Illustrations can be a glorious bridge in a sermon between the text of God's Word and the congregation. A good illustration can open up a passage of Scripture, bring understanding to God's people, and touch their hearts with application. They paint a picture upon the listener's imagination to bring clarity and ways to implement the spiritual truths being set before them.
Yet an illustration can also distract and disorient if not done well. So here are ten tips that can help make illustrations connect for preachers with their congregation.
The primary source of illustrations should be the Bible, though it is not necessary that they exclusively come from the Scriptures. We take our cue here from our Lord, the Master Preacher and one who emphasized how Scripture is to interpret Scripture in part with illustrations from it. Clearly Jesus used the Old Testament to illustrate His teachings. He spoke of Jonah in the fish's belly for three days to picture His resurrection, David's eating the priest's bread for Sabbath freedom, and the flood in Noah's day for His final coming. Preachers should do likewise.
Yet the Bible does not always have to be the source of illustrations. Jesus also pointed to common day objects, people, and news events in delivering His message. Preachers have that freedom as well.
They should make the text more clear, not less. The primary purpose of an illustration is that it is a "window" to the text. If an illustration in any way draws the attention away from the text to the preacher, obscures what God's Word is saying, or is thrown in to just draw a laugh or show cleverness, the illustration should find its way to the garbage bin instead of the sermon manuscript.
When it comes to illustrations, usually the shorter the better. Long, drawn out stories can take listeners further and further from the the text and theme of the sermon. Think of Jesus' parables. Most of them would only take a minute or so of time to tell. When I was in seminary, what we used to call Spear's Law of Preaching applies to illustrations as well as sermons: "If it's going to be long, it better be good."
Illustrations should be convincing and not be inaccurate, improbable, or canned. As I learned a few times the hard way when preaching in an automotive city surrounded by farms in Indiana, if I was going to speak about cars or farm animals, I better get the details correct! Also, developing overly complicated or fantastical illustrations defeats the very purpose of them, which is letting in light. And taking overused stories from others and using them is like serving stale leftovers. Better to "cook up" illustrations of your own.
However, illustrations can come from others - you just need to give them credit. Occasionally, an illustration another used is so fitting that you want to use it in a message. That's okay as long as you tell the congregation where you heard it. I have used James Boice's Monopoly money illustration numerous times to show how our own righteousness is worthless in God's economy and that's why we need the righteousness of Christ. (Probably about time to put it away for a time to avoid the error above.) In the age of the internet, trying to act as if an illustration is your own when a famous preacher has used it is fool's gold.
They must be acceptable to the setting and timing. It should go without saying, but clearly some preachers do not understand this principle. An illustration used when talking to a high school boy's gathering may not be fitting when speaking on the Lord's Day in church or at a women's retreat. I once visited the same church on two different occasions, separated by a long period of time, and both times heard illustrations that were not appropriate for a locker room, much less a sanctuary. Additionally, given a congregation's present history some illustrations should be avoided. For instance, the Bible uses the metaphor of a miscarriage to illustrate futility, but mentioning that when a lady in the church has recently suffered one would be wise to avoid.
Do not let them be boring or boorish. If there is one place that should be guaranteed to be more lively and engaging in a sermon, it is when an illustration is given. If a story or anecdote is done poorly and does not hold the interest of the listeners, then things do not bode well for the rest of the sermon. Make them lively both in their content and presentation! Neither should the preacher seek to use the illustration in a condescending way, for instance having as its motivation an attempt to show the superiority of his church over others. Jesus used illustrations to humble pride, not encourage it.
If an apology is needed, do not use it. I have heard preachers say, "I probably should not say this, but..." then go ahead and launch into something that is inappropriate to the church's holiness. For example, a preacher may have watched an R-rated movie, but drawing an illustration from it to use on a Sunday morning must be done wisely. He can distract the teenager or a mom who is thinking, "He watched THAT movie!" as they start thinking more about the inappropriate scene found there than the illustration.
Do not violate confidence or embarrass with an anecdote. A preacher should ask permission from his child or congregant if he is going to mention an incident regarding them in the message. If an anecdote starts causing people to wonder who the preacher is talking about, better to not use it.
Illustrations are not only to give insight into the text, but into the heart as well for application. The preacher is not only to have the Bible constantly in mind as he preaches, but his hearers as well. When using an illustration, he should consider if it not only helps explain the text, but also helps the listener know how to respond to the truth as well.
One of the most evident examples of this principle is seen in Jesus' conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount. He ends His message with the very short story (Another tip is to make sermon conclusions brief!) of two men building houses on rock and sand to highlight the difference between those who hear and obey versus those who only hear. Not only was the Lord highlighting the moral force the Word of God has in that it is to be obeyed whenever heard, but He was pressing that truth upon those standing on the mountainside listening to Him.