The SHARP Principles
While it is usually best to utilize the strongest illustrations in the introduction and conclusion, illustrations are also needed in the body of the sermon. Within the various points of the message they further explain the point, give the audience time to digest the truth that is being presented, and connect emotionally with them so they begin to adopt a positive attitude toward the teaching of the text. Remember that our goal is always to move from the “what” of textual meaning to the “so what” of contemporary application. Illustrations can promote that development by portraying what obedience to the text looks like. That is precisely the way Jesus used illustrations like the good Samaritan and the prodigal son.
No matter where you use illustrations, you can exercise the same principles that Jesus used to get to a person’s heart. There are five methods you can use to help you make the emotional connection that Jesus demonstrated. Together the five techniques form the acronym SHARP. They hone your message to pierce the armor of resistance and boredom that listeners often wear. By punctuating your message with these five methods, you make your audience want to hear you and to pay attention to your content. You give them a handle for understanding and remembering your content. SHARP stands for Story, Humor, Analogies, References, and Pictures.
The first technique is to tell a story. Including a story that is interesting, engaging, entertaining, relevant to their lives, and related to the point you are making is one of the most effective ways to generate and hold interest in what you are saying. It is one thing to tell a person that Jesus can save him, but it is much more effective to tell him how he saved you. Anyone can tell a person whose marriage is in trouble that God can deliver him, but he will be much more encouraged if you can tell him a story of when and how he restored a couple’s marriage when they were in trouble, too. The story helps people identify with the truth and also to remember it in a context.
Jesus’ teaching is full of stories. He loved to tell stories that the simplest people could understand. Jesus’ technique was obviously successful because his stories were preserved in an early oral tradition until they were written down by the Gospel writers as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus told stories, he used images and parables that evoked familiar settings. He told the kind of tales that made his listeners have the “aha” of recognition and identification. Be sure that your stories are related to the lives of your hearers. You can use the occasional stories about ancient conquerors and personalities, but mix them in with more contemporary and relevant anecdotes.
Nothing predisposes people to like you and to listen to you like a good sense of humor. Having the ability to take a light-hearted look at oneself or surrounding events is one of the secrets of great communicators. Humor creates a special bond between you and your listeners. It’s virtually impossible to dislike someone who makes us laugh, who helps us enjoy ourselves. A sense of humor – whether sharp and explosive or dry and witty – makes you appear more genial, warmer, more likeable. The strong, pleasurable emotions people associate with good fun and high spirits make your message enjoyable to listen to – and memorable.
The feeling part of our brains uses strong emotions – including the emotions that trigger smiles and laughter-to saturate our consciousness with vivid impressions that result in greater retention of the message. Humor is different, though, from telling jokes. Our advice is: don’t tell jokes. Leave the jokes to comedians. Too often preachers try to be funny by telling jokes, and they flop for numerous reasons. The slightest variation in timing can ruin a joke. A single misplaced word can destroy a punch line. Telling a joke that everyone knows or that another preacher told recently just makes you look silly. Jokes are not the best way to be humorous, but the ability to laugh at oneself, at the world around you, or at the human condition can really open your audience to like you. Remember that comedy is not your goal, but connection is. You just want to put your listeners at ease so they get the message of the text. Find your natural sense of humor and put it to use.
A powerful way to make your sermon memorable and picturesque is to use analogies like Jesus did. Jesus used earthy analogies to describe heavenly truths. What is the kingdom of heaven like? It is like a man sowing, a pearl of great price, a mustard seed. A rich man getting into heaven is like a camel going through the eye of a needle. Jesus is the shepherd, the door, the bread, the water.
Whenever Jesus used an analogy, he fixed an image in the minds of his audience that would not soon go away. Analogies are like hinges on which the doors of our minds swing. (There is an example of one right there!)
Analogies provide a simple eloquence that can help speakers of limited vocabulary express themselves powerfully and at the same time can help listeners comprehend and grasp meaning. An analogy is a one-line illustration, a porthole of light illuminating your message and pegging it to your listener’s memory.
If you want to lead your listeners to really hear and to accept your message, learn to use references effectively. References can either appeal to commonly accepted knowledge, reminding an audience of generally accepted facts, or they can lend support to your point of view by appealing to the authority or wisdom of others.
