Have you ever heard a sermon illustration that did more harm than good? I have. In fact, just recently I heard a sermon illustration that was an absolute train wreck. It sent God’s people on an unhelpful diversion, had nothing to do with the passage, and compromised the sermon’s final, concluding thrust. In other words, it was a disaster, and the results were debilitating to the sermon.
Yet, a well-chosen illustration can illumine the passage and strengthen the sermon. That is why generations of seminary students have been taught that good sermons include explaining, illustrating, and applying the text. Of the three, illustrating the text is the least important, but it is important nonetheless.
Therefore, how should we view sermon illustrations? Consider these five rules.
1. Make sure the illustration amplifies the text and does not distract from it. This is a non-negotiable rule. If your illustration makes the meaning of the text clearer and more memorable, mission accomplished. If a week later your hearers still remember your illustration, but not the point it was making or the text connected to it, that is a problem.
2. Make sure the tone of your illustration matches the tone of your text. I do not want to take this point too far, but we need to be mindful of the emotional affect our illustrations will have on our congregants. Recently, I heard a sermon on a sober, weighty passage of Scripture. Oddly, though, the preacher chose a silly illustration to amplify the text. To make matters worse, he re-wove it throughout the sermon. Every time we brushed up against the depths of the passage, the trite illustration reappeared. The crowd needed a dose of emotional Dramamine they were so off balance throughout the sermon.
3. Never illustrate the illustration. If you find yourself needing to clarify, explain, or illustrate the illustration, it is better to abort it. The sermon illustration will likely be a verbal quagmire, helping no one. A good illustration is like fast-casual dining, you can get in and out quickly, without added commitments or complications.
4. Look for value added in your illustrations. Work to find illustrations that have added punch, helping in ways beyond merely assisting the passage under consideration. For instance, an illuminating biblical cross-reference or a moving story from church history both provide added value, as opposed to, say, a humorous aside about a mishap when changing your toddler’s diaper. Always seek to feed your people, do not settle for unhelpful—or even less helpful— diversions.
5. Do not overestimate the importance of sermon illustrations. Every sermon must explain the text, and every sermon should apply the text. But a text can stand on its own without an illustration. An illustration is merely a tool, and its utility depends on the passages need for clarification and the illustrations helpfulness in doing so. Do not feel like every sermon point needs an illustration to top it off.
Illustrations are not an end unto themselves. Faithful preachers do not begin with a zinger of an illustration and then find a biblical text to go with it. They begin with the text and employ illustrations for added clarity, amplification, or to bring the passage home with added force. In other words, the text is the dog, and the illustration the tail. Make sure the latter never wags the former.
*This article was originally published on 5/10/17*