Enroll in Free Course on Preaching – To Illustrate or Not to Illustrate

by Bruce Ballast

One of the secrets to good preaching is knowing when and how to use illustrations.  Illustrations open windows on your subject and serve to “hook” your audience.  The pastor of my teens prided himself on never using a gesture or an illustration.  He explained his theory to a group of us teens who had been on mission trips the prior summer.  He said that he didn’t want anything in his presentation that might distract anyone from the Word of God.  So he stood behind the pulpit, the Bible held in two hands, and spoke his sermon in a monotone voice.

As you might guess, I don’t remember one thing from his sermons in an over ten-year period.   Part of that experience may be due to a well-developed imagination on my part that allowed me to figuratively leave the church and explore the world.  Imagination took me away from my boredom.  In retrospect, though, I think he could have caught my attention if he had used illustrations to enrich the ideas in his messages.

Why do it?

There are several good reasons to use illustrations in your messages.

The Authors of the Bible Used Illustrations

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is this: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall, but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles….”  What a lovely illustration of what the result will be when we let God rule our lives!  God used a powerful illustration when talking to Cain in Genesis 4, when He said, “…sin is crouching at the door.”  That is a powerful illustration of temptation.

Jesus was the master illustrator.  Most of his teaching contains stories or metaphors that related to the daily life of the people of his audience.   The author of pastors.com put it this way: “In fact, the Bible shows that storytelling was Jesus’ favorite technique when speaking to the crowd: “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (Matthew 13:34)  The pictures that Jesus shared in his teaching opened windows for his hearers, engaged them more deeply in his message.

Illustrations Open Windows

A second reason to use illustrations well is that illustrations open windows on the points that you make, and expand the hearer’s understanding.  Here’s an example, an illustration of the treasure in jars of clay.  Note how the picture created deepens understanding of the point being made.

Illustrations Move The Hearer to Obedience

A third reason to use illustrations in a well-placed way is that it moves people from understanding of obedience.  Bryan Chapell, the author of Using Illustrations to Preach with Powersays,

“Illustrations will not allow mere head knowledge.  They exegete Scripture in terms of human experience to create a whole-person understanding of God’s Word.  By framing biblical truths in the world in which we live and move and have our being, illustrations unite our personalities, our pasts, our present, our affections, our fears, our frustrations, our hopes, our hearts, our minds, and our souls in the understanding of that which is divine.  They are integral to preaching, not merely because they may entertain or clarify, but because they expand and deepen the applications the mind and heart can make.” (pp. 14-15) 

Illustrations open windows for the hearer, that’s the lesson of this post.  In the next post, we’ll reflect more on what kinds of illustrations work best to accomplish this, as well as explore some of the places you can get effective illustrations.

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