The preacher’s goal is to proclaim the Word of God in such a way that the people connect with, absorb, and respond to the life change that the text demands. This must begin with a clear exposition of the text, but good illustrations help the preacher deliver the exposition in a memorable way. A sermon illustration that fails to connect with the hearer is as useless as a screen door on a submarine. Illustrations are the spice that can make the text palatable. They are the converter that aids transmission of truth from written Word to the mind of the hearer for processing. Illustrations cannot be an afterthought in sermon preparation. They must be accurate examples and descriptions of the truth proclaimed. Good illustrations take purposeful thought and intentional planning. Here are my suggestions on how we can make sermon illustrations accurate.
Keep it Honest
The preacher needs credibility with his audience if he is to fulfill his expositional task. The minute his character is tainted and credibility is lost he no longer has the trust of the congregation. They will not listen to a man they cannot trust. In the least they will doubt his observations and he will struggle to help them make application of text. Illustrations must be genuine. The preacher should never claim to have done or been part of something that is not his own. Falsely inserting himself into the illustration never makes it more suitable for the sermon. Borrowed stories can be great illustrations, but they need to be told as they are. Personal experiences resonate with the audience, but if the preacher does not have one that fits he cannot claim another’s experience as his own without losing credibility. Furthermore, stories that are made up can be good illustrations if the audience knows the story is fictional and it connects them to the text. Do not risk your credibility for what you think is the perfect sermon illustration. Keep it honest and the audience will trust your application.
Verify the Details
The age of instant information makes potential illustrations easily accessible. However, this instant access can be a stumbling block. Accuracy demands that every detail of the illustration be verified before using it in a sermon. This goes back to the credibility of the preacher. His intentions may be good, and the illustration may even fit the context of the sermon. Yet, the moment the details of the illustration are exposed as inaccurate or outright false the application is lost. If you do not verify the details of your illustration you can be sure someone listening will. This also applies when using illustrations from areas that you may not know a great deal about. Science, history, mathematics, physics, engineering, and illustrations from all other disciplines are fair game, but make sure you go over the details of any illustration with someone who can make sure you are explaining it correctly. This will ensure accuracy and strengthen the illustration.
Do Not Force the Square Peg
The preacher should search for new sermon illustrations like a squirrel hunts for nuts. He should constantly observe the creation in which he lives, look behind every bush of current events, search the limbs and branches of good books, turn over every leaf of media, and remain alert with pointed ears as he listens to other sermons. In these places and others, he will find those precious sermon illustrations that he can store in his stash for later. Good illustrations beg to be used, but they must fit with the outline of the text or they will not help your people connect with the sermon. If you are in doubt about whether the sermon illustration works with the text, discuss it with another pastor or trusted friend. Trying different illustrations is part of healthy sermon preparation. Make sure you find the one that fits and accomplishes the task of helping your people understand the text. The day will come when that amazing illustration you found can be used, but do not force it. If you find in your preparation you feel like the frustrated toddler trying to bang the square peg through the round hole on the shape board, move on. Go back to your stash and try another illustration until you find one that fits with the outline and applications from the text.
Good illustrations deserve to be shared with excellence. Do not ruin all the valuable time spent on exegesis by failing to practice the delivery. Few things in preaching are as frustrating or disappointing as having a sermon illustration fall flat and knowing your audience missed the application. Practicing illustrations helps us ensure they will be accurate when we present them to our people. This applies to all types of illustrations. Stories should be rehearsed aloud to yourself and possibly even to a friend. Scripture used to expound and highlight the sermon text needs to be studied and correctly applied. Media presentations such as Power Point and videos should be timed with thought given to smooth transitions. The use of visual aids and demonstrations need to be repeated until they are flawless. Illustrations are more effective when they are rehearsed and well planned. Practice will help ensure accuracy.