A lot is said about the importance of illustrations in preaching. Some of it is true. Hopefully this quick checklist will be helpful as you plan your next message:
1. People need to see what you are saying, which means preaching an image and not just a concept.
2. What images are right there in the preaching text for you? Poetry, wisdom, and prophecy are packed with visual imagery. Narrative is imagery. Epistles can give less images to use, but check the context and remember the setting (that is a narrative).
3. Before you jump to adding other illustrations, could you do a better job of describing what is in the text more effectively?
4. Don’t add illustrations. Be more purposeful than that. Add explanations where necessary. Add proofs where needed. Add applications where you can. Remember, an “illustration” is a vague entity often used without good purpose. Much better to purposefully add exactly what is needed at any given point in a message.
5. Are you adding material to add interest? Slow down, what are you saying? Is the text boring? Are you boring? You might be, but the text shouldn’t be. Consider whether you are underlining the relevance of the text by what you add, or are you underlining the assumption that the text is irrelevant? If you aren’t convinced the text is incredibly relevant, please spend time in prayer and personal study, not in searching for illustrative material.
6. Explanations should add light to your presentation of the text. Proofs should add weight to your preaching of the text. Applications should add relevance to your explanation of the text. Whatever you are adding, is it distracting focus from the text and from the God revealed in the text? If so, think twice.
7. How long does that added material need to be? Sometimes we can get so caught up in the “illustration” that we take an age to emerge the other end. That is unfortunate and will mean that the weight of presentation is imbalanced. Sometimes we offer added material too quickly and don’t allow time for the necessary clarity to emerge. This is unfortunate because such material would then qualify as “distractions” rather than “illustrations.” Actually, if we take too long or are too brief, either way we distract and the time is wasted.
8. How relevant is your added material? If you are taking listeners to a whole new realm (i.e. the civil war or feudal Japan), then you are going to have to paint a whole new picture with lots of detail. Is it worth it? Try to add material that is both relevant to them and helps with a sense of the relevance of the text. (Incidentally, this means that illustrating with other Bible passages may not be as helpful as you were trained to believe!)
9. Preach so that the main idea is communicated clearly and relevantly, so that listeners encounter the God revealed in the text and are invited to respond to Him. Where necessary and helpful, “illustrate.” And when you do, make sure listeners are still pointed toward God and not distracted by gazing at themselves.
What would you add to this list?