For most of us “seasoned preachers,” when we come to the conclusion that we need a sermon illustration, our minds instantly think “story.” Many preachers use the words interchangeably, but as we will see, there are quite a few different kinds of ways to illustrate a sermon beyond telling a good story.
The truth is, illustrations come in quite a few different shapes and sizes and each with their own flavor. Diverse illustrations impact the listener in various ways, from revealing keen insights to challenging conventional truths to simply disarming the people with a bit of humor.
And so I thought, perhaps, it would be helpful to consider some of these types of illustrations so that you may wisely choose the kind of illustration that you wish to use
Background “Context & Commentary”
Is there anything better after a sermon than when a person comes up to you and says how grateful they are for your message? And how they had “never heard anyone share that insight before?” I love how these bite-size excerpts, which we call “background” illustrations, can both contextualize and illustrate your sermon for the reader.
We’ve intentionally made this the first subset of illustrations on our site because whether or not you use them in your message, they often shape what is to come afterwards. Having a solid context on the background of a text will only help bolster your sermon as a whole.
Stories “Narratives & Anecdotes”
As we already discussed, stories are the standard bearer in the illustration world. We know that God has uniquely imbued stories with an unparalleled ability to shape a listener’s mind and heart. Stories are excellent illustrations because they naturally grab the attention (and the emotions) of the listener, transporting them into the world of the story.
Listeners naturally find themselves engaging not just the story itself, but the point the communicator is illustrating. Stories help us to “walk around in the shoes” of the characters of the story, thereby opening new ways of thinking about God, about ourselves, and the world we live in. This is why The Pastor’s Workshop takes storytelling seriously.
Studies “Research & Data”
Scientific studies can serve a significant role in illustrating a sermon so long as the congregation has an open view towards the sciences in general. The value of scientific research is the ability to make observations over a period of time to either confirm or replace theories about the natural world.
I find studies to be significantly helpful if I am trying to argue for something that goes against conventional wisdom. Sometimes studies can even upend conventional beliefs from scientific studies.
For example, most of us have heard the “50% of all marriages end in divorce” statistic, but the reality is far different, especially for those with more education and who wait until they are older to get married.
Ultimately, studies have the ability to buttress your arguments and illustrate the truth with actual data.
Analogies “Connect to Everyday Life”
I was chatting with a pastor friend once and asked him how he came up with his sermon illustrations. He told me that he didn’t really use them, he would just preach and say something like, “it’s kind of like…”
It took me a while to realize he was talking about using analogies as sermon illustrations, which he found particularly fruitful as a weekly preacher. And even though he didn’t think he used illustrations, this friend was successfully illustrating his sermons week after week by saying “it’s like this…”
Analogies have the ability to take complex concepts and translate them into a frame of reference that the audience already understands. With that said, defining an analogy often feels much harder than recognizing and/or using one. Here’s a popular example that instantly connects with most of us:
“That’s about as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Ultimately, the power of analogies is in their ability to clarify and illustrate often challenging concepts. What’s best is when a story includes an analogy, as the combination works together to form a powerful one-two punch of rhetorical impact.
Humor “Make ‘em Laugh”
Most of us know just how significant humor can be in the life of a communicator. When Christians gather in worship, a sense of awe and respect often hangs over the congregation (as well they should) Those who lead public worship ought to balance the seriousness of worship with the “joy of the Lord” that ought to define our worship together. Whether you preach in a high or low liturgical tradition, by the time the sermon comes in the service, worship songs or prayers have been spoken about sinfulness, our need for God, the power of God’s love and grace.
Such weighty topics are necessary, but they can easily create a heavy mood. If you think about it, for most of your congregants this is the longest period of time in a week they have dealt with such weighty topics with no breaks to catch their breath or decompress.
So when the sermon comes along, I love to begin with a bit of humor. Personally, I try to find something unique that morning that will get a few laughs, and if I fail, drawing attention to my failure almost always has the desired effect. It lets some of the air out of the room, but it also disarms the congregation and immediately grabs their attention.
Starting with a funny story is often a great way to immediately engage your flock. Anecdotes, in my opinion, are preachers’ gold because they are usually quite short, hilarious, and instantly help you connect with your people.
As you can see, there are quite a variety of illustrations available to the preacher, each working in different ways to connect the eternal truths of God’s word with our everyday, ordinary lives. As you continue in your preaching journey, I would encourage you to consider incorporating each of these types of illustrations into your preacher’s toolkit. If you are not already doing so, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit will greatly increase the power and efficacy of your preaching.
Stu Strachan, Founder and Executive Director,
The Pastor’s Workshop
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
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