Explanation, illustration, and application; good sermons have all 3. For many preachers (young and old) the illustration pool can be tough to wade through. Where to find them, how to use them, where to store them, what will relate well; these are but a few of the questions involved in using illustrations. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.
11 Tips for Using Sermon Illustrations
- Make sure the illustration fits your congregation’s context. I once dropped a Beyoncé illustration in a sermon on the fallacy of self-sufficiency. No one got it! The problem was most of the congregation was over 50. I stopped mid-story and used Frank Sinatra’s My Way.
- Make sure the illustration actually addresses the biblical text you’re preaching. I once used that scene from Remember the Titans were Denzel Washington says, “we’re going to change the way we run, change the way we block…” I thought it was a great illustration, the only problem was the text was on the sovereignty of God not the responsibility of men.
- Don’t let the illustration trump the truth you’re preaching. I knew a guy who preached a sermon on gentle confrontation between spouses. He used a bat and a pool noodle to illustrate his point. The people forgot the lesson but always reminded him of the “pool noodle” sermon.
- Avoid worn out illustrations. If I hear one more Titanic illustration I’m going to pull out what hair I have left on my head. If you use a historical illustration find something brief that’s not so known and come at it from a different angle. Be extra careful when using stock illustrations from a book, they can come off as canned in your sermon as they do in the book.
- Constantly be on the lookout for illustrative material. Keep them in an email folder or use Evernote. It’s tough to generate them on the spot, but if you already have a reservoir to work with you can cut down on your sermon prep time.
- Involve a few humble church members of various ages to be sermon illustration hunters. They need to be humble because you can’t give them credit every week in the sermon. They need to be of various ages so you don’t just reach one segment of your church with the illustration. Give them direction such as a series, a passage or a topic.
- Stay away from using your family members as illustrations. If you do use them, always ask for their permission and make sure the illustration builds them up. I’ve known pastor’s kids who put on a good front but inwardly hated listening to their father preach because they knew he would embarrass them in the sermon.
- Duh! Don’t forget, the Bible is filled with illustrative material, so start there. A word of caution. If you are preaching to a congregation that is not familiar with biblical stories, you might need to set the stories up for them and not just assume they have prior knowledge of them.
- Don’t trump an illustration with another illustration. One of my best friends is gifted in giving sermon illustrations. He used to tell one on top of another and the power of the first illustration would lose its punch. Most of us don’t have this problem but remember, if the illustration works, move on.
- Don’t be offensive! If your sermon illustrations are offensive, they won’t remember the point, they will only remember the jerk who didn’t use discretion. If you pause even for a moment to question whether you should use it, just don’t.
- Don’t be the hero of all your illustrations. I once heard a preacher in an evangelism conference say he had won someone to Christ every day that year. It wasn’t Jan. 2nd, so I knew he was lying. You don’t have to pour out all your failings with people but don’t make them think your immune to sin struggles and life issues.
Preachers are generally stronger in either explanation, illustration or application and they must work at the other 2. Don’t neglect the value a good illustration can have in your sermon. They have a way of causing the truth of the sermon to stick with your people.
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