How to Find the Perfect Sermon Illustration Every Time
You know the experience. It’s late Friday or Saturday afternoon and you still haven’t found a decent illustration, let alone a perfect one, for two of your main points. You’ve searched the web, you’ve looked through illustration books and websites, you’ve asked your staff, and you’ve searched through your mental file cabinet only to come up with two illustrations that “kind of fit” your point.
It’s frustrating. You know that the point of an illustration is to provide “a window to the soul” so that the people listening to you can better understand what you’re saying and how they can apply it—but the best you can come up with is something that, if you’re generous, leaves an opaque film on the window.
So what should you do when you’re stuck and can’t find a great illustration? Well, believe it or not, help is never far away. And the technique you’re about to learn will actually help you find the perfect illustration every time, and not just a “kind of fit” illustration.
I. The Genesis and Genius of Illustrating From the Present
Before I share with you one of my favorite illustration techniques, I need to give homage to the person from whom I learned this technique: Don Sunukjian—who, at the time I heard him teach this in 1988, was at Dallas Theological Seminary (now at Biola).
I was a seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Don was a guest lecturer for a preaching conference at TEDS. Even though it was 25 years ago, I can still remember Don sharing this technique and the illustration he used—which is why I think this technique is so powerful. How many illustrations do you remember 25 years later?
The passage he was looking at was Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children,” and the illustration he gave went something like this.
“What does this mean? Well, it’s like when a father, let’s call him Joe, is out in the backyard and he’s playing with his three-year-old daughter, Kaylie. They’re having a great time and in the midst of playing, Joe takes little Kaylie and throws her up in the air. She giggles a little, but there’s a little look of fear in her eyes. Not to be deterred, Joe throws her up again, but this time, just a little bit higher. However, this time little Kaylie isn’t so quiet. She says, 'No daddy. No daddy. I scared.'
"But Joe doesn’t listen. After all, they’re just playing. So he throws her up again, this time even higher. And once again, little Kaylie cries out, ‘No daddy. No daddy. I scared. I scared.' 'Oh, come on Kaylie, there’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re just playing. I won’t let you get hurt.' So once again, Joe throws little Kaylie up in the air. And once again, with tears now streaming down her face, little Kaylie cries out, ‘No daddy… No daddy… I scared … I scared.’"
Now, obviously a written text can’t convey the emotion of Kaylie’s words, but I can tell you that when Don was done with that illustration, he not only had all of us, the room was silent.
He then dropped the following bomb: “That entire story was made up. It’s what I call illustrating from the present.”
II. Realize the Incredible Power of Illustrating from the Present
The beauty and power of illustrating from the present is that it gives you the power to create a scenario that PERFECTLY fits the passage or point you’re trying to make. No longer will you be forced to try to make an illustration fit a point. Nor will you have to keep playing the simile game (“It’s kind of like … “ when you know it really isn’t).
Moreover, when you’re illustrating from the present you’re using an illustration that, to be honest, is really relevant to your people and the lives they lead (i.e., most of your people aren’t famous politicians or athletes or celebrities or pastors or Fortune 500 executives).
When you’re illustrating from the present, you’re deliberately designing scenarios that not only fit the point you’re trying to make, but the people to whom you’re speaking. If you have a lot of single adults in your congregation, you can create a scenario using single adults. If you’re talking to a younger congregation with a lot of college students, you can create a scenario between two college students. If your congregation is made up of a lot of empty nesters, you can create a scenario with two empty nesters.
In other words, the power of illustrating from the present is that it’s a quick technique (i.e., there’s no need to consult a book or website) that allows you to create a scenario that perfectly fits the text, the point you’re trying to make and the people to whom you’re speaking. As a preacher, what more could you ask for?
III. Recognize the Four Components Necessary for Illustrating From the Present
Rather than complicate this process by adding too much texture and nuance to the art of storytelling (since this isn’t a course in writing fiction or character development), let’s simplify the process down to its irreducible minimum. To create a scenario to perfectly illustrate the point you’re making, you need just four things.
1. You need to be clear on what the point of the passage is and how you think your people could or should apply it.
2. You need to know your people inside out. You need to know what they do, what their lives are like, what their needs, wants, desires, problems, pains, obstacles, dreams, frustrations, fears, etc. are because you want to design scenarios that fit them where they’re thinking, “That’s me. I do that.”
3. You need to create characters that fit the point and application—and give them names.
4. You need to create a problem.
So, let’s take a typical biblical text and flesh this out. The passage I’m choosing is Philippians 2:3–4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
The point is pretty obvious, and the target market for a church I’m currently consulting is young families (note: adjust to your target market/congregation). So, I’m going to use a husband and wife who have one infant aged child as the characters. I’m going to call the husband Andre and the wife Jennifer. And let’s call their baby Angela.
