Why I Use Illustrations in My Teaching and Preaching
Preachers and teachers have a tough task. We are to study a passage, understand it, and communicate it to our hearers in a way that is clear and compelling. The difficulty here is not because the Bible is lacking in any way. The difficulty lies with us, the teachers, and with our hearers; we have to work hard to get out of the way and get the truth to them.
A key component for me as a pastor is the use of word pictures and illustrations. The two are slightly different but accomplish the same goal. A word picture is the deployment of a descriptive word to help make your point. For example, I recently told our church that our goal in studying Revelation 5 was to stamp the glory of Christ on our eyelids. This makes the point that this passage aims to set the glory of Christ before us in such a way that its vista is permanent. A sermon illustration is usually a story or an incident from everyday life that serves to reinforce your point. I was preaching about the danger of thinking that you could domesticate sin and told a story about how a man had a pet boa constrictor. In a moment his pet became his killer. You can’t domesticate sin.
These homiletical tools greatly aid me in the pursuit of communicating truth. In the space remaining, I want to highlight three reasons why you should use word pictures and illustrations, and then give you three cautions.
WHY USE ILLUSTRATIONS?
They Open Windows. Charles Spurgeon was fond of referring to illustrations with the metaphor of a window. He said in his book Lectures to My Students:
Our Saviour, who is the light of the world, took care to fill his speech with similitudes, so that the common people heard him gladly: his example stamps with high authority the practice of illuminating heavenly instruction with comparisons and similes. To every preacher of righteousness as well as to Noah, wisdom gives the command, “A window shalt thou make in the ark.” You may build up laborious definitions and explanations and yet leave your hearers in the dark as to your meaning; but a thoroughly suitable metaphor will wonderfully clear the sense.
If our challenge in preaching centers on our ability to help people see, then the use of a window will greatly aid us. We can be faithful and clear in unpacking the history, theological themes, and propositions of the text and still have many who don’t quite “get it.” Like a window in an unfamiliar room the right illustration lets in some natural light to help them see.
They Let in Fresh Air. Our church recently purchased a building that was more than one hundred years old. Many of the rooms in this old church building had not been used in decades. As you might imagine, there was a lot of stale air. How do you solve this problem? You open some windows. You turn on some fans. You get the air moving around. This works in preaching too. As you are laboring to make a point, particularly weighty points, an illustration can help move the air around a bit.
They Decorate Life with Doctrine. As preachers and teachers we have only a limited amount of time with our hearers. I wish I could preach an hour a day to everyone, but this is impossible. What I can do, however, is pack some doctrine in their backpacks, briefcases, or on their dashboards. I regularly walk through our kitchen and watch my wife cook so that I can find illustrations among her tools. I talk with people in our church about their work to look for ways to use illustrations that fit. I read the news quite often to glean illustrations rather than information. Why? Quite simply, if I can adorn a countertop, a work bench, a desk, a weight room, or a part of our city with a doctrinal truth, then I have sent doctrine with them.
Don’t use too many illustrations. If you load too many illustrations into your sermon, it will be unbalanced. The sermon will become about the illustrations rather than the text. Think of illustrations like a spice or a seasoning; most people don’t like to feast on four or five heads of garlic for dinner. However, diced-up, strategically deployed garlic greatly enhances our meals.
Don’t use illustrations that fail to help your point. Remember who serves whom. The text is the master and the illustration is the servant. If you get these mixed up, illustrations will actually harm rather than help your preaching and teaching.
Don’t get more excited about your illustration than your point. Be careful here. You don’t want to get dramatic, loud, and excited about a trip to a football game only to come back down to your monotone self and unpack justification by faith alone. Remember, your hearers will get passionate about what you are passionate about. Let the illustrations serve this end.
Erik Raymond is pastor at Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, Nebraska, and he writes regularly at his blog, Ordinary Pastor.