How I Find Illustrations While Preparing To Preach

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
  • History
  • Science/Medicine
  • Google
  • Music/Movies/TV
  • Relationships
  • Animals
  • Employment
  • Hobbies (Sports, Hunting, Fishing, Quilting, Scrapbooking, etc.)
  • Poetry/Literature

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

https://www.randomlists.com/topics

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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.

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https://www.onelook.com/thesaurus/

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.

3 People Who Need To Hear Your Sermon

In a few weeks, I’ll be preaching from John 10 (the “good shepherd” passage). As part of my four-week sermon preparation process, I am spending part of this week reading and listening to what others have said about this passage. Yesterday, in one of the commentaries I was reading, the author briefly mentioned the three audiences to whom Jesus spoke during his ministry.

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To the crowd, Jesus spoke with compassion. They were sheep without a shepherd. They desperately needed direction and instruction. In His teaching, Jesus also demonstrated patience toward the crowd who often struggled to grasp His truths. He used stories and sought to communicate complex truths with clarity and simplicity.

To His close followers, Jesus spoke with intention. He delivered deeper truths to them and had higher expectations for them. He corrected them when they were wrong (remember when He told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan”) and was quick to re-direct them when their priorities were misplaced (“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”). He didn’t shield them from difficult or disappointing truths, but He guaranteed them He would always be with them.

To the religious leaders, Jesus spoke words of confrontation. They were Israel’s blind guides. They had misused their power, choosing to promote themselves and their own agenda rather than leading the people closer to God. Jesus condemned their hypocrisy, called out their lies and challenged their shallow faith. To whom much responsibility is given, much accountability is required. Jesus held them accountable for misusing their responsibility.

On any given Sunday, I am aware that these three groups of people are sitting in the congregation to whom I am speaking. Those who are seeking need to hear and experience compassion. Those who are following need a message of intention. Those who are self-righteous need to be confronted.

My goal is to always preach a sermon that accurately unpacks God’s Word and points to Jesus. I desire to accomplish this goal by using words that are hopeful and helpful. For the next couple weeks, I am going to make an effort to include compassion, intention and confrontation in every sermon.

4 Things Every Pastor Must Do Every Day

I like structure. Lists and tables (think excel not dining room) are the best. One of my favorite structure hacks is what I call “quadrant brainstorming”. It’s a marriage of brainstorming and mind mapping but with rules and guidelines.

I begin by drawing a circle in the middle of the page and then drawing two perpendicular lines to divide the circle into four quadrants (I would say it looks like a cross-hair but that’s no longer a fashionable term, so think of it as a pie with four pieces). I then draw four more circles, each connected by a line to one of the original circle’s quadrants. I finish by dividing the four circles into four quadrants also. Now I’m ready.

I use this process to think about a project I need to complete, people I need to meet or manage, a resource I need to create or my roles and responsibilities for a given week. I also use this method every week as part of my sermon preparation process.

Whatever I am trying to bring into focus, I begin by identifying the four big pieces. In a sermon, it’s the four movements I hope to work through. It might be four people who are my direct reports. It might be the four thematic goals (WIGs if you’re a Covey devotee) of a project I’m working on. I’m not sure why I like four so much. I have no science or magic to suggest that it is the perfect number, but I like the cross in the middle of the circle and four seems to be useful and flexible number. It’s large enough to include everything without being so small that something gets missed.

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This Sunday, the four pieces of my sermon (I’m preaching on Nicodemus) are:

  1. The conversation behind the conversation
  2. The Kingdom of God
  3. New Birth
  4. Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

On Good Friday, we create an event called The Via Dolorosa. It is a prayer walk through the Upper Room, the Garden, and then through multiple stations to the foot of the cross. You might think of it as an evangelical remix of the Stations of the Cross. I used my quadrants to create our big picture plan for the event. The four primary categories of planning are:

  1. Design
  2. Execution
  3. Volunteers
  4. Promotion

All that to say this. Yesterday, while I was working out, I was thinking about the role of a pastor. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own neurosis, but I’m constantly trying to sharpen my own understanding of what I do so that I can do it better. I want to narrow my focus so I can focus on what is most important and beneficial. By defining the four quadrants of my life as a pastor I can evaluate my plans by asking questions like, “Where does this activity fit? Am I being balanced? What am I neglecting?”Here’s the four things I think I ought to be dealing with every day:

  1. People — Equipping the people of God to do the work of God
  2. Programs — Repeating events (usually weekly) such as Worship Gathering, discipleship groups, etc.
  3. Projects — One time activities, events or initiatives which enhance our ability to equip people and improve programs
  4. Problems — They happen. The buck stops with me. I have to address them and find solutions

The great benefit I experience from quadrant brainstorming is an escape from chaos. By creating guardrails for my thinking process, I am forced to sometimes make decisions about what is most important and what is nice but expendable. Clarity is a powerful force when harnessed. When I find it lacking, I draw a circle and two lines.

