I remember sitting on my couch when it hit me. It was one of those rare moments of clarity amid the dense fog of dejection. I was fretting a bit about my sermon a few hours earlier. I felt like the wife or mom who kept on cooking up the same meals, the same way each week. The balance of spiritual proteins, carbs and vegetables were not out of whack, but the flavor was. My homiletical seasoning had become flavorless and predictable.
In short: My illustrations and word pictures were becoming bland and boring.
It hit me as I sat rubbing my head like I was attempting to coerce a migraine to leave. Jesus commented that “ … out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45). What was coming out of my mouth in my sermons was precisely what was filling my mind and heart throughout the week.
Think about it for a second. In sermon prep, the preacher works hard to get the text into his soul. He pounds it in via reading, meditation, prayer, study and thinking. What comes out is how the text has been received, processed, integrated and applied personally.
To put it another way, it is like the preacher drops a fishing line into his mind. Attached to it is the meat of the text. As he drags the line through the water of the mind, he attracts some objects. You only pull out what is in there. If you go fishing and your hook gets caught on old boots, tires, coke bottles and weeds, it is because that is what is in the water.
If your sermons consistently pull out illustrations about sports, your family, running or blowing things up, it is because that is what is in there. In my case, I was constantly referring to sports, my family and (strangely) things that detonate. This works for awhile, but eventually it becomes a tired old boot on the line.
So how do you spice up bland sermons?
If we may apply Jesus’ logic here, then we need to fill our hearts and minds with more stuff. In particular, we need to fill them with more homiletically helpful stuff.
Here are my suggestions that I have found personally helpful:
1. Read the Bible Devotionally
You are very efficient as a preacher when you are using a narrative to explain a command or a command to explain a narrative. It was said of Jonathan Edwards: “His illustrations were doctrinal and his doctrine was illustrated.”
Along these lines, if you are able to bring in a redemptive story from another time period, it shows that God’s work has been singular and consistent. You are probably not going to quote 2 Kings or Lamentations or 2 Thessalonians unless you are spending some time in those books. Devotional Bible reading helps greatly.
2. Read the Classics
About this same time, I was reading Tony Reinke’s book Lit! In it, he basically says you need to read strategically and recreationally. He makes the case that there is a lot of very helpful material out there (particularly for preachers); we just need to go and get it.
Shortly thereafter, a book was published called Pastors in the Classics (Ryken, Ryken and Wilson). This book helps to show how many of the classics provide helpful lessons and anecdotes for pastors. These two books helped to turn me on to a whole new aisle of thought.
Because many people who love and read the classics go to our churches, this helps pastors connect with them. And because many of the classics are steeped in a worldview that was largely Christian (presecularized), the storylines are helpful connection points for everyone. Since reading Tony’s book, I have read several books from authors like Dostoevsky, Dickens, Tolkein, Tolstoy and Hugo. They have truly helped spice up otherwise bland sermons.
3. Read the Newspaper
Bottom line: The people who listen to you preach probably read the paper, so you should, too. If you can hang some gospel banners on news articles, then do it!
It helps you teach your people to think in a gospel-fluent, gospelicious way.
4. Read Biographies
Real life stories are good for your soul. I enjoy non-Christian biographies quite a bit.
However, stories of faithfulness are even better for your soul, and for your sermons. Whenever I read a biography, it finds its way into a sermon somewhere.
5. Talk to Members
I am always illustration baiting. I like to drop my main point for Sunday in a conversation on a Monday or Tuesday with friends. I always get good and helpful input.
I have also dropped in on my kids during the week. There is nothing like trying to explain your main point to your kids. If they give you the cock-eyed dog look, then you can be sure you need to open a window or two to let some light in. Trying to explain the point via a story or illustration always helps.
These are just some ways that I have seen some movement from painfully predictable and redundant illustrations to surprising, fresh and (hopefully) illuminating illustrations.
Like adding some garlic or fresh basil to your meal, I can personally guarantee improvement if you strategically and intentionally fill your mind with things that are geared toward spicing up your sermon.