Someone once said that when you run out of illustrations, you should stop preaching. This statement may be overdramatic, but there is some element of truth in it. Jesus was a fantastic storyteller. For example, when he communicated something about the kingdom he would talk about coins, sheep and a prodigal son as a way to illustrate his point. If you survey the New Testament, you will quickly discover that Jesus frequently responded and engaged people through a story. Bottom line: Stories stick in your memory.
Using your words to create an illustration of the week’s topic is essential in any sermon. Illustrations are memorable, and they are able to communicate truth better than simply offering explanations with words. Chances are high that you have used illustrations in your past sermons. Just as with anything, if used incorrectly, illustrations can be more damaging than useful. Here is a list of dos and don’ts for sermon illustrations:
1. Thou shall not exaggerate.
A common trend in churches today is that congregants fact-check on smartphones during the sermon. I read somewhere that about 38% of churchgoers have admitted to doing this. Make sure you have all the facts straight, and stay away from the temptation of exaggerating your story to make a stronger point. If people Google your story and it doesn’t line up with what you said, you will lose credibility with people immediately. Don’t be that guy whose story isn’t legit.
2. Thou shall diversify your examples.
I remember I once preached a sermon with only illustrations about me. To make matters worse, all but one illustration showed me in a positive light. I walked away from that sermon thinking, “Yuri, you probably sounded so arrogant.” The illustrations made me look like Superman. Fail. If you are going to use illustrations about yourself, mix it up and show the good, the bad and the ugly sides of yourself. This will connect with people more, because it’s real and relatable.
3. Thou shall not falsely insert yourself into the story.
Here’s a true story. My wife told me about a time when the church had a guest speaker. He used a very memorable illustration that had him as the main character. A month later, another prominent guest speaker came to the church to preach. Coincidentally, he used the same illustration with himself as the main character! Talk about awkward. The church leaders all looked at each other and were probably thinking, “Who’s lying and who’s telling the truth? Or are they both making this up?" Stay away from this temptation.
4. Thou shall not use controversy in illustrations.
The purpose of an illustration is to make a point. If the illustration includes anything controversial, it will make it less impactful for listeners. While you’re trying to make a certain point with the illustration, the audience can’t help but think about how and why they disagree with a certain point in your illustration, thus making your illustration ineffective.
For example, I once preached about my grandfather, who was persecuted for his faith in Ukraine. I added that he was persecuted because he was a pacifist and believed that Christians shouldn’t bear arms. By mentioning pacifism as the cause of his persecution, I discredited the impactfulness of his story to those who didn’t share or empathize with his pacifist convictions. What I should have said was that he was persecuted for his Christian convictions and left it at that. Too much detail can hinder your point and alienate listeners.
5. Thou shall not use a church member as an example.
Do not use a church member as an example without their consent. Sometimes pastors will tell a story about how they counseled “someone” and then they spill the details. Since that pastor didn’t use the person’s name, then no harm done, right? Wrong. If that person is sitting in the pews they may be thinking, “Oh gosh, I wonder if people know that he’s talking about me.”
Let’s say this person has shared their own story with others but only in vague terms, without details. If the pastor gives the whole story in detail, the other members who are familiar with the story may be able to connect the dots to the person whom the story is about. Remember, always ask for permission, even if you are planning to say great things about them. Some people do not like that kind of attention. If you have their permission, then go for it!
6. Thou shall not force the story.
The saying “don’t put the cart before the horse” can be applied to preachers as it relates to sermon illustrations. Say you have a great illustration and you want to use it badly. Problem is, it doesn’t really fit in your sermon. So, instead of your sermon dictating what type of illustration you use, you try to wrap your sermon content around the illustration itself. When this happens, people are left feeling confused. They may appreciate the story but will feel disconnected from it because it is not genuine.
7. Thou shall use pop culture references.
Listen, the days when preaching was floating high in the clouds are over. Please relate to people on their level with topical illustrations they will readily understand and be familiar with. Be in tune with the world around you. Particularly if you are a youth minister, be aware of the music that your students listen to. A great way to connect with them would be to use one of the artists in a sermon illustration based on the latest new single or album.
8. Thou shall be sensitive to the audience.
Every congregation is different. Different churches and cultures respond differently to certain types of stories. Eastern European cultures tend to respond better to stories that are serious and “spiritual.” The Slavic people love consecrational stories. Meanwhile, American audiences tend to love humor. Where you are preaching will determine the type of illustrations you should use and not use. Do your homework and know your audience.
9. Thou shall not use political illustrations.
This is never a good idea. Never bash a political party from the pulpit. Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Preach Jesus. Why would anyone want politics to get in the way of hearing and responding to the gospel?
10. Thou shall be creative.
A story is not the only way of using illustrations. Illustrations can be physical demonstrations or props, as well. I’ve seen pastors sit with the congregation while they started their sermon. I’ve seen pastors use lions and lambs on stage as a way to illustrate Jesus. I’m not saying that these are all great examples, but I encourage you to think outside the box.
A prop I once used that got a great response was a body bag and toe tags. I used the body bag to illustrate that believers are dead to sin and its power. As a result, I challenged my young listeners to write on their toe tag the one sinful act that they will stop doing. At the end of the sermon, they came forward and tossed their toe tags into the body bag. This physical act was more memorable than just discussion alone.
What other commandments would you suggest based on your experience?