As a former athlete, athletic analogies and sports stories perk up my ears. My IT expert pew-neighbor may not care at all. Stories about computers or new technologies would probably bore me to tears, while he would be sitting there in fascination. You see, what’s appealing to one person may not be appealing to another. That’s ok. All of us are different. The pastor who can recognize that people have different interests will be on the road to an effective preaching ministry. There are two aspects of preaching that we need to consider if we want to have appealing illustrations.
- A preaching ministry is also a pastoral ministry
Pastoral ministry is a preaching ministry and a preaching ministry is a pastoral ministry. You cannot separate the two. A preacher must know his people. He must know what makes them tick, what they do for a living, what hobbies they have, etc. A preacher who does not know his congregation may be entertaining, but he won’t be effective.
So what can make sermon illustrations appealing? That question in many ways can only be answered at a congregational level. A congregation filled with mostly internationals would probably not have much interest in story about a player of American Football. However, if you share a story about a soccer player (football to the rest of the world), they might be more interested. If you have a congregation that has many that have recently lost their jobs, a sports analogy would not draw their interest like one that speaks to their situation.
- Practice: Get into the individual worlds of your congregants. Be with them as much as you can. John Stott described preaching as building the bridge between the ancient world of the biblical text to the contemporary world of the audience. The preacher must seek to be a scholar of the biblical text and of his congregation. Get to know what they do for a living, what music they listen to, what they read, their hobbies, their ambitions, and their struggles. This cannot be done without relationships. Once you know your audience, you can effectively share illustrations that catch their focus. Do not think that every illustration will connect with everybody in the congregation. It won’t, but that is ok. The more people you know in your congregation the more variety you will have for illustrations.
- A preaching ministry takes into account a holistic anthropology
What makes sermon illustrations appealing? Since a human being is not merely a mind, but also an emotional creature with a will, illustrations cannot stay in the abstract. Your aim should be to add as much concreteness to your story/analogy as you can. Help people see with their ears. Emotions are not bad things, as Nathan the prophet could attest. David was not convinced that his lifestyle was evil until Nathan shared a detailed, blood-boiling story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-15). That story had details. They were familiar details to David. The story involved lambs which David, the former shepherd, knew all about. The story centered around an injustice which David, the king, sought to eliminate in his kingdom. The Holy Spirit used those familiar details in the parable to lead David to repentance.
- Practice: Volunteer as much as you can with children’s ministry. This group is one of the most challenging groups to teach. Children think much more concretely than in the abstract. You have to think carefully about how you teach biblical stories and how you make comparisons. Even reading children’s books can help you in your use of language. You will notice the colorful, imaginative details the authors use. Teaching children requires imagination and causes you to simplify concepts. Although preaching to adults is different, it is not by much. Human beings are imaginative creatures that respond to images and melodies. We have to learn to paint pictures with our words.
When I come home from work my three-year-old son usually comes to greet me with a big hug and then goes about playing with his toys. I try to converse with him by asking “how was your day?” or “what did you and mommy do today?” but he usually just keeps doing what he’s doing without a response. However, when I ask the question “Do you want to go outside?” his head pops up, his eyes turn to me, and he gives me an emphatic “YES!” I know what will get his attention. I know he loves to go outside and play. I know him very well. I know what interests him. The same can be said about anybody to whom we preach. The more you know them and their interests, the more appealing your illustrations will be.