Every preacher knows the feeling of needing an illustration, but not having anything handy. Even if you have good systems for capturing and filing illustrations, you will inevitably have moments where nothing is in your notes, and you cannot think of anything spontaneously.
I know some people are against illustrations, and certainly they can be abused. For instance, we can be tempted to rely on illustrations too much out of a desire to make our sermons more engaging or emotional. But I’m convinced that there is also a way to go about illustrating that is honoring the text of Scripture, and serves your listeners. Jesus is a good model to us in that he spoke so frequently through parables (Mark 4:34), but in such a way that expressed divine authority and convicted his hearers (Matthew 7:28-29). Done in a Christlike way, sermon illustrations don’t detract from the authority of the text, but enhance it. Similarly, they don’t exalt the preacher as an impressive orator, but compel him to humbly bend and adjust his communication toward his listeners (much like effective counseling requires the counselor to listen carefully and speak in an intelligible, responsive way).
So in the spirit of trying to encourage the effective use of illustrations, here are several places to look for them.
I passionately believe that pastors can benefit from reading literature, and we should do it more. Getting illustrations is just one of the benefits of this practice, but it is a real one. Literature illustrates helpfully because
- it is narratival, dramatic, and particular (the stuff of good illustrations);
- it brings truth into real (often contemporary) scenes of life;
- it builds a bridge to listeners already sympathetic to the literature being used.
A great danger here is only using one kind of literature. For instance, if you are always referencing Dostoevsky and Jane Austen, that will intimidate and possibly alienate less educated people. Or, if you are always quoting Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, the people who don’t like fantasy will not connect as well.
This is a general principle of illustrations, I think: choose ones that incorporate and represent your audience. Choose the familiar, not the alien. Build from what is already present in the minds and imaginations of your listeners, as much as you can.
So I try to read lots of different kinds of literature with a view to finding illustrations. I’ve used everything from Calvin and Hobbes (seriously, there is some deep stuff in there that communicates) to Greek tragedies like Antigone. The broader your arsenal, the broader the impact.
2. Your Own Life Experiences
Personal illustrations can be helpful because they bring truth into “normal” moments of life, and can be more relaxed. The great danger in using illustrations from your own life, of course, is being self-promoting, or drawing attention to yourself in unhelpful ways. Even when you use yourself as a bad example, you can still be saying, “look how self-deprecating and humble I am!” So make sure this is about serving your people, not about you.
When I’m trying to locate an illustration, I often consider situations that provoke emotion. This is another general principle of illustration, I think: the more you personally connect with an illustration, the more it is likely to engage your listeners.
Also, one specific tip: be careful talking about kids all the time. As a parent of young kids, I tend to do this. But I realize: (1) it can be hard for single people to connect with; (2) it might, depending on how its done, put your children unhelpfully in the spotlight, something they will likely struggle with already, being pastor’s kids.
3. History and Biographies
Historical illustrations can be really useful and edifying, and meet many of the same criteria as literature. Once again, you have to be careful not to alienate people who are not interested in history by over-using these kinds of illustrations. But history can also be told in a way that engages just about everybody. Right now I have A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar and William Manchester’s The Last Lion lying around the house, and I dip into them whenever I can. Even when I cannot find a specific illustration, it feels healthy to be reading something other than theology.
I’ve been surprised how useful illustrations from nature and the animal kingdom can be. We’ve been watching Planet Earth II on Netflix these days so these spring to mind a lot. Lately I have referenced the way camels get irritated at humans as an illustration of the dangers of resentment (Martha in Luke 10); the protectiveness of a mother bird over her eggs as an illustration of God as our shield (Psalm 3:3); and police dogs’ ability to search as an illustration of Christ’s searching knowledge of our hearts (Revelation 2:23: “I am He who searches mind and heart”).
Though there is a danger of these illustrations being cheesy, they can be helpful on occasion because they are broadly interesting to people of all interests and backgrounds (including children). One of my great goals as a preacher is to preach with a sensitivity to the children in the room.
5. Current events
The newspaper is filled with stories and other information that can be used to illustrate. For instance, you are waiting at the dentist. You pick up a magazine and read a story about a teenager falling into a pit and needing to get rescued. Something shes says in the interview resonates with you about the power of fear. Boom. Great illustration.
These kinds of illustrations have great narratival qualities, and they draw people in in ways that fiction does not. People care about real things happening in the world. Be careful, though, not to prey upon peoples’ fear of cultural decline, and also to stay out of politics and social issues that will be unhelpfully controversial.
6. Sermon Illustration Books and Websites
I can understand why some people are against using these kinds of resources altogether. There is a high risk of artificiality; they are often cheesy; and the theological bandwidth of what is illustrated tends to be pretty wide. Nonetheless, I don’t think its bad to use them on occasion, when other resources fail. These resources must be used with theological discernment, and we should be sensitive to contextualize them into the sermon so that it doesn’t feel contrived.
7. Other Biblical Narratives
It has often been observed that the majority of Scripture comes to us in the form of narrative. The many colorful stories of the Bible are a minefield of illustrative material. A benefit of this practice is that we are exposing our listeners to a wider variety of biblical texts beyond those on the preaching calendar. You can be preaching verse-by-verse through a small New Testament letter like Philippians, and take your time with it, without completely neglecting other portions of Scripture.
Some people avoid using biblical illustrations for fear of moralism. We have seen the Old Testament reduced to a series of “be like so-and-so” messages, and we want to preach redemptively instead. While I sympathize with this concern, there is no reason why we cannot look to the saints in an exemplary way while still motivating with the gospel. The Bible itself does this (e.g., Hebrews 11). As Bryan Chapell puts it, the be like so-and-so messages are not bad in themselves, but by themselves.
8. Movies and TV
The great worry here is that what movies we watch is generally a more divisive issue than what books we read. So we must be extra-vigilant not to violate the consciences of our listeners. You can try to cloak the illustration by not mentioning what movie it is from, but some people will probably know what you are referencing anyway, and others will be distracted by trying to figure it out. I think the best practice is to use these kinds of illustrations sparingly, and when we do, to err on the side of caution in what we select.
What am I missing? Where do you find illustrations?