Jesus frequently referred to the Old Testament because it is God’s inspired Word, recognized as such by the Jews, and the revelation of God’s will. His ministry was saturated with Old Testament references used as an appeal to authority. Jesus often exposed the erroneous thinking of his contemporaries by citing the Old Testament. This lent support and authority to his message. When the Sadducees criticized his preaching of the resurrection, Jesus quoted the familiar Old Testament declaration that the Lord is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that as such he is the God of the living, not of the dead.
Jesus also used references to establish commonly accepted views that needed correction, too. In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus followed the formula, “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you.” In this way Jesus was reminding them of some beliefs that needed correction.
Your purpose in using references is not to impress, but to impact. Don’t weigh down your presentation, but a sparing use of appropriate quotations, poems, and references to common cultural or current events can help turn on the lights for an audience.
In addition to making your own presence as interesting as possible, give your listeners something visual to look at whenever it is appropriate. Make your sermon memorable with the use of bold, striking graphic aids, props, overheads, computer presentations, or other sensory enhancements.
Pastors, professors, and teachers are increasingly finding the benefit of using PowerPoint presentations as they speak. Coupled with a fill-in-theblank outline, sermon and lesson outlines flashed on a screen behind an active speaker are a powerful combination.
For added impact, mix assorted kinds of media (for example, use projected outlines and video clips of appropriate testimonies) in order to keep the visual dimension varied and interesting. Rehearse the visual part of your presentation so transitions will be fluid rather than fumbling. Involve your listeners with your visuals; for example, ask questions of your audience and briefly tabulate their answers on an overhead transparency.
If you are teaching your church how to share their faith, for instance, write a script and rehearse a scenario with some willing church members. Anything you do to help your audience visually picture the truth you are teaching is a great help. When Jesus told his followers that they had to become like a child to enter heaven, he first took a little child in his lap. As they saw the simple adoration and obedience of that child, Jesus’ words had a stronger impact on them because they were visual.
One word of warning is in order: do it with excellence! If you try to use any kind of visual aid or graphic presentation that fails – the person advancing the slides gets behind or ahead, the projector doesn’t work – it will absolutely destroy your sermon. The rewards are great when it works, but the price of failure is huge. Don’t use a technology until everyone involved with it has mastered it.
The content of our message is crucial, but we must follow Jesus’ pattern to make sure that our content gets first to the heart. By using the SHARP principles to gain and maintain our listeners’ interest, we can have greater impact and lasting effect – just like Jesus.
Hints for Great Illustrations
Illustrations should only be used when they truly help you reach the goal of your sermon. Whether it is to aid in explanation of a difficult concept, to provide a hook that will stay with them and help them apply the truth of the text, or to show them the urgency of accepting the truth of the text, your illustrations should have a purpose other than light filler between substantive points. If you want your supporting material to help you hit your target, we offer some guidelines that will help you create, find, and use the right kind of illustrations.
Use only illustrations that relate to your text. Preachers sometimes settle for a good story instead of a relevant story. If you just heard a great sermon on tape or at a conference, resist the temptation to put that great illustration into your next sermon just because it is a good story. And let’s be honest: it is easy to come up with some convoluted logic that appears to tie it in, even when you know it just doesn’t fit. Don’t do it! File and save that illustration for a time when it will be appropriate to the text. If you don’t, the chances are good that you will confuse your audience.
Use illustrations relevant to your culture. My wife Tanya is a great communicator and speaker, frequently traveling to share in women’s conferences and retreats. She used to have a presentation on the stages of a woman’s life as illustrated by her purse and its contents. She used this creative and entertaining speech to help women enjoy the stages of life and rejoice in what God was doing right then in their lives. She would begin with a little girl’s purse, stuffed with hair berets, doll paraphernalia, and crackers. Continuing to speak, she would unveil the purse of a teenager, a newlywed, a young mother, a career woman, and a grandmother. She would delight audiences as she pulled items out of the purse that characterized the different seasons of a woman’s life.
