I understand (I think) some of the dangers of using too many personal illustrations in a sermon:
- It’s easy to make the sermon sound more about me than about God.
- What sounds so exciting to me—because it happened to me—might not be as exciting to others. It might be, in fact, that no other preacher would choose to use my illustration because nobody else finds it effective.
- It’s always a temptation to make ourselves look good in our illustrations.
On the other hand, it’s quite common that I begin a sermon with some kind of personal illustration. Here’s why:
- When it’s my story, I’m much more likely to start the sermon with good eye contact with the congregation. The quicker we can look our hearers in the eye, the more they will likely pay attention to us. Avoiding eye contact while we read an opening illustration we don’t know well is not a good way to begin a message.
- If the illustration is generally self-deprecating, it quickly invites the listeners into a conversation with me. Talking briefly about my failures, my struggles, my pains, my victories—even in a humorous way—helps the congregation identify with me as I move them into the biblical text. I’m convinced they usually listen better when I can draw them in quickly.
- It helps to calm my nerves over preaching. No matter how many years I’ve been preaching (now almost 39 years), I still get nervous about the first few minutes of a sermon. When I know the opening illustration is mine, however, I’m much less nervous about capturing the attention of a church that may not know me well.
- If I tie the personal illustration into one of my favorite (or most challenging) Bible stories, I can also take the listeners rapidly into the scriptures. For example, I might begin a message on the Word by describing how a college minister used Psalm 37:23 to show me how to memorize the Word. My personal illustration and application might grab attention, but it’s the Word that moves hearts.
- Using a personal illustration at the beginning helps me prepare my sermon notes. That’s because for me–contrary to what others say and do—it’s difficult to develop the body of the sermon without first knowing and writing my introduction. I know where I want to go, but I often hit a wall until I have the introduction. Using a relevant, personal story is one way I can develop the introduction more expediently and then move forward in my preparation.
Preachers, what are your thoughts? Why and when do you use personal illustrations? I look forward to learning from you.
I agree about the use of personal illustrations to capture the audience attention early. I have also learned that personal illustrations that include other members of my family go over better if I have their permission to use the story.
I have a difference of practice in the timing of that illustration. Since I have a bias toward textual and expository preaching, I want the text to win, so I begin with the Big Idea of the message to keep me focused. That big idea helps me lead toward the conclusion. But, I write the introduction last instead of first. That helps me avoid having the personal experience be the theme and motivates me to be sure that my introduction is both timely, related to the Big Idea and strategic in helping me to transition to the theme of the message.
Thanks for the insight. I generally agree, and use openers that way whenever possible; but in spite of a rich and varied personal background, I don’t always have a personal illustration for the text I’m working through.
I’m kind of torn on this one. On the one hand, personal illustrations certainly add a lot to sermons. On the other hand, I’ve heard some preachers criticized because they “talk about themselves too much”. How does one maintain that balance?