Honor your heroes with 24 Memorial Day Quotes for Preaching.
Preaching Articles

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?



Bruce D. Johnson is the President of Wired To Grow, a business growth coaching, consulting and executive education firm located near Charleston, SC. (www.WiredToGrow.com) and the author of “Breaking Through Plateaus” (www.BreakingThroughBook.com). Prior to that, he was the founding pastor of a church he started with two families that grew to 2,000 people. You can reach him at bruce@wiredtogrow.com

 

Browse All

Related Preaching Articles

Talk about it...

commented on Oct 8, 2013

Thanks to you we need in your helping prayer more and more.

Greg Crocker

commented on Oct 8, 2013

Excellent. Thank you!

Hugo Fries

commented on Oct 8, 2013

Its just not credible. Your congregation will tire of these made-up stories. Really...the father keeps throwing his kid in the air? - not like fathers I know. And in the other story - Jennifer decides to take a job as a nurse for supplemental income ?? - typically that sort of career direction has been thought out.-again not credible. Sorry, I just don't agree with this sort of illustration - it sounds like an internet story -- they can spot them a mile away. Is it meant to be believable? Its not a parable. fiction?

George Ewald

commented on Oct 8, 2013

I offer grace here. Actually I have 5 nurses in my congregation and 4 of them just had babies. The one was not going to go back to work until the kids were all in school as they now have 3 young children under 5. The husband is a police officer and suddenly they were hit with a crisis and so the wife had to reluctantly go back to work part time to get them through the crisis. Totally believable to my church. When we look at this is this not what Jesus did constantly with his parables. You don't believe those stories were all real do you? He did exactly what this article is talking about. He created stories applicable to the audience he was talking to.

Byron Sherman

commented on Oct 8, 2013

I agree Hugo. But as long as the audience is made aware that your illustration is a supposition or an idea rather than a fact, then when it mimics life, it becomes a parable for explanation.

Bruce Johnson

commented on Oct 8, 2013

Hugo, I think you missed the point. Fortunately, George nailed it. Jesus' parables were made up stories and we're still telling them. The beauty of this process is that you can make up stories (and you want to be clear they're made up) they fit your people (unlike most of the illustrations I hear pastors share which don't fit either the context or their people ... or both). As for the story about Jennifer and Andre, that's actually based on a true story. Sorry, nothing made up or internet based. Just a real true life story with a few details changed to protect the individuals. However, it's indicative of the process. Most great stories are based on pieces of true stories which is what makes them believable--and both George's experience and mine say this story is absolutely on track. However, don't get lost in the details of the stories. My recommendation is to focus on the process and the four points of a story in point three. Use them to make what is believable for you and your congregation. And don't worry, your people won't get tired of them. I've been doing it for over two decades and you'd be surprised how many times people will say, "That story you told about ... that story is my story." Give it a shot!

Paul Zeron

commented on Oct 8, 2013

I can see saying something like, "What if so and so did such and such..." This kind of storytelling sounds too much like reporting something as fact. This kind of fictional story telling is so contrived...you could assert anything you want. The power of real stories is that you get people's candid reactions which are going to be way more realistic. I could have just as easily Andre say, "Jen doesn't realize it, but she will realize that by leaving the dishes I am not robbing her of her sense of importance in the home. I am going to leave my laundry all over the floor, too. She will thank me later." I will never forget how I lost a (only) a little respect for some 'big' preachers from around the country who had the same woman with only two teeth who gave the testimony that she was thankful that at least they met. It made my wonder how many of their stories were fake. I would be cautions to make sure all along the story that it was all conjecture. "What if she said this, do you think it might occur to him that..." The disclaimer at the beginning of the story above just doesn't cover the tone of reality in the rest of the story.

