Finding Effective Illustrations – pt. 2

As I mentioned in my previous post, finding illustrations that illustrate a biblical truth with some precision while remaining appropriate in terms of content, length, and placement is one of the preacher’s most constant challenges. Here are some wells I draw from and I hope you’ll find some of it helpful as well:

Imagery in the text. This is far and away the lowest hanging and most potent fruit. If Jesus is telling a story about two houses–one built on sand, one built on rock, with storms, destruction, sturdiness–you hardly need to go elsewhere. Your illustrations should probably have to do with housing, foundations, storms, etc. They are right there! Why go find illustrations about lilies or quotes from C.S. Lewis when this goldmine is right in front of you.

One of the biggest advantages of choosing illustrations from those already in the text is the stories and illustrations from the sermon the listeners remember are tethered to the text–thus they remember the text better as well–which is a significant part of the point, is it not?

The Internet. I have a select few websites I’ve found to be goldmines, but one must be choosy here–or things can get both empty and bizarre. Be aware that it may take several hours of panning for gold–and it may yield nothing of real value. This is why I go here last.

Things I read stimulate my thinking and provide some really solid illustrations–especially when it’s a well-known novel or movie. The reason is, the listeners can say, “oh yeah!” with me. But, it is not quotes from Brueggemann they remember. It’s Alice in Wonderland, “You’ve lost your muchness,” or other well know stories or novels. I love Steinbeck and Dickens particularly for this purpose. But, I’ve pulled stories or quotes out of everyone from Kerouac to Capote. Every now and then, I’ll use music in a similar way.

My Evernote Files. I have a folder labeled “Illustrations,” and subfolders for major subject categories like: sex, family, scripture, baptism, discipleship, etc., and tags with the same language in them. Everywhere I go, every newspaper I read, every . Every web browser I use has an instant clip feature so I can with one click send and article to my “Inbox” in Evernote. Because Evernote’s search features are so great, I don’t have to worry about where I file things. In addition, I can scratch something down on a piece of paper, snap a picture of it with Evernote’s document camera, and Evernote will read my handwriting and make it searchable as well. You don’t have to even tag or sort things for Evernote to search them. I can simply search for prayer and everything anywhere with prayer in it will come up.

I have hundreds, if not thousands of illustrations I’ve got waiting for me. I don’t go looking just for things coming that week–I go looking for anything unusually interesting, funny, or able to illustrate a viable spiritual point. I keep the bar high. That way, I know if it is in Evernote–it’s going to be a good illustration–so I’m looking for fit. Evernote is my everything when it comes to illustrations from electronic means. You would do well to explore Evernote or OneNote for grabbing things. While OneNote is better for certain things, it can’t touch Evernote for sermon illustration cataloguing.

Word pictures are another way to illustrate. Fred Craddock told me this once at a breakfast I was lucky enough to be invited to many years ago. He said we always think we need to find something lengthy when a simple word picture as we explain something can be more memorable and take much less time. What exactly is a word picture, you may ask? Something like “circling the drain,” or “she sent her son in full uniform to fight the battle of fourth grade,” or Dan Patrick’s famous, “Cool as the other side of the pillow.” Each of these illustrate something. This can be especially helpful to turn to when you can’t find quality illustrations to save your life. My wife once said, “watching kids play in the ocean is like God wrestling with his kids on the living room floor.” Is that awesome or what?

Creating a story. If you do this, make sure the listeners know it’s not real. However, if you can, write your own illustration sometimes. It comes out of your “gut,” and can be written to fit perfectly into what you are trying to say. I will do this about one out of every 6 weeks. It’s usually effective, but it’s equally helpful to help me clarify the point I’m trying to make with the illustration.

Scripture itself provide a goldmine for illustrations. Here I’m talking about content, not imagery–as I mentioned earlier. One the ways listeners explain away a challenging or uncomfortable message is to say to themselves, “That’s just one verse,” or to marginalize the text the challenge comes from in their mind. Make sure you are using true examples, but feel free to use other Scriptures, other biblical stories, etc., that illustrate further the point the text at hand makes. It’s hard to go wrong with Scripture.

Lastly, I pull also from my personal life. I try to have one (no more, no less) stories from my own experience in there. It helps people get to know me better, reminds them I’m an actual person, and ties our spiritual walks together. Two caveats. First, beware of sharing too many or too few personal stories for obvious reasons. Second, don’t always be the hero or the goat. You are neither all of the time.

Well, that’s a start. I hope some of these might help you this week and beyond. What other places do you look for illustrations?

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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