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CIVA-Podcast-002-Preaching-in-a-visual-ageSermon illustrations. They can make or break your message, or so we’re told. In my time at Docent Research Group, working as a pastoral research assistant, I remember the high premium put on killer illustrations. One client I worked for only wanted sermon illustrations, pages and pages of them, no exegesis, no reference excerpts. I think over the course of several months, having filed numerous research briefs full of newspaper clippings, movie ancedotes, literary references, assorted fragments of pop culture detritus, and even some original creative stories, he eventually used one illustration that came from the briefs.

We all know a good illustration when we hear one in a sermon. But I for one think sermon illustrations are way overrated. Yep, I said it. I think too much emphasis is put on illustrations in how we train preachers and in too many actual sermons. You shouldn’t trust your illustration to do what only God’s word can. And that’s where many of us often go wrong with illustrations. Here is more on that though, and some other wrong ways preachers often use illustrations in their sermons:

1. Too long.
If you’re going to eat up valuable real estate in your sermon time, you’ve got to make it really count. But some sermons are too reliant on long set-ups or overly present creative themes that end up obscuring the biblical message. This is a problem, assuming what you want people to focus on most is the biblical message. Some preachers really pride themselves in being storytellers or artists, and that’s great — but quit the ministry and go be a storyteller or artist. That will glorify God too. But at least then there’s no mistaking the point of the message. Some illustrations go on so long and some topic themes are so pervasive, any Bible verses that show up in the sermon really only serve to support the illustration, when by definition it’s supposed to be the other way around.

2. Too many.
I heard a message once that began with a 5-minute story from the preacher’s childhood, segued into an ancedote from the life of Leonardo DaVinci, then transitioned into a series of quotes from ancient philosophers (where Jesus appeared alongside Socrates and Aristotle, like they’re all part of some Toga Brothers gang), and stumbled into a heavy-handed object illustration complete with big props on the stage. This guy forgot what he was there to do, which ostensibly was preach. The result of all these illustrations was distracting and, actually, counter-productive, because at some point, the law of diminishing illustration returns kicked in, and each successive illustration diminished the effectiveness of the ones before it. When you use too many illustrations, when your sermon is so full of illustrations or the time you spend on them is greater than the time you spend proclaiming and explaining the text, they stop being illustrations and become your text. Preachers who overuse illustrations are communicating that they don’t actually trust the Bible — which is inspired by the Holy Spirit — to be interesting, provocative, and powerful.

3. Too clunky.
You know these when you hear them. It seems as though the preacher prepared his sermon using some kind of template, plopping something from an illustration book or website every time he saw Insert Illustration Here. Or his pop culture references are old, but not historic old (red meat for the Reformed crowd) or vintage old (ironic winks from the hipsters) but “lame” old, “out of touch” old. Maybe the stories are sappy or cheesy or hokey. Or maybe there’s no decent transition from the illustration into the body of the sermon. I’ve heard some guys tell a cutesy-story or badly land a bad joke and then pause, as if waiting for audience reaction, ending the silence with a “But anyway…” That’s a sure sign of someone who put a lot of trust in the illustration and no thought into how it would actually fit into the tissue of the message. Remember, if the weight of power is put on your illustrations instead of the biblical text, the clunky illustration makes a clunky sermon.

4. Too self-referential.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: when using yourself as an example, be self-deprecating. Make it confessional, not exaltational. In other words, use your personal illustrations to show us not how great you are, but what you’ve got wrong, how you messed up, where you’re deficient. It doesn’t have to be a serious example; it can be a funny one. But self-referential illustrations that talk the preacher up too often violate 2 Corinthians 4:5. This same rule applies somewhat to the use of wives and children in illustrations. Everyone appreciates a good “the pastor is a normal guy with a normal family” type story, and most preachers know not to criticize or point out flaws in their wives and kids in sermons, but if you reference your wife and kids (even positively) too much, over time it can have the same effect as the self-congratulating illustration — it casts a vision of your family as the church’s moral exemplar, which is not good for your family or the church, and also only serves to by extension exalt yourself. Use family illustrations sparingly and when using personal illustrations, go the route of self-deprecation.

