Sermon illustrations allow you to take your sermon to the next level. Instead of just telling people the truth of God’s word, show them.
A good sermon is more satisfying and beneficial to others than a perfectly seared medium-cooked filet mignon.
And if you’ve had a great filet mignon steak, you know how big of a claim I just made.
One of the most powerful things you can do in your preaching is to improve in the art of sermon illustrations. I recently shared 8 of my preaching convictions and number 7 on my list is that pictures in preaching are sticky and powerful.
Why? Because a good sermon illustration engages someone’s senses and emotions in ways that eloquent prose can’t. When you read the opening sentence to this article, you probably had the smell, the taste, and the appearance of an amazing filet mignon steak invade your mind. And the connection? A sermon is better.
When we engage in the art of sermon illustrations, we help our people see and feel the beauty of the gospel.
But how can we improve in this area of our preaching?
I’m glad you asked.
Sermon Illustrations 101: Read With Your Mind’s Eye
For some of us, this will take intentionality. Many of us are looking for the plain truth of the passage we are studying. This is good. But if we stop there, we will be left with a dry lecture of the biblical text.
We must remember that our preaching is to people not computers. We are not simply writing code to make sure that people produce the correct output when presented with certain inputs.
People need to connect with what Scripture is saying. Not only when it was originally written but also today.
So when we study the passage at hand, we must do exposition well. But as we are doing this, we must also read with our mind’s eye.
Here’s what I mean:
Matthew 24:35 says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
The plain truth of this is that Jesus’ words last for eternity. Nothing will take them away. They are here to stay. His “ideas” aren’t some cultural fad, they are truth that transcends all time.
If we were to then think with our mind’s eye, we might think of:
- A personal story of a possession that was loved tremendously but eventually stopped working. Jesus’ words will never stop working.
- A natural disaster that destroys whatever is in its path. Not even a tsunami or a hurricane or a __________ will take away Jesus’ words.
- A “law of the land” that, years later, was removed from the books – you can find quite a bit of weird laws that are no longer in effect. Unlike “laws of the land,” Jesus’ words will never be “removed from the books.”
- The vows of a couple who were in love and getting married but years later after difficulty and struggle, they both throw in the towel and declare their vows irrelevant. Jesus will never take back his words like sometimes couples take back their vows.
When we think with our mind’s eye, we are comparing and contrasting what we see the text saying and what we see the text addressing and touching in life. We are stopping to look around and examine every side and every angle of what the text is saying. We don’t just want to teach the truth of the text, we want to show the truth of the text.
Sermon Illustrations 201: Compile Illustration Ideas for Future Use
As you are reading Scripture, reading various books and articles, mowing the grass, or really anything, you will likely think of illustration ideas.
You likely have moments throughout the day that you hear or read or think of something that you think, “that’ll preach.” The key is, though, to not just let that thought flee before you can write it down.
I use Evernote for this (you can get a free month of Evernote Premium, by the way). I have a notebook entitled “Illustrations” that I will tag with relevant topics to whatever the illustration might be used for.
But you don’t have to use Evernote. Maybe you like to kick it old school and use a notebook or journal. That’s great. I recently started using a Traveler’s Notebook that I have four different notebooks inside it. You could easily use this setup for sermon illustrations with four different themes to compile them in.
The reasons I have opted for using Evernote for compiling sermon illustrations are:
- The Evernote Web clipper allows me to save entire articles or bookmarks directly into my Evernote system, adding tags on the front-end. I can save literally any form of content this way – written articles, video, audio, infographics, anything.
- The notebook and tagging system allows for easy organization on the front-end and searching on the back-end.
- When it comes time for me to record something that wasn’t directly on the internet, I can do so in a couple of different ways: I can write it down or I can record an audio note directly into Evernote. This is helpful when you are on the go or you are someone who likes to “talk out” an idea.
Whatever you use to compile your sermon illustrations, just make sure that you do so in a way that is organized. Otherwise, you’ll end up spending an hour looking for a sermon illustration you half-remember but can’t recall where you wrote it down.
3 Tips for Coming Up With More Sermon Illustration Ideas to Compile
Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t randomly think of sermon illustration ideas or I do think of some but I wish I thought of more than I do. If that’s you, I want to offer some additional tips for coming up with more sermon illustration ideas.
And to be specific, this is for the times when you’re not in the middle of studying the primary text for the week, this is for the times when you’re indirectly compiling sermon illustrations. When you’re going on a walk, when you’re at a store, mowing the grass, etc…
- Add it to your to-do list. The first key is to simply begin looking for sermon illustrations throughout your day. When I start my day thinking about preaching and thinking about different ideas, it’s easier for me to see those ideas or think of those ideas randomly throughout the day. It’s the same thing that happens when you buy a different car and all of a sudden you see that very same model of car everywhere you drive. It’s not that everyone else all of a sudden got the same car, it’s that you started looking for it. You’ll find what you’re looking for so start looking.
