By Timothy P. George
From time to time during a family trip to the grocery story, we will indulge ourselves with a purchase of a couple bags of Oreo cookies. Some days the sweet pairing of two crisp chocolate cookies held together by a deliciously smooth cream filling is just too good to pass up. On those trips we had better buy an extra gallon of milk. Without milk, Oreos are hardly worth eating at all! I have been known to drive to the grocery store just to buy milk for the few remaining cookies. One can wash down an Oreo with just about any drink, but nothing quite compares to eating Oreos with a tall, cold glass of milk.
A good illustration pairs with a sermon like milk pairs with Oreos. Sure any illustration could do, but the ideal one tingles the senses and keeps them hungry for more.
Every preacher has experienced that moment of sermon preparation when the commentaries have been read; the outline has been drawn up, but still missing is that one ingredient … the means to ensure the congregation is tracking with the message. The perfect illustration often proves elusive.
Where do we find the perfect story to pair with our sermon? Rather than turning to jokes, top ten lists, illustration books, and Facebook links, the best illustrations come from the humor, ideas and voice of the preacher. When faced with the task of illustrating a message, draw first and foremost from the work already placed into the sermon writing process. What is the main point of the sermon? Is it focused? Is there rambling, bouncing from point to point? Where is an illustration needed? Will their attention still be held at this point in the message? Most importantly, what is the central image?
When looking for an illustration, begin with writing down the main point or guiding thought for the sermon. Then begin brainstorming all the examples around that very narrow and focused point that is guiding the sermon. For example, when writing this article, I asked, “How does one illustrate a message about illustrations?” I knew what needed to be said, but didn’t know whether or not it needed an illustration and if so, what that would look like. Based on the desire to write about the search for the right illustration, I wrote down this phrase – “Perfect Pairings.” A good illustration goes perfectly with the sermon and I wanted this to be the focus of the article. From the phrase “Perfect Pairings” I began to write down everything that came to mind. Good ideas or bad ideas. It doesn’t matter during the brainstorming process. Under the phrase “Perfect Pairings,” I wrote: long married celebrity couples, wines and meals, funny couples in the church, personal tasting quirks, my wife and I, Oreos and milk, two good teachers sharing a classroom, yoked oxen, milk and honey, Belichick & Brady, Abbott & Costello, Burton & Depp, Tom & Jerry, etc. The key to finding workable illustrations is to spend some time on the main topic of the message derived through prayer and study. From one singular topic a myriad of illustrations can burst forth. The added blessing to this form of illustration discovery is that drawn out, unfocused sermons can be edited and reshaped to deliver the primary message that one has been lead to deliver that Sunday morning.
Every preacher has also experienced those glorious weeks when illustrations erupt forth from the beginning of the studies, throughout the sermon writing process, into the weekend, and even on Sunday morning minutes before delivering the first word. These are blessed moments. Savor them, but do not hoard them. As the Lord warned the Hebrews in the desert, do not gather more manna than is necessary. Ask whether each illustration relates to the main point of message. Does it communicate the central theme the Spirit has been guiding the message throughout the sermon writing process?
There were times when I had the most hilarious, clever, or poignant illustration that was simply… the best. It was one of those that was just “too good not to share;” however, it was only tangentially related to the message. I could easily transition in and out of the illustration, but it did not evoke the thesis of the sermon. Imagine the feedback I received that Sunday morning. Over and over again, I heard compliments regarding the illustration. The story of the illustration stayed with them (maybe even the point of the illustration), but the main thrust of the sermon was lost. Do not let illustrations drive the sermon! The illustration is preaching’s tool not it’s goal. When faced with one of those “essential” illustrations … write it down! Save it. File it under the topical theme meant for that illustration and then in due time pull it out again and no previous week’s hoarding will have spoiled the illustration nor left that sermon wanting.
The best illustrations are those drawn from the preachers’ experiences with the congregations, their interests and hobbies, and the moments of comparison they have had with the surrounding culture. This is why personal brainstorming image pages far outweigh the prepackaged examples taken from outside sources. Borrowed illustrations and over-generalizations have a habit of creating brief entertainment at the expense of legitimate engagement with the Scripture’s message. Yet, all this personal work leads to one of the greatest temptations regarding the illustrative preacher … becoming the central focus. Take a look at your illustrations over the last couple of months. How many of them are stories where you (or your family) are the hero, the good guy, or the moral example? Remember, the heroes of the faith are recorded in the Scriptures with their failings and mistakes laid bare for the world to see and critique. A preacher should be able to find many illustrations outside of their own success stories. The fact that people are still listening when it is time to preach means that they have already lent credibility to the one who bears witness to the Gospel. They call you pastor, reverend, or preacher because they already respect you and believe that you will speak Good News into their lives. The pastor does not need to be the center of the illustration. The pastor already has the stage!
Trust the work the Holy Spirit has guided throughout the week. Prayerfully discern the crux of the message. Finally, let the illustrations celebrate the work of the Church, relate the message to our contemporary context and invite the people to experience the saving and sanctifying work of our Lord.
Timothy P. George, Executive Pastor
South Portland Church of the Nazarene Lighthouse School