How to Make Sermon Illustrations Genuine

 |  February 23, 2018

Every preacher understands the struggle and rush of sermon preparation because Sunday is coming. Whether you are a young pastor just starting out in your first church as senior pastor well-established in the pulpit, we all face the daily grind of ministry and with the occasional interruption that comes almost as regularly as Sunday morning. Coming up with an illustration or story that serves the sermon well is difficult. The goal of this blog is to assist preachers who get stuck in the illustration rut, as well as providing a rhetorical foundation for thinking through the use of illustrations.

Look in any preacher’s library and you will find more than one sermon illustration book. The best thing about some of these books is you simply look up the topic or theme for your sermon and choose one that fits your message. Publishers print these books because they know even the best preachers struggle with finding the right illustration to make the sermon more meaningful.

Also, there are a number of top tier homiletics books that dedicate at least a chapter or two to this development and use of illustrations. Yet, experience suggests that coming up with the right illustration haunts many preachers who otherwise are very skilled at sermon preparation. Because the importance of illustrations cannot be overstated, we will move on to the task itself, yet, in order for preachers to accomplish this task, there are a few illustration pitfalls we should avoid.

We should beware of our sources for illustrations. Today, because of technology, many of us use popular Bible study software in our preparation, but with these tools come access to sermon sharing sites, that place at a keystroke whole sermons on any topic and illustrations to match. This also causes some preachers to lift from these sites word for word sermon illustrations, some with regrettable outcomes. For instance telling personal anecdotes that are not true to the preacher’s family or ministry. This ministerial practice, otherwise called plagiarism. Today, far too many preachers are guilty of such an offense.

We should beware of our personal preference which causes us to default to certain types of illustrations. Some preachers default to their favorite sport or movie for quotes and anecdotes, while others default to literature or random sayings they run across online. None of these are necessarily bad, but they give the preacher an air of predictability, which becomes a source of distraction for our listeners.

There are many things that the ancient schools of rhetoric can teach us when it comes to the use and development of illustrations. Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing or using illustrations:

  1. Sermon illustrations should be used to make a difficult statement clear. They are to be used to highlight an argument, in order to clarify a difficult truth, or emphasize some life principal extrapolated from the text.
  2. Sermon illustrations also make for good proofs. Aristotle wrote about two forms of proof. The first is examples and the other is enthymemes; for him there is no third way.[1]Aristotle On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse 2 ed. George A Kennedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 38. Here, the idea of inductive reasoning depends upon the use of many examples and deductive reasoning is made most clear by a single example. Therefore, a sermon illustration will be the only means by which our listeners will be able to understand and process these truths.
  3. Sermon illustrations should be used to add ornament.[2]For more on this subject as well as the Five Canons of Rhetoric, see Cicero’s De Oratore. This involves making the sermon interesting our listeners. Classical rhetoricians incorporated different figures of speech in order to decorate their speeches.
  4. Sermon illustrations should be used to help our people remember. While we want our people to remember our complex arguments, truth be told, they will be forgotten. But when coupled with a well-reasoned illustration, it becomes more likely to be remembered.

Our goal is to communicate the main idea of the text as clearly as we can in order that our listeners encounter God through the preaching of the Word and respond to Him rightly. We do this by illustrating when necessary.[3]There is a good treatment of illustrations in the book “The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching: A Comprehensive Resource for Today’s Communicators, ISBN 978-0310252481.

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