The Narrative and Illustrations: Should Preachers Illustrate a Story with a Story?

 |  September 14, 2018

Charles Spurgeon said, “It is impossible to lay down a rule as to how much adornment shall be found in each discourse: every man must judge for himself in that matter.”[1]Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, reprint (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 353. I think Spurgeon might agree that it is also impossible to lay down a rule regarding the type of adornment, aka the illustration the preacher should use in a sermon. After all, illustration is often more art than science. If we can agree to side with Spurgeon for the moment, I think we can say a little more about the use of stories as illustrations for narrative texts.

Illustrations are often compared to windows in a house; they are meant to let light in. The question before us is whether or not a story is the best window for a narrative text. A story is a complex illustration, which includes its own characters, setting, and plot. The story often has its own introduction, presents a problem, searches out remedies for the problem, and finally concludes and resolves the problem. The story is a world-in-itself—a world the preacher invites the listener to live in for a moment. Since narrative texts are already worlds-in-themselves, laden with detail, it’s possible that inserting another full-feature story could be disadvantageous to the sermon. 

The Split-Top Sermon

We have a split-top pine tree in our yard. About 30 feet from the ground, the single trunk splits into two tops. Arborists call these co-dominant stems or tops. Each top could be a single tree in its own right. Yet, there they are, creating a Y-shaped anomaly in our yard.

The problem with this phenomenon is found in the description—co-dominant. Each stem competes with the other for space to grow. The co-dominant tops also endanger the integrity of the main trunk—it could crack, split, or fall apart completely.

When preaching from a narrative text, it seems like adding another story for illustrative purposes could result in a similar co-dominant situation. If the illustration becomes too ornate and central, it could cease to be a fruit-bearing branch that beautifies the main idea of the text and become an overgrown liability.

How to Preach a Story within a Story

With that said, stories can be powerful tools to shed light on any biblical text, including narratives. In order to make the illustrative story as useful for the listener as possible, here are some thoughts to keep in mind:

1. Remember, biblical narratives are truth wrapped in flesh. Chapell states, “Narratives frame needed propositions in an experiential context that provides reference for their verbal content, even as the propositions provide conceptual and linguistic material that allow the narratives to take shape.”[2]Bryan Chapell, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power, rev. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 67. With the narrative text, we have a God-breathed story laid out for us. Before adding another story to the mix, we should make sure we’re bringing the biblical narrative to life.

Narrative texts carry their own illustrative freight. Spend your energy making this story come to life in the mind of the listener. Probe every emotion; dissect the dialogue; create the world of the text in the mind of your congregation. Use vivid, visual language to guide your listeners past the rough-hewn heap of stone and timber that was once Jericho.

Once you have done that well, then evaluate the need for another full-feature story. Ask these questions: Is my story necessary? Does my story amplify, explain, or apply the point of this narrative text? If the answer is no, save the story for another time. A story that does not serve these purposes is a stained-glass window hung over a brick wall—it may look good, but it does not actually serve its purpose of dressing truth in beautiful light.

2. Include only necessary details. As the writers say, kill your darlings. We know the struggle of writing what we believe to be a beautiful sentence (or paragraph), only to realize that it is completely superfluous to the listeners understanding of the illustrative story or the biblical text. If you decide to illustrate the narrative text with a story, eliminate the unnecessary. Be concise.

3. Use key terms from your main point throughout your illustrative story. Chapell’s concept of expositional rain helps keep the listener close to the text and the main idea during the illustration.[3]See Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), pp. 197, 224–25.When planning the illustration, don’t introduce language or concepts foreign to what you’ve already said. Use the terminology already present in your stated main idea to explain, describe, and connect your illustrative story to the narrative text. This will provide cohesion and cogency between the illustration and the overall thrust of the sermon.

4. Use other forms of illustration. Stories are not the only powerful forms of illustration. In his Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon said, “You may build up laborious definitions and explanations and yet leave your hearers in the dark as to your meaning; but a thoroughly suitable metaphor will wonderfully clear the sense.”[4]Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 349. Metaphor, analogy, and example are brief illustrations perfectly suited for preaching a narrative sermon in which detail, plot, and connection to human experience are already present. Life-situation examples are good options for narrative texts. Shorter than stories, these illustrations provide windows between the biblical world to the contemporary world, so the listener can visualize the truth of the narrative in modern-day garb.

5. Consider the placement. If a story is too good not to use in a sermon, where should we place it? Two strong options for an illustrative story in a sermon on a narrative text are the introduction and the conclusion. Before you lead listeners into the world of the text, you can prevent biblical culture shock by using an illustrative story from contemporary life. In the same way, a strong concluding story at the end of expositing a narrative text can lead people out of the biblical world, truth in hand, ready to live as kingdom citizens on Monday morning.


Jesse Welliver serves as the Adult LifeGroups Pastor at Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church in McDonough, Georgia. He earned his Master of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is pursuing a PhD in Preaching. He is married to Rachel, and they have two daughters.


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