Last Update 10th October, 2016.
Impactful sermon illustrations flesh out your sermon outline. They give it life. Illustrations are a vital part to any good sermon.
A great sermon illustration can take a person from:
“I think I sort of get it” to the “Ah, I see exactly what you mean!” light bulb moment.
Our purpose in preaching is life change. When we’re drawing up our sermon outlines we’re thinking,
“How can I make them see this and feel it and be changed by it?”
Our sermons can be thought through and well-structured but life change will only happen if we connect with the hearts and minds of our listeners.
We need to connect on an emotional level.
The key here is to connect, not just communicate.
Connecting opens the door to life change and great sermon illustrations empower us to do just that.
A good sermon illustration will reach out and grab your listeners and pull them into your content.
It will make them care.
Jesus Always Used Impactful Sermon Illustrations
In Learn How To Preach Like Jesus we looked at Jesus’ preaching style and saw that Jesus used illustrations in his messages all the time.
In fact, Matthew 13:34 says that Jesus never preached without illustrating his point.
“Jesus used stories when he spoke to the people. In fact, he did not tell them anything without using stories.” (CEV)
Look at Matthew 13 for example.
In this one chapter alone, Jesus gives six different illustrations, six different pictures to show us what the Kingdom of God is like.
“God’s kingdom is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field…”
“God’s kingdom is like a pine nut…”
“God’s kingdom is like yeast that a woman works into the dough for dozens of loaves of barley bread…”
“God’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field…”
“God’s kingdom is like a jewel merchant on the hunt for excellent pearls…”
“God’s kingdom is like a fishnet cast into the sea…”
Illustrations are used by teachers, preachers, parents, or anyone who is trying to get a message across effectively.
Stories are powerful; they give your listeners a visual picture to what you’re saying.
People remember mental pictures. If people can remember your sermons then they’ll take them with them. As the saying goes – memorable is portable.
I think we all agree that sermon illustrations are important to highlight and illuminate your message, but how do you use illustrations?
There are plenty of websites and resources on where to find sermon illustrations, but I want to talk about and give some guidance on how to use them.
You can have a brilliant story but tell it wrong and it loses it’s impact.
You can give a great illustration at the wrong time and your meaning is lost.
Here I’d like to offer 5 recommended tweaks for powerful and effective sermon illustrations:
1. Make sure your illustrations fit your sermon flow
You and I have different ways of sharing and expressing an idea but when it comes to preaching point we explain, teach, illustrate and apply it.
But should we illustrate, teach, explain and apply it or teach, apply illustrate and explain?
I think the key here is to find what works for you and your natural flow the most.
Maybe you teach your insights and observances before moving into a sermon illustration which emphasises your point.
After that you might want to flow naturally into application.
There are lots of different ways for your sermon flow and illustrations can work at any given different points within your sermon, the main though is to be intentional and think through each point before stepping up to the pulpit.
So how can you know which works best for you? Simple!
Practice out loud a few times. Record yourself if you’d like.
Make your point, explain it, teach it, apply it, and illustrate it.
Each time you practice change up the order see what flows the most naturally. I plan out in advance where illustrations will go.
This doesn’t mean you can’t change it up in the moment, but the process of thinking it through means I already have a sense of where it will fit best with the sermon flow.
2. Dive right into your illustration
When it comes to impactful sermon illustrations just dive right into it. Don’t give an introduction to your illustration.
Okay, this might be a pet peeve of mine but maybe you’ve listened to preachers saying things like…
“And now I’m going to give you an illustration to illustrate this point.”
If you give this wordy, unnecessary introduction, then your illustration is probably dead before you even get started.
Just say it. Just tell the story.
Just give the example. Just give the illustration.
You don’t need to introduce it. Your listener’s brains are working much faster than your mouth is moving. They will connect the dots if the illustration is effective and makes sense.
3. Make sure your sermon illustration supports your point
Your sermon illustration should support your sermon point, not the other way round.
However great an illustration may be, don’t try to force it into your message if it doesn’t fit.
If you have to force how it connects to your point, don’t use it.
Overstretching yourself to try and connect your sermon illustration with your point is like having to explain the punchline to a joke – it loses it’s impact.
Remember that your illustration, whether it be a story or visual illustration, is supposed to support and enhance the point of your sermon.
Anything other than this just causes confusion and muddies the water, leaving your listeners scratching their heads and trying to connect the dots.
If you want to be sure it connects, test it out ahead of time.
4. Make sure your sermon illustrations are interesting
There are few things worse than being forced to listen to a boring sermon.
One of the major advantages of an illustration that’s used well is that it captures and holds the attention of your congregation. We already know that everyone loves a good story.
On the flip side of the coin, if your illustration is too academic or boring then you’ve missed a good opportunity.
Always try and tell personal and memorable stories.
If appropriate, add a healthy serving of humour too.
Personal stories almost always deliver, but vary your approach and keep them fresh.
5. Show your sermon illustrations (don’t just tell)
This last tweak follows on from the previous point of making sure that the stories and illustrations you use in your sermons succeed in captivating your audience’s attention.
Don’t just tell; show.
I’ll show you what I mean. T
aken from emmadarwin.typepad.com, here are some examples that show the difference between just telling a story and showing it:
Telling/informing: The temperature had fallen overnight and the heavy frost reflected the sun’s rays brightly.
Showing/evoking: The morning air was bitter ice in her nose and mouth, and dazzling frost lay on every bud and branch.
Telling/informing: The taller man was a carpenter, complete with the tools of his trade.
Showing/evoking: A saw and hammer dangled from his belt and an adze was hooked into it, one thumbnail was black, and when he bowed she saw several long wood-shavings caught in his curly hair.
Telling/informing: They stood close and wrapped their arms round each other in a passionate embrace, so that she became aware that he had been riding, and then that he was as nervous as she was.
Showing/evoking: They gripped each other and the tweed of his jacket was rough under her cheek. His hand came up to stroke her hair; she smelled leather and horses on the skin of his wrist. He was trembling.
Again, it’s all about giving people a mental image.
Whilst telling just gives basic facts about what’s happening, showing takes the person there. It explains the thoughts, sounds and smells.
It helps them to see the story and not just hear it.
Which is better?
a) “I missed the bus.” (telling)
“I raced down the road, wildly waving my hands, and yelling, “Stop, stop!” but the bus travelled on down the road without stopping.” (showing)
Telling the story enables your church members make a personal connection to what you’re saying which makes the likelihood of them remembering and applying what you’ve shared.
So there you have it! I hope these 5 tweaks for impactful sermon illustrations help to show you how you can spice up your illustrations and improve your preaching.
Why not pick any one of the suggested tweaks in this list and try it out for yourself?
See how even those usual snoozers in the back row will begin to perk their ears and eyes toward you once again as your point comes alive.