Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sixth: Illustrations

In continuing my series on sermon preparation, we turn to the topic of sermon illustrations. Illustrations are an integral part of the sermon. To begin with, sermons are well communicated when each main point has explanation, illustration, and application. That is, you state the main point and then explain what the author is saying about that principle. After that, a good illustration will help hammer home the point you are attempting to make. Finally, application MUST be made. Howard Hendricks says,

Observation plus interpretation minus application equals abortion. In other words, every time you observe and interpret but fail to apply, you perform an abortion on the Scriptures in terms of their purpose.

But, this is a coming post.
Back to the point at hand, illustrations help the preacher communicate his point clearly and help the audience remember the point.

Here is how illustrations made their way into our sermon on 1 Timothy 1:3-11. (Click here for our outline as it currently stands). As I was refining the outline (see previous post) I was also thinking of illustrations. For example, the first main point is:
I. We must have ministries marked by sound doctrine
          A. Watch for counterfeits
          B. Watch for divisions
          C. Watch for the goal - LOVE

This got me thinking about identifying counterfeits. The "standard" illustration is the "you must know the real dollar bill to identify the counterfeit - and the better you know the real dollar the easier it is to identify the counterfeit" but I figured many had already heard that illustration in a sermon about combating false doctrine. Therefore, I wanted to find something new or original to make my point of identifying counterfeits.

Next, the second point says:
II. We must avoid ministries marked by false doctrine.
          A. Their direction is off.
          B. Their discussions are empty
          C. Their desire is wrong.

This made me think of an illustration about false signals leads the follower astray. I wanted to find an illustration about that.

I could not think of anything for the last point while refining the outline so I needed to continue to think about that. I also wanted a illustration to kick everything off that captured the idea of the entire sermon. I was thinking something about the impact of counterfeiting on the economy and comparing that to the spiritual life.

Now that I had a good idea of what I was looking for I began to search for some good illustrations. What makes a good illustration? There are many things. Mostly, for me, I want to find personal illustrations first. I had a story about me, a compass working wrong, and me being lost in Fort Worth, TX. It is a somewhat amusing story but it communicate the point of following a false signal: "The compass may say west but you are going east. That is the way it is counterfeit teachers proclaiming a counterfeit gospel. They lead people astray" and so forth.

Next, I try to find illustrations I have not used before and have not been used so much they are almost expected from the audience. This is the same as them not listening. There are several places I look for illustrations.


I have several books of sermon illustrations. They are categorized by topic. I usually try to pick up these books when I see them on sale or in the discount bin. The trouble with these type of books is that, first, they are not that personal, and second, others have used them. However, you may not be able to get around that. When there is a good illustration, use it make the most of your point.

In the case of our 1 Timothy 1:3-11 sermon, I found most of the remaining illustrations on www.sermonillustrations.com. At least, I found the idea for the illustration on that site. Finally, I searched online for information about counterfeiting and was directed to the Secret Service's website. This provided me some great information for the beginning of my sermon.

Here is a list of the illustrations that I decided to use in the sermon (they are all listed except the illustration of my personal illustration). This search online really helped me because I found a great illustration for the final point of the sermon regarding the purpose of the law. When I read the illustration you see on the above link, I thought immediately of an object lesson of the level. I could bring a level in and show them the illustration.

Here are some things to note about illustrations:

1. The sermon is about teaching God's Word and illustrations help bring out the meaning of the text in a way that is memorable. The illustration is not about being "funny" or even "clever" it is about making the greatest impact with God's Word. It is a tool to help communicate God's Word.

2. The Emergent Church folks say the way we should be preaching is telling stories with God's Word to illustrate the story (I have sat in meetings with other pastors who seriously were talking about this as if it was a great idea). This is plain and simply wrong. There is no story anyone needs to hear and no story that will change anyone's life other than the Gospel story. I firmly believe that the Word of God must be plainly taught and illustration help make the point the author is attempting to communicate. You can take or leave illustrations but you cannot minimize God's Word to an illustration.

3. This is the not the part of the sermon that should take the longest time in preparation. That is, if you exegesis is weak because you have not taken the time you needed with it, an illustration will not help you have a biblical sermon. It may be entertaining but not biblical. Sometimes you may not find the illustration you are looking for and you have run out of time. Preach the Word. It is the Word that God promises to not return void, not our illustrations.

Our sermon is really ready to get into shape to preach. That will be the focus of the next post.

Diagram -> Outlining -> Excursus -> Word Studies -> Commentaries -> Excursus -> Refining -> Illustrations -> Practice -> Preaching