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How can a pastor come up with captivating illustrations on a weekly basis?

What does it take to think up applications that actually lead toward change in your congregation? Where does that creativity come from? These topics are common in my sermon coaching conversations.

Interpreting the passage accurately is hard enough. But it is only half the battle. To pull the sermon out of Bible times and show its importance for today, you have to package it with contemporary illustrations and drive it home with challenging, non-cliché applications.

What does it take to come up with more creative sermon illustrations and applications?

John Cleese, member of Monty Python, has the answer.

John Cleese gave a talk on the topic of creativity in which he divulges five tips for being more creative. It’s not about how to be funny necessarily, but how to be creative. I’d like to focus on just one of his points for the purpose of this post.

Cleese’s simple secret to improving creativity is to think longer about the problem that requires a creative solution. This is the secret to coming up with more creative illustrations and applications for your sermons: spend more time thinking about them.

But this solution reveals another problem, of course. How do you finagle more time to think about the illustration and application sections of your sermon? There are three ways you can do this.

1. Increase the amount of time you spend on sermon prep.

Do you start your sermon on Friday? On Saturday? Do you only spend less than 10 hours on your sermon? Less than five? If this is the case, you have little reason to expect to produce creative illustrations that captivate and creative applications that motivate. Spend more time studying for your sermon. Start earlier in the week and increase the number of total hours you put into your sermon.

In order to spend more studying for your sermon, you’ll have to cut time somewhere else. What can you delegate? What can you make a more streamlined process for? What can you eliminate?

Another way to log more hours thinking about illustrations and application is to use “dead space” better. If you set the habit of thinking these things in the shower and during your commute to the office, you could add one or two hours of sermon prep per week, depending on the intensity of your body odor and the distance you live from church.

Maybe you’re thinking, “I already spend 15 hours on my sermon, and my applications and illustrations are still lame.” That’s why I included point #2.

2. Adjust the allotment of your time in sermon prep.

If you study 15 hours for your sermon, and 14 hours is spent on exegesis, you have some room to work with. Though anyone can make this mistake, it is particularly common for pastors fresh out of seminary who treat their sermon prep like a weekly exegesis paper. Seminary professors train us to leave no exegetical stone unturned, and we bring that habit into our sermon prep.

Unlike your profs, your congregation doesn’t grade you on your nuance or breadth of research. They use the did-he-help-me-follow-Jesus-better-this-week scale. A sermon that doesn’t contain specific examples of how to apply it will not be very helpful. A sermon that doesn’t relate the Scriptures to today with fresh illustrations will not be very helpful.

Spend less time on the niggling details of your passage. Don’t worry so much about how often Paul modifies a present active indicative verb with en Xristo. You’re not writing a commentary; you’re writing a sermon. When you preach Romans 15:17, “In Christ (en Christo) Jesus, then, I have (present active indicative of echo) reason to be proud of my work for God,” it’s much more important for your church to picture in their mind what it means to be in Christ (illustration) and to know how that affects whether their pride in their work for God is holy or sinful (application).

Don’t hear me say you should never try to stretch your church’s appreciation for detailed exegesis. Hear me say they will only appreciate your detailed exegesis when you show them how it relates to how they live.

Now, if you’re thinking: “I already spend plenty of time preparing my sermon, and I have a healthy distribution of time spent on exegesis, illustrations, and application. But my applications and illustrations are still lame!” That’s why I included point #3.

3. Focus your attention during the time you spend in sermon prep.

An hour spent preparing your sermon is only as beneficial as the amount of attention you devote during it. Do you really expect to write creative sermons with your cell phone buzzing and your email dinging the whole time? Close your web browser, Twitter feed, RSS app and everything else, so you can devote all of your attention to your sermon.

Preaching and the Genesis 3 curse

If — after adding a few more hours, adjusting a few hours and focusing better for a few hours—you still find you can’t come up with satisfying illustrations and applications, your problem is in some sense unsolvable. You are simply experiencing the curse of work:

“…cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (Gen. 3:18b-19a).

The thorns and thistles that the pastor harvests are clichés and platitudes. There is no secret for eliminating the curse of work. But if entertainers can sometimes break through the thistles and get to the hearty crop of creativity with just a little more time, how much more can we, who preach with the anointing of the Spirit? 

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...

Kyle Lewis

commented on Mar 6, 2013

This seems like the speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9rtmxJrKwc

Ron Vanderwell

commented on Mar 6, 2013

I appreciate this. The hardest part of a sermon for me is figuring out how to word the questions. Many sermons can be an answer for which most people aren't (yet) asking the question. Once I can figure out in what way people are asking a question for which this passage provides a helpful answer, the sermon becomes much simpler to write.

