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It’s deflating when you tell an illustration and it falls as flat as last week’s Diet Coke. You thought it was a jaw-dropper, but it turned out to be an eye-drooper.

What changes can you make to your illustrations so you can tell them with more power?

I’ve been working on an e-book on illustrations that I’ll give away as a free download from this site. Now that I’m halfway through it, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern that effective illustrations follow.

A formula for powerful illustrations

This pattern can be packaged in the following formula:

Start with something familiar + Reveal something unfamiliar about that thing + Connect the unfamiliar—but now understood—part of the illustration to the spiritual truth you want to communicate.

The familiar part is critical because it enables your hearers to visualize what you are saying. Nailing your point home by relating it to your message is a non-negotiable.

But most preachers go right from the familiar experience to the spiritual connection, cutting out the unfamiliar anecdote.

Why this works

Adding something new to what is already known accomplishes two things.

First, it creates a sense of awe and wonder. It’s the “I never knew that” effect.

Second, surprising your hearers with something new disposes them to receive even more of something new. Thus, you prepare the way for your main goal: hitting their hearts with spiritual truth.

A disclaimer

If you try to plug boring details and far-reaching connections into your passage, this formula will not work for you. It’s not meant to make stupid illustrations stunning.

However, if you let the formula guide you as you brainstorm killer illustrations for your sermons, you will notice a steady increase in the impact your sermons make from week to week.

Types of illustrations that apply this formula

What are some ways to use this formula effectively? Here are seven, off the top of my head.

1. Illustrations that reveal the marvels of nature or science.

2. Illustrations that provide behind-the-scenes info on a well-known historical event.

3. Illustrations that show how an everyday device works.

4. Illustrations that quote lines from popular songs or movies that unknowingly reflect the gospel. Or if the quote is far from the gospel, but reflects the worldview of our culture, show how the gospel confronts those ideas.

5. Illustrations that turn common clichés on their head or prove their accuracy in an astounding way.

6. Illustrations that show how a major feat was accomplished or why it was unfortunately left unfinished.

7. Illustrations from the lives of famous politicians, businesspeople, entertainers, etc.

Of the making of illustrations, there is no end…

There are lots of sermon illustrations that are effective. I’m not saying these are the only effective ones. But when you are in a tight spot, reaching for just the right illustration, I think this formula will give you the boost you need.

Eric McKiddie is a husband, father of three, and one of the pastors at College Church in Wheaton, IL. You can follow Eric on Twitter (@ericmckiddie).

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Talk about it...

Darryl Woodson

commented on Aug 13, 2012

Great thought Eric! Do you have some examples?

Darryl Woodson

commented on Aug 13, 2012

Great thought Eric! Do you have some examples?

Gordon Dorsey

commented on Aug 13, 2012

shalom that is a great idea.i have been applying that to my messages i want want something new ,to apply to my message although the info is old .every time that is so true we pastors have to take time to dig out new info because its there,for us. shalom bro /sis PASTOR DORSEY

Moses Brown

commented on Aug 13, 2012

Yes, Eric, in those tight spots a good illustration saves the message.

Paul Zeron

commented on Aug 14, 2012

I agree with Darryl, my first thought was that I would like to see some examples. I suppose I should look forward to the ebook being available, but the very thing you are writing about, illustrations, could use an illustration! Great article, anyhow. This doesn't rule out the use of the familiar/spiritual connection--that is what metaphor and simile are. "God is like the sun, He warms us, gives light to our understanding, etc." If I understand you correctly, it would be great to share something not commonly known about the sun and relate that not commonly known thing to the hearer's experience. "The heat from the sun has to travel across millions of miles of cold dark empty space and is not diminished. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. Even though people choose to remain in darkness, God's light is not diminished." (I'm trying to make something up on the spot as I move to get ready to go to a meeting, sorry for nothing earth shattering!)

Stan Roam

commented on Aug 14, 2012

I use many of my funny failures when I preach, and the people love it. I think it helps them to realize that the pastor too makes mistakes. I think it lightens the load for those, frankly all of the listeners since we all at times mess up to realize the pastor can be goofy too. But I always tie it to a spiritual truth! Thanks for sharing!

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