Once she was invited by a missionary friend to come to eastern Kentucky, the most rural part of the state, and speak to a group of women. She took her boxes of purses and made the drive from our city to the mountains to address these ladies and, she hoped, to bless them. When she got back late that night, I was waiting up for her and asked how things went. “Terrible,” she replied with a dejected look. “They never laughed, cracked a smile, or even nodded with the slightest hint of enjoyment. It was just awful.”
“What happened? That talk always works!” I responded.
“They don’t carry purses!” she explained.
That is what happens when we use an illustration in a culture that has nothing in common with the premise of the illustration. When I go to the Amazon region of Brazil, I may preach the same sermon, but I do not use the same illustrations or tell the same stories. A lady living on a floating house in the Amazon does not have the same kinds of issues or experiences as a woman living in a Manhattan apartment. Though they may have the same core needs, the point of entry to those needs may be miles apart. Illustrations have to take culture into account.
You may be thinking that this is obvious, but the illustrations about Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Fanny Crosby that are so common indicate otherwise. Rick Warren calls these “dead Englishman illustrations,” and you just can’t use many of them. You run the risk of speaking about purses to people who don’t carry purses. You might get away with using one on occasion – if it is well told – but most people today just don’t see that Napoleon’s exile on Elba is like our alienation from God. The best illustrations are the ones that get a nod of recognition.
Comedians know this, so they base their humor on things that cause a flash of recognition in their audience. They joke about the way people feel territorial about their shopping carts even though they haven’t actually bought anything yet, or the hairnet on the lunch lady in every elementary school in America, or men who still wear 32-inch jeans even though their bellies are twice that size. Every time you hear something like that, you feel connected. You’ve been there. You can relate. And isn’t that the point?
By the way, this is why most books of illustrations are worthless. They are filled with weathered and well-worn clichés that everyone has heard and no one cares about. Some books or illustration services are refreshing exceptions, but not many. Wherever you find them or create them, be sure they are relevant to the culture.
Make them vivid. One of the keys of power in preaching is focus. The more specific, the more intensely focused the details of a story, the more you pull the audience in, creating “involuntary listening” and drawing them into the story and ultimately the application and meaning.
Refer back to the earlier illustration about George Mallory. Notice all of the detail. Frankly, the oral presentation of that story in an actual sermon is even more vivid than the one we have included here. We actually trimmed it for the sake of space. But contrast it with this version of the same illustration: “In 1924 Sir George Mallory, arguably the greatest mountain climber of his day, mysteriously disappeared on Mt. Everest. For years climbers and students of high-altitude climbing wondered what had happened. They assumed that he fell because his inexperienced partner fell and Mallory tried to save him. Finally, just a few years ago, some men found his body and were shocked to discover that he had fallen to his death, even though he was such a great climber.”
What that illustration gains in time, it more than loses in effectiveness. Vivid language is a secret to powerful stories, illustrations, and even preaching. Word pictures, vibrant description, and strong action verbs are the life blood of engaging preaching. The great preachers and sermons of the past, from Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to R. G. Lee’s “Payday Someday” to W. A. Criswell’s “If We Live or Die” (and just about anything Spurgeon preached) relied heavily on vivid images and language.
To get into the habit of using picturesque speech, read a great sermon or two every day. Listen to great preaching on tape, CD, or in streaming audio from the internet. Enroll in some type of personal program to enrich and increase your vocabulary. Learn a new word or two every week and force yourself to use them. Finally, read a lot. And when you read, keep a running list of new words that you encounter. Look up their definitions and make them your own. Remember that learning big words is not the goal. You are not out to impress others with your knowledge. Learning useful words that vividly describe what you want your listeners to picture is the goal.
Make them personal. Probably nothing else we say about illustrations will be as debatable as this piece of advice, but we are great believers in using tasteful, appropriate personal illustrations. Other kinds of stories and anecdotes may work fine, but you will be amazed to discover that the people who give you their time every Sunday morning are most interested in your personal stories. They enjoy hearing about your struggles, your victories, and even your thoughts. They don’t have to be stories of earth-shattering drama or personal crisis, just little insights that shed some light on the subject of the text.
