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illustrationSermon illustrations. They can make or break your message. Or so we’re told. In the days of my youth, I did some time serving as a freelance pastoral research assistant, and 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 anecdotes, 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’m gonna go out on a (sturdy) limb here and suggest that sermon illustrations these days 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 thought, and some other wrong ways preachers often use illustrations in their sermons:

1. The illustrations are 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 rely too much 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. The illustrations are too numerous.

I heard a message once that began with a five-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 the same toga mafia), 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. The illustrations are 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. The illustrations are 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--”For what we proclaim is not ourselves . . .”

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.

Look, I know that good illustrations can often be difficult to come up with. I struggle with them too. But let’s be as careful with how we use them, neither putting too much or too little weight on them, lest we obscure the biblical purpose of preaching. The hearts of people are not won to Christ by our well-spun stories or images but the Spirit working through the Word of God. Our illustrations are meant to adorn the gospel, not help it. The gospel doesn’t need any help.


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10 thoughts on “Pastor, Keep a Close Watch on Your Life and Illustrations”

  1. kay says:

    Finally! Thank you for addressing this! When the main point is the passage of Scripture, and not a jumbled collection of random and often emotional-pull stories that have little to do with the main idea being preached about, the pastor is letting God’s Word speak for itself. Yes, hearers are distracted today more than ever due to technology addiction, but let us let the winsomeness of the Holy Spirit illuminating His Word spark the interest in hearers instead of trying so hard to find the “perfect” illustration. I’d assert that a pastor who puts in the grueling work of necessary homiletical preparation with adequate reading over the passage, praying, mulling over, consulting various commentaries, and taking time (in the weeks and perhaps months) ahead of time to purposefully apply the truths from the Bible passage…this sermon will hit its mark. I think most illustrations are lame and do not fill out the sermon but actually distract from it and train the listener to listen for the illustrations and tune out the deeper content. Some pertinent illustrations have a place, but I agree with you that it is probably a much smaller role to play than is currently in practice with pastors today. Thank you again!

  2. Linda says:

    I attend a “grace filled” Bible Church. Our seminary trained pastor teaches verse upon verse. That is a good thing. However, there are times when his “blue collar” background comes through loud & clear in the illustrations he uses or the “jokes” he tells. At times they border on what I consider to be “blue” humor. Not really dirty, but heading that way. When he tells one, he says “Bad Johnny” is coming out (his old sinful nature.) Not only do I not like these “jokes” but nor do others in the congregation, I suspect. And it certainly is not endearing to visitors. It demeans the teaching of the Word. What is the proper thing to do? I listen to other pastors such as Alistair Begg, Chuck Swindoll and never hear them allowing their old natures to emerge from the pulpit. Each time he does it, I say I am going to leave the church…but my husband & I have invested years of our lives building relationships and doing ministry. Yet, I am grieved when yet another “blue” joke is told from the pulpit.

    1. Drew Grumbles says:

      Have you gone to him directly with your concerns? He should be receptive to positive critique. Also, is there a group of men who help him or hold him accountable?

  3. grh says:

    I see this a lot nowadays. There seems to be a formulaic approach to preaching, and it goes something like this:

    – 10-15 minute clever, heartwarming, and “relevant” anecdote
    – Overview of the three main points
    – The three main points
    – Summarize the three main points
    – Close with another clever, heartwarming anecdote

    I know exactly what’s going on. I spent over a decade being trained at an expert level in communication and speaking before groups of people. The idea is to have an “attention grabber” at the beginning and several “mini attention-grabbers” throughout. And sure, that’s probably a good way to give a talk, say, to the booster club or an executive business meeting. But not for preaching God’s Word. Here’s why:

    1. It doesn’t always work. I suppose if every single passage in the Bible were suited to this formula, then this formula would be the best way to exposit every single passage. But, every Bible passage isn’t “one size fits all”, and therefore a “one size fits all” approach isn’t the right approach.

    2. It’s not Biblical. This is the more important point. As a sheep, when I attend the weekly worship service, the main reason I’m there is to hear the authentic and accurate preaching and teaching of the Bible. I’m not there to hear a nice little heartwarming story ripped from the week’s headlines. I’m not there for you to show me how clever you can be in turning a phrase to arrest my attention. I’m there to hear God’s Word explained fully and clearly so that I can understand it and then do it. It’s the Word of God that arrests my attention, not how well you paid attention during your communications class. So give me that instead of your formulaic stories.

