7 Things I Wish Preachers Knew About Illustrations

Illustrations

1.  I wish preachers knew that an illustration is more than a story. The term “illustration” covers a wide range of verbal pictures.  It’s reductionistic to assume that illustration and story are synonymous.  Illustrations also include figurative language, simile, metaphor, comparison, hyperbole.  We see this exemplified in the teaching of Jesus. Of course, he is famous for his vivid parables, but his use of illustration was more extensive than that.  Take a few minutes and read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In this relatively short summary of his teaching, Jesus uses over thirty illustrations: salt, light, birds, flowers, treasures, planks, pearls, roads, gates, grapes, trees and houses.  And much more.  A verbal picture can be worth a myriad of words:  “I am the bread of life…”  Of course, stories can be very effective illustrations, but we can be more creative than that.

2.  I wish preachers knew that illustrations are primarily didactic. The most important purpose of the illustration is to aid understanding. Someone has said, “if you can’t illustrate it, you don’t understand it”. If you don’t illustrate it, then the people might not understand it.  Many of the concepts we teach are quite abstract, and an illustration helps people to understand them.  Jesus used parables, not to entertain the people, but to teach them – and, at times to bring judgment upon them (Matt 13:14–15).   Indeed, often the parable was the primary vehicle for his teaching.  When he perceived that the Pharisees were objecting to his eating with sinners, Jesus immediately explained why, using three stories involving a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son (Luke 15).  On this occasion, nothing more needed to be said.  For most of us, conceptual language is primary and the metaphor or parable is secondary.  The proposition and the illustration serve each other; both clarify the concept we are trying to communicate.  Both teach.

3.  I wish preachers knew how illustrations maintain attention. I regularly hear that, due to social media and the rise of twitter and Instagram, people’s brains have been rewired so that they can no longer concentrate for long periods of time. Thom Schulz says that, “Educators have been studying this phenomenon for some time now and have found that the average engagement time with any teaching video maxes out at 6 minutes… the average adult attention span has dropped from 12 minutes a decade ago to just 5 minutes now.”  Accordingly, he advocates changing the mode of communication every few minutes: different speaker, interview, video clip etc.  I’m sorry, Thom, but the people you teach must have different brains from the ones I teach.  I’ve been involved with hundreds of conventions, and heard many speakers.  Wise and gifted communicators can maintain attention for 20, 30, 40 minutes or more (though in my experience you have to be very good to regularly maintain attention for more than 30 minutes). Certainly, the capacity of most people to listen to 45 minutes of propositions is limited, but when illustrations are used then attention is maintained. Indeed, when you begin to use an illustration you can observe people’s body language change: they look up, straighten in their seats, and even lean forward.  I don’t normally go too long without some kind of illustration.

4.  I wish preachers knew that illustrations aid retention. Most people only remember a small amount of what they are taught. That’s okay.  We can’t expect people to remember most of our sermons. I can’t remember most of my sermons.  But frequently, when someone reminds me of something I said which they remember, it is the illustration.  Of course, we hope that they also remember the point the illustration was making.

5.  I wish preachers knew the emotive power of the illustration. Why is it that the parables of Jesus resonate with people so deeply?  In part, it is their emotive power. The scene of the waiting father rushing up the road to the repentant son is heart-warming.  We feel the destitution of Lazarus, the abject humility of the tax collector at prayer, the angry frustration of the wedding host at the flimsy excuses of those who refuse to come to his banquet.  Perhaps only music moves us more than the story.  Indeed, the most emotionally powerful story of all is of the One who was rich who became poor for us.  That story changes lives.  The effective illustration will engage the whole person: the mind, the will and the heart. 

6.  I wish preachers knew that the best illustration is the personal illustration. People don’t want to hear about me and my life when I preach.  People want to hear the word of God and see Jesus.  A preacher who speaks much about himself or herself can obscure the Saviour they are trying to present.  However, those illustrations that spring from a personal observation or encounter generally carry more power than those which recount someone else’s observation or encounter.  This Sunday I’ll begin my sermon talking about a TV series I watched which disturbed me. You’ll learn little about me, but the fact that this was a personally disturbing series will enhance interest. I will later talk about my in-laws who spent 38 years serving the Lord in Pakistan.  As I deliver these kinds of personal stories I detect that people are attentive in a way that they are not when I recount an event that is second- or third-hand.  I rarely give a second-hand illustration.

7.  I wish preachers knew to maintain the same passion when not illustrating. I remember one preacher who normally had just one illustration in his talk.  It was long, well crafted, and noticeably he came alive in his delivery when he began to tell it. He became more animated; there was passion and excitement in his voice, his face lit up, and he engaged us with his eyes.  But the problem was, when he’d finished the illustration and went back to the Bible both his body language and voice changed: his body slumped, his voice became monotone again, and he lost eye contact. The message he unwittingly sent to the congregation was: my stories are interesting, but the Bible is dull.  I see this a lot.  We must ensure that we expound the text with the same passion, excitement and conviction that we exhibit when telling a story.