 

Who Are The Preachers I Learn From?

I watch and listen to 10-15 sermons a week from other preachers. This is not part of my sermon preparation, it is part of my personal growth plan.

I listen to other preachers because I need someone to preach to me. If spiritual nourishment only flows out of me and never into me, I will quickly be emptied.

I listen to other preachers because I learn from their technique. Every preacher is different and every sermon is different. I learn about structuring a sermon, extracting truth from a passage, presenting a message and more by watching and listening to others who do it differently than I do.

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I don’t align perfectly with the theology or practice of all these preachers. Yet, we’re all playing on the same team and I find I learn a great deal from them even when my ears perk up due to a minor doctrinal difference.

Here are a few of my favorites to watch:

Keith Sandison. Calvary Church, Muskegon, MI. Keith is an old friend, a former team-mate and a one-time student of mine. His passion for Jesus and desire to point others to Him is matched by few.

Jason Tovey and Josh Tovey. Grand Rapids, Michigan. These two brothers have been around my life since they were in middle school and high school. Now they are both lead pastors in the same city. Their styles are different, but they both feed their people solid biblical content every week.

Paul Robie. South Mountain Christian Church, Draper, UT. Paul planted a church in the middle of Mormon country and over the past few decades it has grown into a thriving multi-site church. He doesn’t preach as much anymore, but when he does his messages are practical and accessible with an unexpected depth.

Mark Driscoll. Yup. him. His style is unique and his past is checkered, but Balaam even learned from a donkey, right? Actually, I like Mark. He is unapologetically committed to the authority of Scripture, and while that is not as popular a place to be anymore, I still appreciate it.

Doug Sauder. Calvary Chapel, Ft. Lauderdale. I have a secret crush on the Calvary Chapel movement. I love that they are fully committed to verse-by-verse teaching. Doug’s church is one of the largest in America. His preaching is to-the-point and conversational and his delivery has just the right amount of energy to keep you interested without overwhelming you.

Rick Warren. Although Rick isn’t a regular of mine, he has an unending supply of sermons on Youtube and I can often find a sermon of his that deals with a topic I’m wrestling through. I don’t preach exactly like Rick but I greatly appreciate his systematic approach and his willingness to pack his sermons with helpful and growth-oriented content.

Here are a few of my favorites to listen to: (these are the preachers currently on my phone’s podcast app)

Jonathan Misirian. Southbrook Church, Franklin, WI. Jonathan and I were freshmen together in college. He’s done an incredible job of pastoring the people in his church and turning around a church that had become stagnant. Jonathan’s delivery is pastoral, you can sense the love he has for the people in his church. His messages are always relevant for today and he has found a way to strike a healthy balance between being gospel-focused and missionally active.

Vince Black. The Town Church, Fort Collins, CO. Vince and I worked together at a summer camp 20 years ago. Since then we’ve stayed in touch and tried to encourage each other through the different phases of ministry. He planted the Town Church several years ago with the Acts 29 group. His sermons are Christ-centered and thoughtful. He draws great insights out of each text he covers.

Community Christian Church. Chicago. CCC was one of the pioneer churches in the multi-site movement. They have mastered a process of building every week’s sermon with a team. The result is a finely tuned presentation that focuses people’s attention on one Big Idea (which is the name of their book about this process). This is not a slight, but I listen to these sermons less for the content and more to learn about their structure. They do a great job of illustrating their main point and then creating practical and achievable next steps for their listeners.

This is just a taste of what is available today. Technology has provided us with a goldmine of resources we can share with one another. It is now possible to have sermons playing in the background of your study all day long if you like (I rarely listen to music as I feel more inspired if I’m listening to others preach). If you don’t like the list I’ve created, make your own and learn from them!

And… if you want to watch/listen to my sermons, you can do it here.

 

 

Sound-Bite Sermons

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed political speeches include increasingly more “sound-bite” type statements. Speechwriters know the media will only play short clips of the speech, so they feed them ready-made lines to appear on the evening news. These sound-bites are driven by the campaign’s foundational “talking points” which is why you feel like you hear the same speeches over and over again.

The problem is that most political speeches have become a constant stream of sound-bites without any effort to provide substantive content. On the rare occasion a politician takes time to explain the “why” behind his campaign goals, they get killed by pundits for being “boring”. As a result, most political speeches are pretty shallow these days.

I prefer a speech that mixes important content with memorable sound-bites.

