Finding Effective Illustrations – Pt. 1

This two-part blog mini-series is designed to help pastors and public speakers learn to find illustrations and place them in their messages effectively.

One of preaching’s ongoing challenges is to find ways to illustrate biblical truths in a way that is faithful to the text, not cheesy, not boring, doesn’t take too much time, isn’t over or under people’s heads, not overly focused on oneself—but still personal, that hits people where they are without excluding people…and yadayadayada. It’s a big challenge.

For preachers, it may be the biggest among several that face us week to week. I can remember as a baby preacher telling all my good stories in the first two sermons I preached and wondering what in the world I’d say the next week. Well, many years later here I am, still plowing, asking different questions but still faced with the challenge of illustrating eternal truths in a way that can make a real impact in the heart of listeners.

Here are ten quick observations and principles for choosing illustrations that I employ.

  1. Illustrations are a means to an end. The end is transformation of the listeners based on hearing God’s living and active Word.
  2. An illustration must actually fit the point I’m trying to make. It must actually apply. If one gets 30-35 minutes each week, then each illustration really matters.
  3. One amazing illustration is better than 4 “C” grade illustrations.
  4. Third party illustrations (those found in sources other than my life, everyday life or Scripture) are generally the least effective. Example: Footprints. You know what I’m talking about.
  5. Humor, deep emotion, and profundity are the three most powerful “moods” of illustration.
  6. The text and sermon itself with guide you to which illustrations you need—both in terms of content and “mood.”
  7. If it’s a great illustration that doesn’t actually illustrate what you’re trying to say—don’t force it in. Save it for when it actually fits.
  8. The economy of the illustration matters. Expressed as a formula, it would look like FIT+LENGTH+IMPACT=it’s “rating.” If it’s awesome but long, it may lose out to really good but 3 minutes shorter. If it’s amazing but 10 degrees off point, it may lose out to something really good but right on point.
  9. Sometimes a turn of a phrase gets you more mileage than an illustration with no time taken off the clock. For instance, phrases like, “circling the drain,” are illustrations unto themselves.
  10. Life is loaded with illustrations—and everyday illustrations tend to be more effective because they are reinforced by a person’s personal experience every day. There’s no need to pull an illustration from the Korean War when the parking lot provides one just as good.

In the next post, I’ll provide specific reservoirs from which we can draw effective illustrations.

Question: What guidelines might you add or subtract from these based out of your own experience?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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