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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Plagiarized – 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 though it never had been. That’s plagiarism.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?
Preaching is more than public speaking; I wonder if some seminaries stress the latter to the detriment of the former.
Perhaps. Thanks, Maurice.
Thank you for an excellent article. I do believe you can overuse personal illustrations and as you stated misuse them. However, without any, a sermon is like building a house without windows. You need the illumination for application. Dr. Tony Evans is a master at this!
I’m not sure this question is relevant to this particular article (which is very good, I might add), but I’ll take liberty to send it anyway. I’m in a wonderful church, full of happy and friendly believers. The only problem I have is with the pastors and only in one main area. Both seem to be boastful about their marriages, constantly adding in every sermon what they do and what their wives do that sets them apart (and above) and somehow if our marriages don’t look exactly the same as theirs then we must be doing something wrong. My husband doesn’t come to church with me, but we still have a good marriage that’s lasted decades. I’ve searched myself to see if I’m doing something wrong, but feel this is his own decision to make and it’s nothing I’m doing. My most important relationship after God is with my spouse but I feel after those sermons they bring on dissatisfaction with my husband (who says he believes Jesus is his savior) and makes me wonder why he’s not as spiritual as those pastors are. That to me is damaging to families that are already struggling. Not everyone has that perfect marriage nor were they raised in Christian households where the “perfect “ marriage was demonstrated to them daily, as was the case with one of the pastors. (I don’t know the full background of the other one) It sounds like constant bragging from the pulpit to me and I have a good marriage otherwise. One problem with that is the spouses who need to hear the sermon the most aren’t there to hear it anyway. It’s the ones that may be doing everything they know to do already that hear the sermon, silently wishing their spouse was there to hear it too. What good does it do except to put a feather in the cap of the pastor, who seem to be constantly putting themselves on a pedestal. Those sermons would be better in men only meetings, and women only meetings, where principals can be taught on how to be a good spouse, but not to a broad range of people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning where’s there’s too many people with circumstances they can’t always control, to constantly be told how wonderful someone else’s marriages are compared to theirs. That to me does more harm than good.