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Often, when I preach, I try to have several sound-bite type statements sprinkled throughout my sermon. Not because of the media, but because a short, memorable statement is a good way to wrap up a point and help the hearers take it with them. These statements are usually the last piece of my sermon to develop as they are in many ways the transitions and summations of the key points of the sermon. The danger I have to avoid, however, is the temptation to develop a sermon full of short, witty statements that inspire people and get them excited, but don’t really teach them anything new or direct them toward life change.

As an example of sound-bites in a sermon, here are some of my transitory statements from a sermon on 2 Timothy 2:14-22:

  • How disappointing is it to God when the feuds and drama within His church are mirror images of the workplace fights that happen among those who don’t even know him?
  • Handle the Bible in such a way that there is no question as to the RIGHT way to live.
  • Whatever your talents, resources, position, or possessions; use them in ways God would approve.
  • If we are not willing to rightly handle the gifts God has given us, we cannot be useful to him.
  • We need to discipline ourselves so that our first response to temptation is to flee.
  • Because of faith, God has already declared me righteous, so when I pursue righteousness, I am simply living up to the person God has already declared me to be.
  • Faithfulness is demonstrated by consistency over time.
  • Faithfulness is choosing to consistently rely on Christ every day. This kind of faithful life is the catalyst for righteousness.
  • When I’m consistently relying on Jesus to provide my righteousness, I have no need to take care of myself. Therefore, I can focus my attention on others… on loving them.
  • The greatest obstacle we face in pursuing loving relationships is too great a sense of self-love. I cannot completely love you the way Christ loved me if I am worried about fulfilling my own needs and desires.

An added benefit of creating these sound-bites is that they are ready made for social media. I can tweet these, put them on Facebook or create Instagram and Pinterest graphics with them. I might use them to spice up my YouVersion live event or in an all-church email the week after I preach. If my church members follow me on social media, these quick statements are a great reminder throughout the week of how God has spoken to our community.

These statements are not the “meat” of the sermon, they are the seasoning. They won’t provide the protein, but they make the meal memorable. If one of these sound-bites sticks with someone and enables them to receive God’s truth so that It changes their life, then my time spent developing them was well spent.

Download This Four-Week Sermon Preparation Plan

I love crockpot cooking. Allowing the meal to sit in it’s own juices for hours seems to heighten the flavor of every bite. I look for chances in life to add a crockpot mentality to my tasks. Taking the crockpot approach to sermon preparation allows me to let passages soak in my mind for several weeks before I present them. This means when I stand up to preach, the wrestling is done and the passage feels like an old friend.

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Most of my sermons take four weeks to prepare. That doesn’t mean I’m working on one sermon for four weeks, but that every week I’m working on four sermons. Each week I have a specific goal to accomplish for each sermon:

Week One: I need to understand what the text says. I have two study sessions set aside during week one in which I devote my efforts to exegeting the text.

Week Two: I need to determine how this text applies to our church community. During week two, I work through several exercises to help me look at the passage from several different angles. The fruit of week two is several short “next step” ideas.

Week Three: I need to discern the most effective method for communicating the truths I’ve unpacked. As in week two, I’ve created several exercises which help me consider a variety of possibilities for my sermon presentation. The goal of week three is not to create or find new content, but to arrange the content I’ve already discovered.

Week Four: I need to get ready to preach. Throughout this week, I have several tasks to accomplish so that Sunday’s sermon will be clear and concise. I also use week four to create a variety of follow-up materials for those who desire to go further with the sermon.

You can download the google doc template I use to work through my planning process at the link below:

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Different sermons lend themselves to different processes, so I may deviate from this template from time to time, but it is my starting point for every sermon. I’ll post later about some of the exercises I use each week, but you can see them all listed at the template link above.

If you have questions or would like to chat more about this template, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email.

The Work Is Not Complete Until The Truth Is Communicated

Preaching is speaking. A sermon is a presentation. The greatest content in the world is not helpful if it is not heard.

The work of a preacher begins in God’s Word and the majority of effort must be spent in the exegetical process. However, the work is not complete until the truth is communicated and if we desire to communicate more effectively, we can learn something from other skilled presenters.

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Here are three presentation articles you might find beneficial.

9 Things Pastors Need to Know About Sermon Delivery

Brandon at ProPreacher writes, “Effective preaching is more than just about what you say. It’s also about how you say it. Too many sermons fail not because of bad content, but because of bad delivery.”

3 Ways To Give Your Presentation An Emotional Punch

Storytelling is not something that we do; storytellers are who we are. The power of story helps us make sense of the world and gives us a powerful tool to articulate our ideas. In business, however, we seem to have lost that essential component that binds us together.

4 World Champions of Public Speaking Explain How To Give Presentations Your Audience Will Love

Being a great public speaker requires much more than confidence. It’s about connecting to audience members on a personal level and leaving them with a satisfying message they can act on.