The Use of Sermon Illustrations

Over time a pastor can grow in many different areas in their field.  Hospital visits, checking on the welfare of church members, even dealing with difficult situations can, over the course of time, become easier.

One area that is difficult for a pastor to master, however, is preaching.  We can grow to exegete Scripture more efficiently, we can craft and outline and pump out information quite easily after preaching for a few years.  But those things don’t necessarily make for a good sermon.  Unless the sermon is relatable to the people, its just words.  And one of the ways that preachers make the message more palatable is through illustration.  And it is in this area that even seasoned pastors must labor hard in order to execute a decent sermon. In my experience, there have been weeks in which finding the right sermon illustration takes more time than exegeting the text and outlining the sermon.

So where do preachers get good illustrations from?  Let me first tell you where good illustrations don’t come from: websites or books that are specifically for sermon illustration.  Sites like Sermon Spice and Sermon Central usually only provide illustrations that are maybe a quote, maybe a silly anecdote, or a personal story from someone else.  I have only found, really, one “okay” site with some good illustrations: Preaching Today.  Preaching Today is an extension of Christianity Today and offers illustrations that are pointed to specifics texts as well as topics.  They are more thoughtful, and generally more relevant.  But you still have to comb through many, sometimes hundreds, to find the right one for your text.  And oftentimes you still won’t find one on Preaching Today.

In order to get good sermon illustrations, pastors must find them before they need them.  That is, in all of life, a preacher must always be looking out for illustrations.  Here are some ways to do it:

  • Read, read, read.  And then read some more.  Books of all kinds: leadership books, fictional books, biographies, theological books, classic novels, the newspaper, trending articles, children’s books, etc.  When you find areas of the story, a news reel, or profound quotes, use a system for marking them and entering them into your “system” (which I will explain later).
  • Observe.  Observe your life and your world.  Make note of when something happens in your life.  Be thinking of whether or not that would fit into a certain text or a certain them.  Mark it down and enter it into your system.
  • Remember.  Oftentimes, I will remember some obscure thing in my life from my past.  If I can think of some way to use it in a sermon at a later date, I mark it down and enter it in my system.
  • Public Radio and other podcasts.  I love Minnesota Public Radio, especially when they interview people or tell stories.  There have been a few occasions when I have either pulled over or found a place to stop in order to write down ideas from what I heard because they make such a good sermon illustration.  When you figure them out, catalogue them!  If you would like to know some good podcasts, contact me and I will help you out.
  • Other preacher’s sermons.  If you are preaching on a regular schedule, you are often not being preached to.  We all need to be preached to.  This is where podcasts come in great handy.  Now, this one may get me in a little trouble, but I don’t think it is plagiarizing to listen carefully to other people’s sermons and borrow illustrations from them.  Illustrations are not copyrighted and unless you are copying more from the sermon, it’s fair game.  It would be no different than taking a quote or a story from a speech you might come across.  I would suggest, however, to research the illustration, and tell it in your own way.  Don’t just rephrase the story.  Some good examples of people who use illustrations effectively are Tim Keller, Russell Moore, and Hershael York.

WHAT IS A “SYSTEM”

A system is how you maintain, categorize, and retrieve your sermon illustrations when you need them.  It could either be digital or on paper.  Personally, I use Evernote for all of this.  I have found no other program that can retrieve information like Evernote.

When I find an illustration for possible use, I do this:

  1. Immediately write a note of it in Evernote.  I have it set up on my computer that if I want to make a note of an article or a webpage, I just need to click a button and it automatically makes a note for me with the article in.
  2. Title the note.
  3. Tag the note.  THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP.  You must put in key words, Scriptures, themes, topics, anything that would mark out this illustration for WHATEVER text or topic you are preaching on.
  4. Evernote automatically saves it.
  5. Look for an illustration in your database that has to do with your scripture, key word, topic, whatever and see if it will work well in your sermon.
  6. If you use an illustration in Evernote, I also make a mark in the note to say that I preached that illustration on ______ Sunday, in _____ sermon at _____ church.  This prevents me from using an illustration more than once. 

Please note that you will write a lot of illustrations that you might not use.  That’s okay.  The more you have, the more you have to draw from.  Don’t feel weird if you need to take a moment and write something down – your memory is not that good.  Evernote’s is better.

If God has called you to preach, you need to preach well.  To preach well, you need to make it relatable.  You need sermon illustrations.  It is well worth the work, your people will thank you, and God will be honored.

Now, go and preach the word effectively!

 

 

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