Illustrations are important in a sermon. Jesus used parables to drive home powerful kingdom truths and although I am not half the story teller He was, I like to use stories to illuminate kingdom truths for those I teach.
However, it can be tough to find fresh and stimulating material week after week after week. I shy away from the old-school sermon illustration books. When younger, I would sometimes refer to the “1000 Sermon Illustration” type books. However, I’ve discovered that many of the stories in these books are portrayed as true but not verified. They are “pulpit-legends”, passed from pastor to pastor without every being fact-checked. I try to never tell a story as if it is true if I haven’t done the research for myself to know it is valid.
So, how do I come up with illustrations?
I begin with my own experience and knowledge base. I read through my sermon material making a mental list of the key ideas I would like to illustrate. Then I refer to the following list while asking myself if I can illustrate this point using:
- Bible stories
- Hobbies (Sports, Hunting, Fishing, Quilting, Scrapbooking, etc.)
As an aside, using my own experiences and stories about myself is good as it allows people to know me a little better and feel a more personal connection to me. This opens them up a little more to the truths I’m teaching. However, I have two simple rules about using myself in illustrations:
- In any given sermon, my illustrations cannot be exclusively about me. At least one of my illustrations has to come from another source. This keeps me from appearing narcissistic.
- I can never be the hero of the story. Allowing others to learn from my mistakes and shortcomings enables them to acknowledge their own mistakes and shortcomings as opportunities to grow. I am also setting the example that we can learn from one another if we are willing to share the bad as well as the good.
Sometimes, I don’t need a process to discover illustrations for my sermon. Sometimes, I’ll see or experience something during the week that smacks me in the face and is obviously a powerful story for my upcoming sermon. Sometimes, I work through my normal process and still don’t have the illustration I want. Usually, my fall back source for illustrations is two obscure websites.
This is a simple resource for authors who are struggling with writers block. Everytime I refresh the page, I’m given eight new topics about which I write. Often these words trigger a memory or an idea for a story I can use in my upcoming sermon. The central illustration for my Christmas Eve sermon a few months ago was the result of seeing the word “sign” on this site. It inspired a memory of one of my favorite stories and one for which I had a ready made picture which reminded us that God doesn’t leave us on our own.
This site is actually a robust thesaurus. I use it several times in my sermon preparation process (as well as when I’m writing or creating resources). I also use it when I’m really stuck and struggling to find an illustration. I review my sermon, identify 4-5 main themes and then plug one keyword for each theme into the thesaurus. This week, I used the word “eternal” (We’re looking at Jesus and Nicodemus and the promise of eternal life in John 3:15). Two words that popped up were “lasting” and “permanent”. This reminded me that we all long for permanence in life. This deep longing for things that last is a powerful reminder that we were created for eternity. I’m still working out exactly how that will be expressed in the sermon, but it was a helpful tweak that will likely make it into the final product.
I am not Jesus, but I want to be like Jesus. He mastered the art of using everyday experiences to draw people into spiritual conversations and eternally significant discussions. I want to do the same. I hope you do also.