. If your knowledge is limited to quarter-sized concepts like love, God, or faith, then you will miss the chance to find that perfect illustration for a more specific, dime-sized concept like brotherly love, God's grace, or childlike faith.

We need real knowledge. As someone has said, if you cannot illustrate an idea, you don't really understand it. If you cannot take an abstraction at the top of the pyramid and press down to a concrete example at the bottom point of the inverted pyramid, you don't get it. Somehow the path must be established between top and bottom. Once you have the ability to press down the pyramid from general abstractions to concrete specifics, then the way opens for reverse traffic. … Hmmm, perhaps it's the other way around: Does the journey move from the bottom up? Or is it pressed from both directions? Whichever, the more frequent the traffic on the road, the broader the road becomes, and the quicker connections are made.

At the practical level, then, the more we (a) illustrate abstract ideas and (b) assign abstract words to concrete experiences, the better becomes the illustration highway. Illustrating is an ability that grows with use.

For (b) above—the practice of assigning words—the keywords list of PreachingToday.com can be a valuable resource for you. To aid in your search, we divided the list into three layers of categories for accessing the concepts you need. See the area in PreachingToday.com for browsing by master topics: http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/browse.html.

Telling a Story

Like columns in government buildings, story is the natural form for illustration. If we can't tell a decent story, we will be seriously handicapped. Fortunately, many have written in recent decades on how to tell stories well, and great examples abound. I especially recommend the section on storytelling in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005). 1 In addition, since most of a preacher's stories are true, you will benefit from reading a book on how to tell nonfiction stories using fictional techniques (such as dialogue, sensory details, scenes). I recommend Jon Franklin's Writing for Story (Plume, 1986). 2

In addition to reading on the subject, the best way to learn to tell stories is to tell them every day. At one of your daily meals with family or friends, tell a story based on one of your best illustrations from the last 24 hours (see point one, Continual Searching).

Very important: many of these slices of life will not feel like stories because they have little or no plot, but tell them anyway. As you maintain this habit, you will learn to accentuate a spare plot with rich description. You will learn to create suspense and build to a climax. You will feel the benefits that come with using dialogue and thought-monologues. You will look for the irony and humor in the situation. You will discover how to elicit sympathy or antipathy for the people in the accounts. Finding ways to turn the brief and mundane into the substantial and interesting will chisel your storytelling muscles.

This dinner-table storytelling of everyday, common occurrences is an especially good training ground for sermon illustrating because a good portion of sermon illustrations are likewise spare stories limited in plot, action, and suspense. They are bridges to a preaching point. They only set the stage with a phrase, image, or concept.

Here is a spare story typical in sermons:

I was on my way over to Wheaton College the other day, and, as I stopped at the light at Geneva road, I started watching a wrecking crew tear down the banquet hall on the corner. A bulldozer with jaws designed to munch a building in pieces was ripping away at the roof. Workers were spraying water to keep down the dust and separating bricks from pieces of steel. Half the building was already gone. One of the things not yet demolished, though, was the tall sign out front, which struck me as odd because the marquee still had an old message posted. It said something like "Congratulations Tim and Becky!" Later, I noticed that the sign, with its message, stayed up for several weeks after the building was completely gone. The message outlived the institution.

Although this illustration has little plot, I developed other elements that gave it the feel of a story. I painted a scene through visual description. There is a sense of time passing as my eyes take in the scene and then I say what I saw weeks later. And I built to a climax by holding till the end the detail about the sign and its message.

In contrast, the non-story form of this illustration might sound like this: "I saw an interesting sight the other day: a half-demolished restaurant, with the sign out front still standing. What struck me as funny was the message on the sign had not yet been removed. The message outlived the institution."

Clearly, stories are more interesting.

Figurative and Literal

The potential for illustrating from daily experiences expands greatly when we remember that we can use slices of life literally, figuratively, or both. Figurative use involves metaphor, simile, symbol, analogy; one thing resembles or represents another. By contrast, in literal use, a thing is what it is (a conversation becomes an illustration about godly speech; a conflict between fellow workers becomes an illustration about reconciling enemies). We commonly call the literal use an example.

I could use the story of the building demolition figuratively. In this case, the point of the illustration would not be to give advice to banquet halls; rather, the restaurant sign becomes a symbol. The words on the marquee could resemble the mission statements of ministries that live on in their workers' hearts even after the organizations dissolve.

But I could also use the story literally, as wisdom for leaders, pointing out that as the owner finished closing down the building, she decided some things weren't worth doing. I might say: "It really didn't make any difference whether someone took the letters off the marquee. In your work, you have to make the same kind of decisions. What are you doing that does not need to be done?"

If you can't illustrate from an interesting experience one way, try the other.

1. For in-depth study on storytelling, search Amazon on the subject of fiction writing, and you will find not only general guides for what makes for good stories, but also books on specific subjects, such as dialogue. Another book I like is The Art and Craft of Novel Writing, by Oakley Hall.

2. For further reading on writing nonfiction using fictional techniques, search Amazon on the subject of creative nonfiction.

In part three, Larson discusses the importance of metaphor and inspirational vision in our search for illuminating illustrations.

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.

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Illustrate Like Max and John (pt. 1)

Seven skills for finding daily life examples for preaching

Illustrate Like Max and John (pt. 3)

Seven skills for finding daily life examples for preaching

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