I’ve heard it said that a story is “a container for our identities.” What we are charged to do with each sermon is craft yet another container for our shared identity as the family of God at a local church in a particular context. And the approach to sermon illustration is best kept simple. No one said it better than Fred Rogers, “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” God created us to be shaped by deep and simple stories effectively told.
Hear From Your People
One of the best approaches I’ve learned to keeping sermon illustrations simple yet deeply embedded in the imaginations of your people is to use their own daily experiences as inspiration. This does not always mean you repeat things they share with you in confidence or counsel, though you may ask their permission at times to share their story. Or better yet, invite them to share testimony during a service. This can be effective and deeply impactful. It also allows your people to participate in the worship service in a significant way. We always feature the testimony of a member in our congregation during our Wednesday evening message. The testimony most often aligns with our sermon thematically.
To do this you have to know your people. You have to constantly listen and observe their stories. Visit them at their work as you are able. Plug into their daily rhythms so much as you can (and that doesn’t always equal parenting illustrations. Challenge yourself to pause on those!). Ask them how they came to know the Lord Jesus. And think how you might steward and shepherd those stories as living illustrations of this Word of God, living and active. I think that’s a big part of our role, pastors. Steward the stories of life transformation within your church.
Illustrate for Your All People
Another way of thinking about and crafting deep and simple illustrations is to draw for yourself a grid of maybe four lines as you craft your sermon and practice its delivery. I learned this from my own preaching mentor, Calvin Pearson. In these four blanks write the names of four vastly different people in your church. In one blank you may write “Jordan”, age seven, first grader, who is just beginning to sit in “big church” with his parents. How might he be hearing this particular sermon? What simple illustration from his life experience might impact him with the gospel truth?
In the second blank you may write about “John”, a recent college graduate that moved to your town and joined your church. He is single and desires a family of his own. How might this text be hitting him? What simple illustration could encourage him in his life and living? In the third blank you may write about “Helen”, a woman in your church who moved across the country because she knew the Lord was calling her out of a life of lesbianism. She is still learning about what it means to be part of a church, but she’s eager to be part of this spiritual family even as she works through the brokenness of her past. How might this text be impacting her? What simple illustration may help the Word come all the more alive in her mind’s eye?
In the fourth blank you write “Bryan and Robin”, long-time members who met in your church, married each other, desired children for years, suffered multiple miscarriages, became pregnant with twin boys and lost one of them shortly after the birth. They have their only son in the preschool wing across the hall as they listen to you preach. How might this text be affecting them? What is an illustration that would minister to them and be faithful to the thrust of the text?
You get the idea. I think you’ll even have fun with it because it’s what we are called to do as pastors. We are called to smell like sheep. And so too should our illustrations.
Illustrate Pastoral Care
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together that “Brotherly pastoral care is essentially distinguished from preaching by the fact that, added to the task of speaking the Word, there is a the obligation of listening.” I think our ministries would be all the better and faithful if we practiced both. Listen, and apply what you learn to your sermon illustrations.
Your people will sniff out if you constantly pull unrelated illustrations from a book or a movie. These can have their place but should be used quite sparingly. Instead focus on the language of everyday life experience that you and your people share. Show them how the Bible impacts them in their specific context. Show them how the Holy Spirit makes the seemingly ordinary extraordinary.