Once while preaching through the Book of Colossians, I came to that wonderful passage that includes the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3 – the great text in which Paul explains that you cannot be holy by keeping the law, but that holiness comes through focusing on Christ and heavenly. things. He goes on to explain that the “old man,” that person who existed before we trusted Christ, is actually dead, but that we must go on to put off the things that are related to the old man – his deeds and desires – and that we must clothe ourselves in the things that belong to the “new man.” I wanted to illustrate that God has clothed us in the righteousness of Christ and that our deeds must match it like a pair of shoes should match a suit or a dress.
I related that Tanya had forced me to get rid of an old, worn-out, dilapidated pair of topsiders that made my feet feel wonderful – but they looked disgusting! The soles were separating from the shoe so that they seemed to talk with every step! Months after I thought she had thrown them away, I was getting ready to preach one Sunday morning and was rummaging in my closet looking for something when I was delighted to find my favorite pair of shoes. I was elated! It was like running into an old friend. I already had on my suit pants and shirt, but I had to run out to the car for something, so I just stepped into those old ugly shoes. I felt as though I was stepping into warm water when I put those shoes on.
Later that morning as I was preaching, just as I was making a dramatic point, my eyes fell to my feet and, to my horror, I realized that I was still wearing those shoes. Right in the pulpit, in front of hundreds of people and a television audience, and with a nice suit, I was wearing ugly, frayed, and frazzled topsiders because I had forgotten that I was wearing them. To say the least, I was terribly embarrassed.
So when preaching the passage about putting off the things that belong to the old man, I told that story and then I made my point: “Have you ever rummaged through the forgotten store of memories long hiding in the corner of your mind, when suddenly you discovered the memory of a sin long past, long ago forsaken. But instead of repulsion, it brings delight to your mind. You remember it fondly rather than in shame. You think of it as pleasurable, and before you know it, you have fallen into it again. You are still a child of God, still clothed in the righteousness of God, but you have slipped into the comfort of past sin, and it doesn’t go with what you are wearing now. It belongs to the old man.”
For such a simple illustration, drawn from my everyday life, it had a profound impact. For years following that sermon, struggling church members would come into my office, hang their heads, and softly say, “Pastor, I slipped into an old pair of shoes this week.” Immediately I knew what they meant. The power of a simple image had helped them recognize and deal with sin in their lives in a way that mere information probably would not have done.
A few words of warning about personal illustrations are worth mentioning. First, your illustrations can be personal, but they cannot be too personal. In other words, no one wants to know about your sexual practices or sins (no matter how long ago they occurred), your struggles with money, or your dislike of your in-laws. You can’t talk about any sin or weakness in your life that is still unresolved or even too fresh. In the same way, you might get away with telling in a humorous fashion about an argument you once had with your wife years ago, but don’t tell them about the fuss you had yesterday! They aren’t necessarily sure your marriage will survive it!
And when it comes to illustrations about family, ask permission from any family member you will mention before you dare use it. Their answer will depend on their personality and their confidence in you, but if they say no, respect it and accept that answer. Do not let your family feel like they have no privacy or control of how their private lives are presented to the congregation. Let sanctified common sense guide your use of personal illustrations and you will find them worthwhile.
Look for illustrations everywhere. If a pastor averages preaching just two sermons a week, fifty weeks per year, he will preach one hundred sermons. And if he uses one illustration for every introduction, conclusion, and each point of sermons that average three main points, then he requires five illustrations per sermon and five hundred illustrations per year! If he stays in one church for long, he will discover how difficult coming up with fresh illustrations can be. Many pastors have actually discovered that they can repeat whole sermon series in the same church years later – so long as they change the illustrations. But if a pastor repeats an illustration, no matter how good it may be, his congregation may think of his preaching as tired, worn-out, and stale – even if the sermon is new and only the illustration is repeated.
Obviously, the constant pressure to find new, relevant, and appealing illustrations is a consuming fire. Deal with it. You can get better at diagramming, outlining, and communicating, but finding fresh illustrations seems to get harder the longer one is in the ministry. Buying illustration books is seldom the answer. Craig Brian Larson’s books and those in Leadership magazine are rare exceptions, but most collections have more useless material than anything. High-priced illustration subscription services are not any better, unfortunately. You will find that you often have to read one hundred such illustrations for a single serviceable story.
