10 Problems with Sermon Illustrations

I once heard a professor say that a sermon illustration is “a window that lets the light in on the truth of the Word.” I like that picture (that is, an illustration itself . . .) to help me understand the importance of illustrating truths. Despite the importance of illustrations, here are some common problems with sermon illustrations:

  1. None used – “Just preach the Word,” they say, “and you shouldn’t need any illustrations.” I understand that point, but even Jesus often painted His truths with pictures (e.g., the parable of the soils). Most listeners appreciate the help in understanding the Word that a good illustration provides.  
  2. Disconnected from the scriptural truth – If listeners must work to “connect the dots” between the illustration and the sermon truth, the use of the illustration is weak. Illustrations should illustrate, not complicate. 
  3. Too long – An illustration is intended to illuminate the biblical truth and help the listeners apply that truth to their life. Clarity and brevity are imperative. When the illustration drones on forever, the listener might forget the biblical truth before the illustrating story is over.
  4. Plagiarized – It’s hard to believe, but some pastors have borrowed somebody else’s story and yet claimed it as their own. I’ve even heard of pastors who simply inserted their name in a borrowed story, as if the story were truly their story. That’s plagiarism. Actually, that’s sin. 
  5. Narrowly focused – Effective preachers use varied illustrations that speak relevantly to the majority of their audience. On the other hand, others use only one type of illustration (e.g., a sports illustration, a young adult illustration, a married person illustration). To limit illustrations to one general arena is to miss some of your audience.
  6. Wrong information – Years ago, I heard a preacher speak of the number of people killed in World War I as an illustration about spiritual warfare. The point was well made, but the figure given for deaths was simply wrong. The pastor had sought information on a poor, unreliable website – and he simply trusted the information therein. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s accurate. 
  7. Use without permission – I’ve seen this happen especially when pastors use their family or friends as illustrations, but don’t seek their permission first. It’s hardly loving if our spouse or children learn about our using them as an illustration only when we first tell the story.
  8. Self-focused – Frankly, I appreciate personal illustrations because they’re real. They’re usually fresh. They’re also easier to tell because they’re our story. But, if our listeners hear more about us than they do about Jesus, we’ve reduced the sermon to a self-promotion piece.
  9. Irrelevant – Finding the best illustration requires knowing the audience well. Young people may not know the songs we sang in our youth. An impoverished church community probably won’t relate to an illustration about a vehicle breaking down during a beach vacation. National believers on the African mission field likely won’t know American football (though they will know their kind of football—soccer).
  10. Poor humor usage – I’m not opposed to using a humorous illustration in the pulpit, but it seems sometimes that the preacher prayed, “Lord, I’ve got a funny story to tell, so please give me a sermon to build around it.” That’s backwards. 

What other problems would you add to the list?

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