Bruce Johnson

commented on Oct 9, 2013

Paul, it sounds like your experience is getting in the way of the idea. If you read the opening paragraph, this is a tactic to use when you can't find a great "real" illustration. As for contrived, all stories are. It's no different than when you're in a counseling session and you're talking with a husband and wife, let's call them Andre and Jen, who are having some conflict over Andre being inattentive to her needs and you say to Andre, "Dre, let's say it's Tuesday evening and you know Jen has an evening planned with her girlfriends. Just as you're getting ready to head out, your boss walks in and says, "Dre, we just had an account blow up on the west coast. I need you in the conference room stat." What are you going to do?" Every good story is contrived because the story has a point. But that doesn't mean that's a bad strategy/tactic to use. Also, if several "big name" pastors were all using the same story, they weren't actually using the tactic I'm encouraging you to use here. This is about you creating a story that fits your people, the passage and the point. By definition, no two pastors should be using the same story. Hope that helps! B

Paul Zeron

commented on Oct 9, 2013

Okay, fair enough. Certainly your remarks about parables is to the point also. Perhaps I would do the Jen and Andre story a little differently to suit my taste, but that is beside the point you are making.

Andrew Benedict

commented on Oct 8, 2013

Excellent Bruce,helps a lot!! I'm not a full time preacher but take care of my fellowship at work and was thinking about ways I can improve the clarity of my sermons I share here ,a timely help ,God bless you !!

Bruce Johnson

commented on Oct 9, 2013

Andrew, Thanks! And thanks for wanting to "improve the clarity of your sermons". B

Larry Easton

commented on Oct 9, 2013

Thank you! The comparison with parables really clicked with me. Now if my imagination was just good enough to come up with something credible.......

Bruce Johnson

commented on Oct 9, 2013

Hope this helps. Someone just sent me an email asking, " l enjoyed your write up on the above subject. But please, will it not amount to telling lies if illustrations are made and the pastor failed in telling the congregation they were made up?" Here's my response, [Name withheld],You're correct. If someone tries to pass something off as true that isn't, that would be a lie. But what we're talking about here isn't related to that at all. I've been doing this for decades and no one thinks that a story I've made up is a real life story when you start it like this. "For example, let's take a wife, let's call her Jen and a husband, let's call him Andre ?" EVERYONE knows that's a story made up to help illustrate a point. On the other hand (which I'm NOT advocating) if a pastor were to say, "I once knew a woman named Jen who was married to a guy named Andre ?" That sounds like it's a real story (and it's not) As long as you do the former and avoid the latter, you'll be fine. Hope that helps clarify any misunderstandings.

John Sears

commented on Oct 16, 2013

Bruce, I get what you wrote and appreciate the idea that Jesus "made up" some great stories based on his audience and his surroundings. And He did so with integrity (Not lying) by saying, "Suppose a man..." or "This is like a king who...."

Bruce Johnson

commented on Oct 16, 2013

John, Perfect! And your people will appreciate you helping them see exactly how they can apply the principle of the text into their own lives. B

Eddie Renfroe

commented on Nov 23, 2013

Thank you for a timely help in developing illustrations that should assist me in getting and keeping the attention of my congregation. I am trying to make the Sunday messages more real and meaning for my people. Eddie H. Renfroe, Lee's Chapel AME Church, Wellsville, Ohio

Edward Zogg

commented on Jun 6, 2015

Thanks Bruce this is an excellent article! I am a relatively new missionary pastor of an English speaking church plant in the Dominican Republic. God has put me in this place which is not something that I would have signed up for but God is blessing the work in incredible ways! I have been struggling with illustrations in my teaching because coming from a different culture I have very different life experiences. Many of which don't transcend cultures very well. This technique will help me to use the things in the culture I am immersed in and use them to teach Gods truth. Just like Jesus did. Jesus used this technique frequently but I never picked up on it. Many thanks!

William Douglas Johnson, Sr

commented on Jun 6, 2015

I have done this, and I simply started out with, "There's a story . . ." and proceeded to go into the event and finish the illustration. I never bothered to give the character a name, he's an example, and that is all. Why can't we use our own parables, from the real world where we live and work ? Thank you for your insight.

Lawrence Webb

commented on Jun 6, 2015

I've never gotten the knack for what you describe, but I think it's good for those who feel they can do it. I look everywhere for stories that "fit." Sometimes it's from my own experience, sometimes something I remember from another "real person," something I find on the Internet from a sermon someone preached on the text I'm working on. Just this morning (Saturday), I came across a current true story that I believe will nail my central thought for tomorrow. "The Lord moves in a mysterious way . . ." Thank you for the pointers.

Join the discussion