Like many young couples who are trying to minimize child care costs while maximizing their time with their child(ren), Andre and Jen have different work schedules during the week. Let’s say Andre works a typical day shift job from 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. M-F and Jennifer works the evening shift from 3:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. MWF. That means they only need a sitter three days per week from 2:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Andre is the main breadwinner, but Jennifer’s supplemental income is what allows them, as a family, to have some margin. The main conflict is going to be over dishes still in the sink when Jen gets home one Friday evening after Andre has gone to bed. You now have everything you need to create your scenario.
Note: All of the above is usually done in your head and takes just a few moments to conjure up.
IV. Create an Illustration That Perfectly Fits the Passage, the Point and Your People
After you make your point about what it means to put other people’s needs before your own, you then might say something like this.
“So here’s what it might look like. Let’s take a couple. We’ll call them Andre and Jennifer and let’s say they have an infant-aged daughter called Angela. Andre’s a frontline manager at ABC Company and the main breadwinner for the family. However, he barely makes enough to pay their mortgage and other expenses.
"In order to help the family out, Jen has decided to take a job as a nurse at a local hospital to add some supplemental income to their family budget so they can enjoy a few of life’s little pleasures during this stage of life—and not have to live paycheck to paycheck. As such, she only works half-time, three days one week and two days the next.
"And, because they want to minimize their child care costs while maximizing their time with Angela, Jen has chosen to work the evening shift at the hospital so that they only need a child care provider a few hours per week from 2:30 p.m. when Jennifer drops Angela off until 5:30 p.m. when Andre is able to pick her up. Generally the system works.
"However, one Friday evening, let’s say Andre is simply beat. He’s exhausted. It’s been a long week at work and after picking Angela up and playing with her, he just wants to crash on the couch, watch a movie and go to bed.
"So, on that Friday evening, after watching his movie, as he walks by the kitchen and sees the dirty dishes still out from dinner, he keeps walking, gets ready for bed and falls asleep. When Jennifer arrives home at 11:45 p.m. that Friday evening, as you can guess, she’s not a happy camper.
"The next morning, Andre gets up around 6:00 a.m., heads down to his office in the basement and gets started on his Saturday morning routine of paying the bills and catching up on his reading. Life is good. Around 8:00 a.m. he hears Jen opening a cabinet in the kitchen so he starts up the stairs to greet her.
"Unfortunately, when he arrives at the top of the stairs he begins to feel a cool breeze. As he enters into the kitchen and says, 'Good morning!' he feels the temperature in the kitchen drop precipitously as she barely acknowledges him. Not to be deterred, he walks up behind Jen, puts his arms around her and promptly experiences frostbite.
"Not the smartest guy on the planet, Andre asks incredulously, 'What’s wrong?' Jen simply turns around, looks him in the eye, points to the mass of dirty dishes and says, 'What does this communicate to me?'
"Well, as you know, those are fighting words. So Andre jumps into excuse and defense mode and says, 'Hey, I had a hard week at work. I put in 52 hours this week and by last evening after I put Angela down, I was exhausted!' Now, if that response weren't bad enough, Andre goes the extra mile and says, 'Plus, I’m the main breadwinner here. I worked M–F. I went in early each day. And still I did my part taking care of Angela. I don’t get what the big deal is.'
"Undeterred, Jen simply said, 'You didn’t answer my question. What does this communicate to me?'
"Without responding, Andre picks up the car keys, walks out the door and starts driving. At first, he’s fuming mad. The conversation in his head is, 'So who does she think she is? I work hard all week. I make most of the money. She only works two or three days a week. And she has the nerve to give me a hard time about some dishes being left out. I can’t believe it.'
"But then, right in the middle of this mental rant, God pops a thought into Andre’s head, 'But what does you leaving dirty dishes out communicate to your wife?'
"Slowly, he responds, like a man hit with a 2x4 over his head, 'That what I do is more important than what she does.'
"Then God reminded Andre of Philippians 2:3-4: 'Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.'
"To which Andre finally responded, 'From now on, God, I won’t selfishly put my needs before Jen’s or devalue her or what she does. From now on, I’ll put her needs before my own.'"
That’s what Phil. 2:3-4 looks like.
Now, can you do that? Absolutely! In fact, you can do this on any given week for any given message or point. You can create a scenario (an illustration from the present) that will perfectly fit the passage you’re preaching on, the point you’re trying to make and the people to whom you’re speaking.
It just requires a little thought and some creativity, but your people will be grateful that you took the time to create the perfect scenario for them. Why? Because when you take the time to create the perfect illustration, you’ll be creating a “window to the soul” for them that will not only help them understand the point but help them know how to apply it as well. Like I said, what more could a preacher ask for?