Illustrating the Text: Functions of a Text-Driven Sermon

 |  September 21, 2016

It was June 1988, the city was San Antonio, Texas, and it was my first Southern Baptist Convention as a pastor. That year much in Baptist life hung in the balance, with many wondering about the direction of convention?  My former preaching professor at Southwestern, then pastor at Travis Avenue, was scheduled to deliver the convention sermon.  Joel Gregory’s opening illustration that day was perhaps the greatest sermon illustration I had ever heard.  In fact, it was so powerful that it is perhaps the most noteworthy event of that convention with the exception of the election of Dr. Jerry Vines as President.

The illustration was “The Wall and the Castle,” which is the fascinating story of the ancient castle Castleraegh.[1]  No one remembered anything else about the sermon but the opening illustration.  So often in class Dr. Gregory would say, “Never let the illustration overpower the sermon.”  I watched him breach, not intentionally, his own apothegm.  The illustration was powerful and it made the point.

Every sermon point has three basic parts: the exposition, the illustration, and the application.  All three parts of the sermon points are critical in helping the congregation understand the Word of God.  However, so often, the part of the message most people will remember is the illustration.  You want the illustration to clarify, undergird, and make the word of God memorable.  If all they remember is the illustration you have failed.  If they connect the story to the principle of the Word you have accomplished the craft of illustrating.

Good illustrations don’t just happen.  An effective illustration is more than reading something out of a Book of Illustrations or recalling a story you heard someone else tell.  To illustrate well, you need to learn the craft of illustrating.  You might not spend as much time on the illustration as you do the exposition or the application, but if you want to help the congregation see into the text and grasp the application for their lives, you need to spend time working at illustrating the point.

I. The Skillfulness of Illustrating.

There really is a skill to illustrating well.  A skill is something that you can learn to do, and learn to do better and better each time you do it.

  1. The case for illustrating. Illustrations are like windows into a text, into a point, into an idea. They let the light shine in so that anyone listening can “visualize” what is being said. The illustration should be illumination of the exposition and preparation for the application.
  2. There is also a place for the illustration, in the introduction, in the points, and at the conclusion. Usually in the body of the point the illustration comes between the exposition and the application, but that is not set in concrete. You should work to place the illustration carefully so that the exposition is served by the illustration, and not vice versa.
  3. You will also note that there is a pace to illustrating. You can find a rhythm in your message and there will be a right place to stop and illustrate. In fact, people will begin to anticipate, look for, and wait for the illustration.  Remember that illustrations aid the exposition.  Nothing, at least to me, is more important than the Word.

II. The Appropriateness of Illustrating.

What is an appropriate illustration to use and how do you use it when you find one? There are several responsibilities that every pastor should take seriously in illustrating with appropriateness:

  1. Adaption – is this the right illustration to use? Don’t ever tell a story just because it is a great story. Determine if it is the right illustration for the point that needs to be made.  Beyond that, you have to craft the illustration to the point.  Solomon said in Proverbs 25:11:

Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.

  1. Modification – is there a part of the illustration that needs to be tailored? Now understand I am not suggesting that you change facts or alter the story or make up details. I am saying that modification in language, words, even personalization should be considered.
  2. Clarification – how clear is the illustration? If you have to illustrate the illustration then don’t use it. If the illustration is too vague, too detailed, too technical for the congregation, then look elsewhere.
  3. Variation – you will need to vary your illustration. You can share too many illustrations and too many illustrations in the same category (with the exception of history).

III. The Studiousness of Illustrating.

The craft of illustrating a sermon takes serious study. Illustrations can come from anywhere and everywhere, but there is an accountability that goes along with illustrating.

  1. Faithfulness. Am I being true, faithful to the Word of God with what I am using as an illustration?
  2. Truthfulness. Every pastor should strive to be accurate, honest, and truthful with every illustration that he uses. The temptation is always to tweak the illustration in one direction or another to make it fit.  This becomes especially difficult when the illustration is powerful.
  3. Trustworthiness. It is necessary to document your illustrations. Every time you use a story, document it in detail. Write them out verbatim and then footnote them in your sermon notes.  (Footnoting has been made so easy today with word programs.) Trustworthiness also includes giving credit to others, being specific to those you use, and telling “who” or “where” the illustration came from when appropriate.
  4. Distinctiveness. You be “you” when illustrating. Tell it like you would tell it and do not parrot another.  Let your voice tell the story and tell it in a way that Christ will be honored and God will be glorified.

[1] You can find the complete story here by Dr. Jason Allen in an excellent article entitled, The Castle and the Wall: On Guarding Our Doctrine and Strengthening Our Cooperative Ministry:

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