Supporting the point, not making the point

Finding sermon illustrations can sometimes seem daunting. In my own process, finding an illustration is often the last task that keeps my sermon from being complete. Authors have made a boatload of money churning out books of illustrations, but a sermon illustration doesn’t have to be complicated to be great. It just needs to help your sermon transition from the exposition of the text to the application of the text.

Think of the illustration as the transmission of your car. The source of power for your car is the engine, but for your car to travel effectively and efficiently, you need something that will translate that power into energy that can be applied to the wheels in a way that is appropriate for the conditions you are traveling in. All things being equal, if you had two identical cars—same model, same engine, even the same driver, but one had a six-speed transmission and one had a three-speed transmission—the six-speed would be faster and more efficient. Why? The transmission would allow it to apply the engine’s power more effectively and consistently.

This is what a good illustration can do: provide the mental shift from understanding the text in abstraction to applying the power of the text in the life of the believer. A great sermon illustration helps make that transition.

Find the point of connection

Some think that for an illustration to be good, it must be a personal, powerful story, but almost anything can serve as an illustration: the workings of nature, history, current events—the list can go on. The key here is the illustration doesn’t have to be an incredibly powerful example, nor an allegory of the point. Instead, you just need to find the point of connection between the potential illustration and the point of your sermon. In fact, the closer the illustration and the point of the sermon are to one another, the more memorable and effective the message tends to be.

Keep your illustrations common

Illustrations should generally be familiar to your congregation. Since your illustration is meant to help your audience grasp the point, it doesn’t help if they have to work to understand your illustration. But if it is something they have experienced, they can immediately identify. Moreover, if you pick something common to their life, it can serve as a subtle reminder of the point.

To this day, I think about the resurrection every time I eat pancakes. Why? Because 14 years ago, a chapel speaker illustrated the logical chain that Paul built in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19 by comparing it to the steps necessary to be able to eat a pancake: If there was no visit to the store, then there would be no pancake batter in the pantry and, thus, no pancakes. In the same way, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then there was no resurrection of Christ, and thus no hope. It’s simple, familiar, and constantly reminds me of the centrality and necessity of the resurrection.

Keep illustrations in their proper role

When we illustrate, there are two pitfalls to be aware of. First, it is possible to let the illustration drive the sermon. Sometimes it comes from trying too hard to “work in” a specific illustration. Sometimes it happens without us even realizing it. But if we let the illustration start making the point instead of supporting the point, it could ultimately lead us into misreading the text and misleading our flock. So, when you are seeking an illustration, make sure the point you are making is crystal clear before you look for the illustration.

Second, if we use a personal story as an illustration, we run the risk of making someone other than Jesus the hero of our sermon. But if you keep Jesus as the hero, the text’s point as the sermon’s point, and you find an illustration that will help you transition to application, then your illustration will have served its purpose well.

Illustrations can be useful tools in our preaching ministries, but don’t go overboard. Preach the text of God’s Word and let illustrations be a support, not the main point.

Joshua Hébert
Calvary Baptist Church, Kemp
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