The solution is to become a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up interesting stories and tidbits as you go through life. Look for them in the vehicle registration line. Observe human behavior and interaction. Look for the quirks and challenges of life. Listen to the songs your teenagers are playing. Watch TV Keep up with what is happening in the culture. Read the books on the New York Times bestseller list. Peruse the movie reviews in your local newspaper. Find web sites that provide daily or weekly headlines. Subscribe to news magazines. All of these things put you in touch with the culture around us which is an abundant source of material for illustrating sermons.
We also recommend quirkier sources. Learn to look for illustrations where no one else is looking. We particularly like books about strange and unusual oddities and peculiarities of history or culture. Odd and quirky dead Englishmen seem to be the exception to the rule. They still hold the interest of an audience, even though they are from distant centuries or cultures. Condemned To Repeat It: The Philosopher Who Flunked Life and Other Great Lessons from History by Wick Allison, Jeremy Adams, and Gavin Hambly (New York: Viking, 1998) is a great example. Filled with lessons drawn from strange or little-known history events, the book is a treasure of great illustrations and lessons. Charles Panati wrote Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (New York: Harper & Row, 1987) and Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody (New York: Harper & Row, 1987). These books provide endless sources of ideas, humor, and ways to make biblical ideas come to life.
Typhoid Mary’s spread of death can be compared to the Judaizers of Galatians. Earl Tupper’s innovative way of turning his fledgling company into an economic power through empowering individuals to host “Tupperware parties” can illustrate the power of personal evangelism or home Bible studies. The most famous and humorous “last words” recorded in history make a great introduction to just about any of Paul’s epistolary conclusions. We have already noted non-fiction books like Into Thin Air and Ghosts of Everest which are endless supplies of material. Kent Hughes’s Preaching the Word series is an excellent source of supporting material, complete with references so you can look it up for yourself.
Using contemporary movies or television for illustrations demands sensitivity to the conscience of others. As a general rule, don’t refer to movies or television shows that you cannot recommend. Stay away from references to R-rated movies or other forms of offensive entertainment, even if you did not personally see them. By the time you explain to everyone that you did not see the movie and that you don’t go see objectionable movies but that you happen to know about this one because you read the reviews, you have so weakened the power of the illustration as to make it ineffective.
You can also find illustrations in poems or songs, but follow this one rule: don’t read them. If you use a poem, memorize it and deliver it well. If you can’t memorize it, just eliminate it. If you refer to a song, quote it without reading it. Better yet, sing it – but only if you have a voice that will help and not hurt your sermon. You really don’t want to make the audience uncomfortable on your behalf because you cannot sing but try it anyway.
While you may find some great material in statistics, our advice is to avoid them unless you can present them visually. Most people just can’t digest statistics, especially many of them in rapid succession. If you feel like you simply must cite some stats, use them sparingly and make sure that you can actually document them.
Once again, the best place to look for illustrations is in the thousands of apparently ordinary things that happen to you. The trick is to record them, and then to relate them to the subjects you find in your homiletical crosshairs.
I was invited to speak at a deacons’ banquet at a large church in the deep South, a job I relished because I love deacons and also I had tremendous love and respect for the pastor. At the close of the banquet the chairman of deacons began to thank the people who had worked hard to make the dinner happen, and he presented each one with a small gift. I was more than a little surprised when he called my name and asked me to return to the lectern to accept a token of their appreciation. I thanked him, took the gift back to my seat, but thought no more about it for the time being.
A staff member was driving me back to my hotel when I began to wonder what was in the neatly wrapped white package. Shaking it and weighing it, I guessed that they had given me a nice paperweight or desk plaque. Sensing my curiosity, he suggested that I open it. “Let’s see what you got!”
“Why not?” I wondered aloud, and began to rip through the perfectly folded wrapping.
Soon I found myself gazing at a beautiful red box, but I opened it without particularly noticing the name inscribed on the outside. “It’s a pen!” I said, but the staff member driving the car was already way ahead of me.
“Oh my goodness!” he exclaimed. “They gave you a Dupont!’
“What’s a Dupont?” I wondered aloud, thinking to myself that I have always been a Bic kind of guy.