- Be present and spend less time on your phone. In order to see what is happening around you, you have to be present. Sure, you might see some sermon illustration because you followed a rabbit trail on social media, but that’s far less interesting than making it a point to live life in the present moment. Play with your kids. Spend time with your spouse. Do things with friends. Have a whole life and you’ll experience more things that’ll preach.
- Think about things through Trevin Wax’s Lies, Longings, and Light framework. In his book, This Is Our Time, Trevin Wax articulates a 3-part framework for engaging with the cultural challenges of our day. He proposes that when we are interacting with some widespread cultural idea, we should expose the lie of it, articulate the longing behind it, and bring the light of the gospel to it.
- For example, let’s dissect pornography through this 3-part framework. The lie of pornography is that it will fulfill the deep sexual desires of human beings. The longing behind pornography is the desire for intimacy which is a good desire, but by engaging in pornography, that longing is being twisted and not at all satisfied. The light of the gospel to pornography is that sex was God’s idea and the pathway to true sexual intimacy is through a marriage that is sanctified by Jesus, prioritizing God first and experiencing intimacy together for God’s glory.
Additional Sources for Sermon Illustrations
This website posts one new sermon illustration every day of the week. You can search for a topic too. This is definitely a site to bookmark and return to often.
I am second is a treasure trove of powerful testimonies of people who experienced Jesus change their life. These are great as stand-alone stories or you can weave these stories throughout your sermon.
Christianity Today has a Christian History section that features stories of Christians throughout history. It’s highly valuable to connect your congregation to the story of the church throughout history.
It’s important that we read widely as pastors. Don’t let the well run dry. Read great books. Always.
Sermon Illustrations 301: Structure Your Sermon With a Rhythm of Illustration
Your sermons should have a balance to them. You want to spend the proper time exegeting God’s word, illustrating God’s word, and applying God’s word.
If you spend 90% of your time applying God’s word without teaching God’s word, you’re offering up an unbalanced diet to your listeners.
Here’s the point: with every point and sub-point you make in your sermon, you should strive to teach it, illustrate it, and apply it.
So take a moment and look at your last sermon. How often are you illustrating the truth of the text?
Sometimes preachers can only focus on inserting sermon illustrations at the beginning and end of their messages. I think that’s a mistake.
Let’s look at it this way:
- The teaching portion in a point of the sermon is the kick drum on a drum set.
- The illustration part in a point of the sermon is the snare drum.
- The application part in a point of the sermon is the rest of the drum set – the toms and all the cymbals.
When you have all of these working together – in rhythm – it’s a beautiful and powerful thing. But if you only had one or two, it would feel incomplete.
Sermon Illustrations 401: Understanding and Utilizing the Different Types of Illustrations
There are many different types of sermon illustrations and being able to utilize them all will give you a complete tool belt. So what are they? I’m glad you asked.
These are usually short, single-sentence statements that pack a punch. Grace is like a tsunami, it floods your sin.
The basic recipe for a good analogy is:
A connection point + the implication packaged in a punch line.
In the example above, the connection point is between grace and a monsoon. The key is then to take grace and think about what it does if it were a tsunami. Well, what does a tsunami do? It floods whatever is in its path.
One of the most popular analogies you’re probably familiar with comes from the movie, Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
A good analogy, even though it’s just a short statement in a sermon, can make the biblical point stick with your listeners for years.
Many times there are research studies that you can utilize to drive your teaching home.
For example, this past Sunday I preached on the importance of community within the church. In the beginning of the message, to build tension around the fact that we need community in our lives, I utilize research that was done by a group of health insurance companies that determined 47% of Americans are lonely.
But I didn’t just mention the statistic and move on. Instead, I did the following:
Tips for Using Research in Your Sermon
- Put flesh on the research through examples. Think about it: if 47% of Americans are lonely and I’m preaching in an American congregation, which I do, then that means it’s likely that about half of the people in the church deal with loneliness on a consistent basis. So I make it personal: “Have you ever felt lonely? Maybe you’ve been to a work party and even though you were in a room full of people, you felt extremely lonely.”
- Use it as an entry point to a story. You might have a real-life example of someone who has lived the research. Mention the statistics and then go right into the story.
- Use it after a personal story. Share your own experience of whatever the research is arguing and then zoom out from your experience to the research so that you include more people in the experience.
- Don’t treat an anecdote as research. Make sure that if you’re trying to put something forth as research that you do your homework. No one wants a preacher who will manipulate data to make the point they’re making. If your point is biblical, you won’t need to manipulate any data. If you want to use an anecdote – something you noticed while people-watching at the mall – make sure people understand its an anecdote. In other words, give context.
