Pastor, Keep A Close Watch On Your Life and Illustrations

The hearts of people are not won to Christ by our well-spun stories or images but the Spirit working through the very word of God.

Yep, I said it. I think too much emphasis is put on illustrations in how we train preachers and in too many actual sermons. You shouldn’t trust your illustration to do what only God’s word can. And that’s where many of us often go wrong with illustrations. Here is more on that thought, and some other wrong ways preachers often use illustrations in their sermons:

 

Sermon illustrations. They can make or break your message. Or so we’re told. In the days of my youth, I did some time serving as a freelance pastoral research assistant, and I remember the high premium put on “killer illustrations.” One client I worked for only wanted sermon illustrations, pages and pages of them, no exegesis, no reference excerpts. I think over the course of several months, having filed numerous research briefs full of newspaper clippings, movie anecdotes, literary references, assorted fragments of pop culture detritus, and even some original creative stories, he eventually used one illustration that came from the briefs.

We all know a good illustration when we hear one in a sermon. But I’m gonna go out on a (sturdy) limb here and suggest that sermon illustrations these days are way overrated.

Yep, I said it. I think too much emphasis is put on illustrations in how we train preachers and in too many actual sermons. You shouldn’t trust your illustration to do what only God’s word can. And that’s where many of us often go wrong with illustrations. Here is more on that thought, and some other wrong ways preachers often use illustrations in their sermons:

1. The illustrations are too long.

If you’re going to eat up valuable real estate in your sermon time, you’ve got to make it really count. But some sermons are too reliant on long set-ups or overly present creative themes that end up obscuring the biblical message. This is a problem, assuming what you want people to focus on most is the biblical message. Some preachers really pride themselves in being storytellers or artists, and that’s great — but quit the ministry and go be a storyteller or artist. That will glorify God too. But at least then there’s no mistaking the point of the message. Some illustrations go on so long and some topic themes are so pervasive, any Bible verses that show up in the sermon really only serve to support the illustration, when by definition it’s supposed to be the other way around.

2. The illustrations are too numerous.

I heard a message once that began with a 5-minute story from the preacher’s childhood, segued into an ancedote from the life of Leonardo DaVinci, then transitioned into a series of quotes from ancient philosophers (where Jesus appeared alongside Socrates and Aristotle, like they’re all part of the same toga mafia), and stumbled into a heavy-handed object illustration complete with big props on the stage. This guy forgot what he was there to do, which ostensibly was preach. The result of all these illustrations was distracting and, actually, counter-productive, because at some point, the law of diminishing illustration returns kicked in, and each successive illustration diminished the effectiveness of the ones before it.

When you use too many illustrations, when your sermon is so full of illustrations or the time you spend on them is greater than the time you spend proclaiming and explaining the text, they stop being illustrations and become your text. Preachers who overuse illustrations are communicating that they don’t actually trust the Bible — which is inspired by the Holy Spirit — to be interesting, provocative, and powerful.

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