“That’s a $500 pen!” he informed me, and proceeded to tell me all about my pen. “That’s the Orpheo fountain pen. It takes cartridges or it comes with an adapter pump for an ink well. That is a gold nib, gold trim, and Chinese black lacquer. S. T Dupont is a French company known for making luxury items, and you, my friend, just got one of their best pens.”
Wow! I couldn’t believe it. I had never even heard of S. T. Dupont before that night, but as soon as I got back to the hotel room, I got on the internet and read all about the company, my pen; Chinese lacquer, and the fine cobalt blue ink that I had to order. I was hooked. I loved my pen. I treated it like we had given birth to another child! No more cheap Bics for me. I had arrived.
A few weeks later, I was sitting on the front pew on a Sunday morning, just moments away from preaching. Thinking through the sermon and my impending delivery, suddenly a thought came to me, a point that I wanted to add. Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to use my pen, but I effortlessly reached a hand into my coat pocket and unholstered my elegant writing instrument. Uncapping it, I began to record on my sermon outline my last-minute flash of brilliance when, to my abject horror, my $500 pen would not write. I scribbled, shook it, tapped it, and tried again, but with the same fruitless results. All that was left on the paper was the indentation of my increasingly frustrated pressure on the gold nib. Finally, I the beast to see what foreign matter might be impeding the flow of the cobalt blue blood through its noble artery. No ink. Not a drop. It was at that moment that an obscene thought pierced through my mind and hit me right between the eyes. An S. T Dupont Chinese black lacquer Orpheo fountain pen that has run out of ink is no more helpful than a broken Bic.
A couple of Sundays later I was preaching from a passage in 2 Timothy in which Paul commends his friend Onesiphorus for the way he refreshed him with his presence after tenaciously seeking him until he found him, even in the great metropolis of Rome. I was struck by the way Onesiphorus hardly appears in Scripture. If Paul did not mention him in 2 Timothy, he would be completely unknown and unsung to us today. But simply because of his friendship, the way he refreshed Paul like a cool breeze on a hot summer afternoon, he is immortalized in the pages of Scripture. I was looking for a way to get that point across, urging my listeners that they, too, had to leave a legacy of friendships and rich, refreshing relationships if their lives were to be remembered and treasured after their passing.
So I asked, “How can I really picture the importance of friendship? What image can I present to them that captures how empty their lives will be without real relationships?” So I began to think about the words empty and useless in the context of friendships, but it took me to the “empty, useless” Dupont. All my studies in 2 Timothy 1:16-18 made me confident that I had a handle on the conceptual aspects of the text, but now I needed to move to the perceptual. I had to explain the text in a way that gripped them and pinned their minds to the meaning of the text. I knew that in the story of the pen, I had an image that could make my congregation visualize a life without meaningful relationships.
So after working through the text, explaining its context, its content, the applicational concern that it required in us, I closed the sermon with one final exhortation to be an Onesiphorus for someone, to refresh someone as he had refreshed Paul. Then I told the story of my Dupont. I told it much like I wrote it above, but with all the added visual cues that oral communication affords. At the end of the story they were laughing and smiling at my affection for this pen that would not write because, for all of its fine craftsmanship, it was out of ink. I let the laughter subside, a pause hang in the air, and then I said, barely above a whisper, “Friendships are the ink of life, the indelible substance with which we write our legacies. You can drive a fine car, live in a palatial estate, and enjoy every material possession imaginable, but if you are never a true friend to others, if your entrance into a room never lightens the load or alleviates the pain of others, you will die without a legacy, as meaningless as a pen without ink.”
While that story is not dramatic, it is effective because it sneaks up on listeners. They aren’t really sure where the story is going until I draw the parallel at the end, but when I do, it makes sense. The experience is common enough and simple enough that listeners can relate. While not many people have a Dupont pen, everyone has tried to write with a pen that has run out of ink. Connecting that with the legacy that we leave, the legacy that Onesiphorus left, simply works. The response to that sermon, especially to that illustration, was overwhelming. It made that emotional connection – reaching the heart first – that is prerequisite to reaching the mind.
Excerpted from Preaching with Bold Assurance by Hershael W. York and Bert Decker. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers. Copyright 2003. Used with permission.
Hershael W. York is Associate Professor of Christian Preaching at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.