On Using Illustrations

It was Dr. Tony Evans who taught me to, “think illustratively”.  He believed that everything was an illustration, and that we as preachers needed to turn the switch of our imagination on, opening our eyes to the stories and analogies around us.  He believed so strongly in developing our imaginations that he required we interns to give him twenty-five illustrations a week.  It was hard, tedious work, but now some twenty years later I remain indebted to Dr. Evans, for illustrations have become a mainstay in my preaching ministry.

 

Over the past twenty-three years of preaching I’ve learned many things, specifically about using illustrations:

 

1.     Jesus used illustrations, and so should we.  Life is a story, or what I may call a “meta-illustration,” thus people are naturally drawn to story, because they find themselves a part of one.  Jesus understood this, that is why his teachings are filled with illustrations (mustard seeds, fig trees, stories of a lost coin, lost sheep, lost sons, etc.). 

2.      Illustrations are windows to the point, they are never to be the point.  Where I have blown it with illustrations, and have seen other preachers blow it, is preaching illustrations instead of the text.  We should view illustrations as a window to show the point “out there”, they’re never to be the point. 

3.     People should get the point of the illustration before you make the point.  In other words, the people you are preaching to should get to the punch line before you give the punch line.  If the people are still wondering what the point is after you have given the point then they are missing what you are currently saying, and the illustration was not effective, actually it was detrimental to the message.

4.     Variety.  In a given sermon there should be variety of illustrations- biblical illustrations, historical illustrations, personal stories, current events, etc.  I know many preachers who use mainly personal stories.  We have to especially be careful with this because we can inadvertently make ourselves the hero and not God.  On the other hand, too many sports stories, for example, will not connect with those who are not into sports in your church.  As a rule of thumb, variety is always good.

5.     Don’t overdo it.  I so love illustrations that I can use too many and this is a problem.  Think of illustrations as Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, and the text as the meat.  No seasoning is not good, but too much will spoil the meat and the message.  The right amount of illustrations will help to clarify and serve a wonderful meal, too much and it’s spoiled.

6.     Transition well.  In giving illustrations one should always make the point very clearly, transition to the illustration that shows the point, and then at the end of the illustration make the point again.  Finally, you want to apply the point you have just shown through the illustration.  Perhaps this example will help:

 

I was preaching Philippians 2 recently, the great kenosis passage talking about Christ emptying himself.  What a theological challenge!  The point Paul was making was that Christ didn’t lose his status as God, instead he simply used his status not for his own purposes, but to benefit and bless others.  Therefore, we should follow Christ’s humble example by refusing to use whatever status we have for ourselves, but for the benefit of others.

 

I’m ashamed to say it, but I have diamond status with delta, which means that if there’s an empty seat in first class I get the upgrade.  My status affords me some wonderful perks that I enjoy taking advantage of.  However, this becomes a problem when my wife and I fly together, because while I have the highest status, she has no status, and me getting the upgrade while Korie sits in coach doesn’t work too well for marriage.  So what I do is that I will take my first class ticket and sit next to my wife in coach, which means I am sitting in someone else’s seat.  When that person comes I will give them my first class seat so that I can remain with my wife in coach.  Because of my refusal to benefit from my status personally, but stewarding it for the benefit of others, someone with no status is now experiencing the comforts of first class, while my wife and I can be together.  Now I haven’t lost my status- I’m still diamond- I just refuse to use my status at that time to benefit myself, instead I use my status to bless others.

 

This is what Christ has done for us.  He had the highest status- He is God.  But he didn’t simply remain in the first class section of the world called heaven, but he came down to earth- coach- to walk with us and die for us that we might get the upgrade back to heaven.  Can I ask you a question- when was the last time you used the blessings of God, the status that God has given you to bless others?