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21 thoughts on “Preachers, Keep A Close Watch On Your Life and Illustrations”

  1. David Axberg says:

    Just the right amount of grit, thanks. Amen and amen

  2. Suzanne Evans says:

    Another. Be truthful. Too often I’ve heard a pastor use an illustration placing himself in a story he has borrowed, or even saying “Just the other day…” when launching into a story that’s in the public domain. Integrity in storytelling matters.

  3. Suzanne Evans says:

    And please don’t place yourself in a borrowed illustration
    as if something that happened to someone else happened to you. I’ve wondered at times if preachers were exempted from the expectation of truth-telling in the service of making their message more interesting. Too many the illustrations I’ve heard told in the first person that I’d already heard told in the first person by someone else.

  4. Melody says:

    Too many preachers don’t know not to criticize their wife and kids in sermon illustrations. They do it all the time, blatantly or subtly or sometimes pretending that what they’re telling us it a good thing about their wife – but really it’s a criticism.

    One thing I love about the pastors at my church is that when they mention their wives it’s never, ever, even a little bit to put them down. It’s always one of three things, 1. They love their wife – yay. 2. A way their wife helped them spiritually – a prayer, a truth pointed out. 3. A story from when they were young – cute.
    I never get nervous when they talk about their wives. I never glance over to see how she’s taking it.

  5. Lin says:

    When I hear extended or extensive illustrations in a “sermon” I know immediately the speaker isn’t prepared or doesn’t have anything to say. I go to church to hear the Word of God expounded, not musing and ramblings (peppered with jokes) off the pulpit.

  6. Jason says:

    Not sure where Jesus fits into this. Should He also quit ministering to people? He was all about storytelling.

    I agree that the illustrations should not cloud the message. If the illustration does not advance or drive home the point, then leave it at home.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Jason, if a preacher can tell stories the way Jesus did — not just in narrative form but Spiritual power — of course he should. I’m of the opinion that many lazy illustrationists rely on the “Jesus used parables” (for instance) defense, when in reality, the parables Jesus told functioned in an almost entirely different way than most modern preachers mean to use illustrations. The parables were not, in my estimation, “sermon illustrations.”

  7. Lance Johnson says:

    As a pastor I rarely get to hear much preaching from others, but most of what I have heard is a decent 20 minute sermon preached in 40 minutes. Lots of fluff, but not much content.

  8. Mark says:

    I appreciate the warnings here and myself probably err on the side of too few illustrations. I have found, though, that illustrations are very effective when done in accordance with the above guidelines. The occasional example, when it is brief and exactly on point, serves to bring ideas from the abstract to the concrete as well as pulls people back in. If I share a two sentence illustration, I can see the attention level increase. Especially helpful are simple similes and metaphors which take only a few words but drive the idea to the heart level quickly.

  9. Jon says:

    Another danger of illustrations I’ve experienced as a listener is when I’m tracking along with the sermon and feeling convicted by the Word, then a sermon illustration that doesn’t seem to apply the conviction in as serious a light as I was is presented. It gives me a way of escape, “I’m being too hard on myself”. Pastors have a hard job!

  10. Matthew Mager says:

    I think you make some good points but most of those committed to theologically rich, exegetical driven sermons need more and better illustrations. I’m not sure what the dominate readership of this blog is but I suspect most be in the aforementioned category.
    Let us not forget that the Master used over 50 illustrations in His three chapter sermon Mt 5-7. Let us not swing the other direction and poo poo illustrations as a cloak over our own laziness (not accusing anyone but I know my own bent towards laziness and the hard work of thinking through helpful ones). Also beware of pride when you think you have a good illustration. We must serve our people to help them understand and remember God’s word. Illustrations can help serve that end.

  11. Lin says:

    And then there was the time the preacher talked about a conversation he was having with his wife while he was taking a bath. I can’t remember what the sermon was about but I never saw that man afterwards that I didn’t picture him in the bathtub.

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Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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