A Few Places to Get Research for Your Sermon
The Barna Group “provides spiritual influencers with credible knowledge and clear thinking, enabling them to navigate a complex and changing culture.”
Pew Research Center “is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world.”
Facts & Trends “is designed to help pastors and other Christian leaders navigate the issues and trends impacting the church by providing information, insights, and resources for effective ministry.”
A Series of Examples
I like to think of these as a group of “for instances” because “for instances” imply context. For a series of examples to illustrate, we have to put more meat on the bone than just saying this impacts your self-worth or this changes your finances.
That’s great, but how?
Put the impact of God’s love in motion.
When your friend hurts your feelings because of something they said, you can forgive them because God forgave you for far more.
As Eric McKiddie points out, “the key with lists is not to be cliché, superficial, or painfully obvious.” Instead, put your series of examples in motion and explain how it plays out.
And now we come to the big one. A good story is powerful, especially when it is told well.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a good story. We seem to be wired for them. We love them through tv shows, books, movies, around the campfire, you name it. Stories are powerful pathways directly to the heart. So let’s utilize stories well and tell them well.
The Basics of Storytelling: Story Structure
Stories have structure. And if you want to tell a story well, you must start with how you craft it. So let’s look at what story structure is and then we can move to some tips on how to tell a story in a way that engages your listeners.
- Inciting Incident – someone has said that a story begins where normal ends. And this is exactly right. Think about the tv show you’re currently watching or the novel you’re reading and consider how the big storyline begins and how the sub-stories within the storyline begins. Now, this doesn’t mean that “normal” ending is always some dramatic event. For instance, maybe you’re telling a story of a time you were lonely because you are preaching on the importance of community. I recently did this in a message and the inciting incident in my story was moving from one side of my hometown to the other.
- Complication – this move in the story takes the inciting incident and the tension that it pulls at and it pulls harder. If the inciting incident made things worse than normal, complication explores how that is and shows how it’s even worse than originally thought. In the opening scene of the movie National Treasure, the inciting incident is the group of guys in a tractor kind of contraption designed to travel in environments like the Arctic. In other words, these guys aren’t in Kansas anymore. And they come upon a ship that they were looking for. The complication is that the treasure isn’t on the ship (among other things). But back to our example from the inciting incident and the story of moving from one side of town to the other… Well, the complication in the story is that I had to switch schools and I didn’t know anyone at this new school.
- Crisis – this is what storytellers identify as the decision or the dilemma. This is the “moment of truth” in a story. What will the main character do? This is what has been anticipated since the first move of the story – the inciting incident. So with my story of moving, I need to go into what the first day was like. So I told the story of my first recess at my new school.
- Climax – here we find out what the main character does in the story. Everything has been leading to this moment. This could be the pivot point that leads to the happy ending or it could be the cliff that things fell over the edge and went completely worse (think: dystopian genres). In my story of moving, my crisis is my first day of recess. The climax was me telling how I stood against a chain-link fence the entire time, miserable, alone, and fighting back tears, wishing recess was over already.
- Resolution – in preaching, this is often the move back to the point that the story was being used to illustrate. But in a regular story structure, the resolution is the last scene where we see the “new world” that was created because of the climax. In my story of moving, the resolution was re-asking the question, have you ever felt lonely? Not a happy ending, right?
This story structure is embedded in the micro of every story – in every scene of every movie, every move of every novel – and it is embedded in the macro of every story – the entirety of the movie, the novel, etc. So a big story is simply a number of stories within a larger storyline.
Suffice it to say, in order to tell a great story, you need to think through the way you structure your story.
Stories lack pop when they fail at building tension through the inciting incident, complication, and crisis. In other words, don’t give away the climax before you set up the need for it.
The Basics of Storytelling: Delivering the Story
Okay, so you have your story structured correctly. But now it’s time to deliver that story in the sermon. Here are some tips for delivering that story well:
- Mirror the emotions in the story – if you’re telling a sad story, it’s really confusing to do so with a smile on your face.
- Mirror the energy in the story – if you’re telling an exciting story, make sure that your energy represents the excitement that is embedded in the story.
- Know your story. Do not, I repeat, do not, I repeat, do not look at notes to tell your story. Know it and tell it unhindered by aids.
- Sparingly use a pause between a key story movement (i.e. between crisis and climax)
- Practice in front of someone else or in regular conversation. The more you tell stories, the better you’ll get if you reflect on how people responded to the different movements of the story you told.
To see how I told the simple story of me moving from one side of town to the other to talk about loneliness, watch the first few minutes of the message below:
Fred Craddock on Storytelling
Show… Don’t Just Tell
My fellow preacher, we need to show the truth of Scripture. We certainly need to tell it. But we need to show people what the truth looks like as it is lived out in our day and time.
A great sermon illustration speaks to the heart. So let’s use illustrations well. Let’s preach the truth of the text AND let’s show the truth of the text in every sermon.
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