Paul Hull

commented on Mar 6, 2013

Eric, thanks for the post. It was helpful. Regarding your last point though, I find that I have to take breaks from the process in order to let the information percolate (for want of a better word). I find that studying and reading early in the week is beneficial to thinking and being creative later in the week. If I am pressed for time and try to cram 10-15 hours in on Saturday, the little gray cells just get overwhelmed and stop working. It's like trying to remember a trivia factoid that hits you at 4:00AM. Your brain has been working the whole night to bring that out of the chaos that sometimes is our brain.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Mar 6, 2013

Kyle: Great link! It was even more helpful then the article. Thanks!

Pastor Walter Roberts

commented on Mar 6, 2013

Thank you for the article. I have been preaching for over 35 years and I have found, that when the Holy Spirit gives you "The message" and the anointing for the truth of which, God wants you to preach, and to preach to a sinner or a saint, (no matter who likes it or not) you can preach without any preparation at all except for the preparation of prayer and seeking God for His wonderful anointing to carry out His divine will. Then after seeking God for direction and the anointing for a message, He may require you to tarry, study and wait upon Him until He gives you the fullness of truth in order to preach under His anointing. God has instantly given me sermons as I readied myself to preach, and then, there have been times that He has required me to wait upon Him for several hours until heaven opened and then, He would then give me wonderful revelations to the message that He wanted me to preach and a message that He wanted the people to hear that would change, heal, convert, or draw them closer to His person. But make no mistake, without God we can do nothing! And remember, what we preach should change peoples lives for the glory of God.

Paul Morton

commented on Mar 7, 2013

You're welcome.

E. Marcus Stewart

commented on Mar 7, 2013

I have found that using some of Max Lucado's creativity helps jumpstart my own. I had never really used story telling in my sermons, and relied on many old illustrations repackaged in modern wrappings. Reading through Mr. Lucado's 'Six Hours One Friday' made me re-examine my own illustration use, and I borrowed some of his creativity in creating new modernized illustrations. This article re-enforces that realization. We can learn from others, that's hardly a newsflash, but for many Pastors who have found their well of creativity drying up, G~D will send creative 'muses' to help us, if we're open to use the creative juices of others. Mind you, I am not advocating plagiarism, but as you see how someone like Mr. Lucado has recreated the story of the Prodigal Son, it can help us to bring a like-minded newness in the way that we approach other parables that Christ used to get His message across.

Michael Karpf

commented on Mar 8, 2013

3 excellent points on preparing a sermon! In my own experience, I cannot get up in the pulpit and "wing it." The more time I spend in preparation, the better prepared I am. Exegesis is essential to understanding the passage. There is very little solid, expositional preaching today. People want something to make them feel good. Pastors have a responsibility to preach the word (2 Tim 4:2). Not being prepared is no excuse. I understand emergencies do happen, but a pastor is responsible to preach the word (2 Tim 4:2) and shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:2). I will finish this post by writing that a man who taught me how to study and love God's word recently went to be in the presence of the Author. Dr. Howard (Prof) Hendricks, Distinguised Professor Emeritus at Dallas Theological Seminary was a man who loved God and loved His word. He taught me to become a better student of God's word.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Mar 8, 2013

You're right, Michael, we must not skimp on exegesis, lest we err on a passage's meaning for lack of proper context. I think the REAL point McKiddie may be missing from Clease's speech about creativity is that it isn't really based on talent or time as much as attitude. Clease said the talent one has going into it has little to do with creativity; the time one is willing to devote to it has a good deal to do with creativity; but having "a playful attitude" has the most to do with creativity. Thinking of ways to juxtapose two hitherto seemingly unconnected ideas is key. For instance, last week I preached from 1 Corinthians 6:19 and the old catechism question came to my mind: "What is your only hope in life and in death?" The answer, of course, is: "That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to God, even our Savior Jesus Christ." While that alone could have been the sermon, I remembered that there are other places in Scripture where people are told they are not their own, like in Paul's discussion of the Church (the members do not belong to themselves, but to the Body; Romans 12:4-5) and of marriage (the husband's body does not belong to himself, but to his wife and vice-versa; 1 Corinthians 7:4). Knowing the struggles of the various people in my congregation, I preached 3 main points: 1) Our only hope in life and in death is that we are not our own, but belong to Another; 2) Our only hope in the Church is that we are not our own, but belong to one another; 3) Our only hope in marriage is that we are not our own, but belong to each another. I made application of the implications for each of these relationships in light of: "For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living" and "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Rom 14:7-9; Gal 2:20).

John E Miller

commented on Mar 11, 2013

The basis of this article purports to be a simple secret of creativity endorsed by John Cleese. If anyone who claims to be a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ feels a need to turn to John Cleese as some kind of mentor in searching for inspiration to rightly present it, he is in the wrong job. Cleese is an atheistic blasphemer who has gone out of his way to ridicule the cross of Christ. It is a shameful thing to suggest that such a man might be any kind of inspiration in the noble task of proclaiming God's gracious revelation to mankind His salvation made known in Jesus.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Mar 11, 2013

Ouch! Stinging reproof from John E. Miller! I can't say you're wrong, brother!

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