    I honestly think this is becoming a significant problem today. It seems that many preachers spend more time thinking of these things than they do “rightly dividing the word of truth”, and it’s starting to show. I can’t imagine that the Lord is pleased.

  4. Matt Giles says:

    Haddon Robinson used to say preachers need to beware of the “killer illustration.” It can be such a “killer illustration” that it kills your sermon. I saw a prominent pastor at a conference once use a treadmill as an illustration and based his whole message around it. After some singing, he was followed by a man who went verse by verse through a text. The contrast made that illustration look ridiculous. It was a killer illustration.

  5. lbp says:

    What do you do when your pastor, aware that his canned sermon illustrations are not cutting it says,” The reason I give you all these stories is that research shows you can only pay attention for 7.5 minutes at a time, so I break away from the text to recapture your attention?” In other words, I don’t have much hope for the Spirit to engage you in the Word, so here’s a quote from Winston Churchill and a story about a mule to entertain you.

  6. I am often torn on this topic and am primarily worried that I am not qualified to judge. Thanks for your input here as I consider you much more qualified to affirm what I have been thinking. I read the Puritan sermons which I would consider very full of anecdotal illustration. I enjoy them sitting in my easy chair taken in measured proportions. Taken in full bore Sunday morning worship service doses I must confess would be difficult for me. On the contrary, R.C. Sproul can in twenty minutes exposit a text at St. Andrews and leave me quite full.

  7. Beau Eckert says:

    Some good points made and must be adhered to, however, it’s ironic that when someone says, “just preach the Word and stop with all the stories and illustrations,” do they realize most of Scripture is filled with stories, illustrations, metaphors, etc.? God’s Word is replete with concrete, relatable, illustrations, stories and object lessons meant to help us remember, understand and apply abstract spiritual truths. Try and explain Jesus (Good Shepherd, Bread of Life, Living Water, Light of the World, Lamb of God), God (Father, Rock, Strong Tower), the Holy Spirit (Breath, Wind, Fire), the Church (Bride, Body of Christ), and people (sheep, branches, salt) without using an illustration. Next time we take communion or witness a baptism, stop long enough to realize what we are experiencing–an illustration to help us better understand a spiritual truth. It was the primary teaching method of Jesus. And if Jesus took common, everyday, understandable objects and situations and used them to convey the Truth of God’s Word, so should we. There are times we need to use the very illustrations given to us in the Word, but other times we need to take those principles and dig into our own lives, world and culture we live in to help bring those principles to life. Preachers MUST effectively explain the text in its original context, including all the objects and imagery found there, and then connect it to the contemporary context using all of the imagery and illustrations in our current context. As John Stott said, the preacher must build a bridge between the ancient and modern world.

  8. Alan G says:

    Great article. Well done. We do well to avoid the “faux-self-depricating” quips. Example: “Most of you don’t know that I used to be a great college football star. I led my team to seven victories in four years as a college quarterback.” This, followed by crickets chirping. It is fun and painful to see how many of these “quips” a certain leader will try to put into his lesson. And he gets invited to speak/preach at reputable seminaries!

    While these “feign” humility, they, too, violate 2 Cor. 4:5. I’ve read that Spurgeon’s pulpit had a sign that said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Whether the attribution is right or wrong here, the principle should be the beginning, substance, completion, and delivery of a sermon.

    1. What possible Biblical/theological tie-in could that make?
    2. The sermon full of these “fake humility” gags is really a resume reading.
    3. No one is buying it.

    I remember a sermon where Matt Chandler stood up and repented to his congregation for sin in himself and sin in the eldership of The Village. It was gut-wrenching. It’s worth a Google. Solus Christus.

  9. Meg Ishikawa says:

    The overuse of what I consider “silly illustrations,” I think, comes from the times we live in – we want to be entertained by God’s Word more than we want to sit under it and let it speak to our hearts/minds. If your article will help men of God teaching from our pulpits, better handle the Word of God, I will be thankful. Thank you Jared, as usual.

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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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