It’s Saturday evening and you, the preacher, are feeling great. But your sermon isn’t. As you began preparing it earlier in the week, Sunday’s message seemed in average health. However, by Friday afternoon you noticed a paleness in the introduction that gave reason for concern. Not until a quick re-read this morning did you detect a slight fever in your second point, and then you discovered a dull ache in the conclusion.
Immediate medical attention is necessary, of course, since the sermon is scheduled to appear with you at a public gathering at 11:00 tomorrow morning. Everyone is expecting both you and the sermon to be present — and spiritually healthy. On such short notice, finding another sermon to “fill in” is unwise, if not unachievable. No, needed most now is a cure for this one, and you are the only sermon doctor in the house.
Where will you begin? Listing all symptoms is probably the first priority. Then, providing an accurate diagnosis. Finally, you can administer some rewrite medication, and wait the long night to see how the recovering sermon feels in the morning.
Perhaps the single sermonic element most susceptible to affliction is the illustration. Even sermons with solid skeletal structure and firm biblical muscle can stumble along unless well-placed illustrations maintain listener attention and message applicability. Fortunately some “ill”ustrative symptoms, and the viruses or more long-term diseases they indicate, are easily diagnosed and treatable.
The Common Cold: Illustrative material suffering from the common cold usually experiences sensory maladies. Healthy illustrations allow listeners to “see,” “hear,” “smell,” “taste,” and “touch.” Descriptive language brings illustrations to life, transporting the listeners to the very location or event being related, or introducing them to a historical figure or practice which proves insightful.
No cure for the common human cold yet exists, but in sermons this virus can be remedied by specificity and vivid description. A few helpful exercises to develop picturesque speech are reading fiction aloud, rehearsing for a friend or spouse a childhood memory in rich detail, or typing a complete manuscript of your next sermon and circling all adjectives and adverbs.
Last year, I used the 1987 rescue story of two-year-old “Baby Jessica” (Jessica McClure) from an eight-inch well shaft in Midland, Texas. Because it had been nearly a decade since the vivid televised scenes of her rescue, a recreation of the harrowing and heartwarming event was necessary. When my listeners “saw” Jessica’s painfully cramped position, “heard” and “smelled” the loud grinding of drilling equipment, and “touched” the baby with the exhausted rescue worker who wrapped her in his dirty arms moments before bringing her to the surface, that’s when this illustration of salvation dramatically reminded them of God’s saving rescue of fallen humanity. Just as the five senses allow us to experience the fullness of our environment, they also bring reality into our illustrations.
Anemia: Dietary balance usually provides the vitamins and minerals necessary for our blood, the physical “river of life,” to function properly and fend off anemia. Information intake supplies similar nutrients for healthy illustrations. If the preacher’s intellec-tual meals are mostly junk food reading and stale conversations, the congregation will have to swallow warmed-over sermons, at best.
I’m constantly skimming for, clipping and filing local newspaper articles and national magazine cover stories, as well as writing in a notebook those personal experiences which parallel spiritual and moral principles. Fasting from the sources of relevant illustrations — current books and magazines, meaningful relational interactions, familiarity with biblical characters, attention to news and events — leaves both preacher and hearers with homiletic hunger pains.
Heart Disease: Recently I heard a pastor relate the gruesome details of a murder case in a sweeping effort to renounce those who break the sixth commandment. The harsh tone and over-description in this illustration were unnecessary, and quite inappropriate. By “using” a heinous example with little empathy, he conveyed a callousness that damaged his credibility.
Insufficient aerobic exercise and a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet are two major causes of heart disease, but preaching insensitively is symptomatic of a worse kind of “heart disease.” An illustration inserted to “make the point” is not reason enough for its use. It must make the point with emotionally appropriate content, suitable in the public context. Tempting though it may be to “shock” lethargic listeners into serious attention, such a tactic can backfire, producing shock over the “heartless” speaker rather than about the illustration itself. Preachers need to illustrate pastorally.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Physically, this common neurological disease affects the dexterity and strength of hands and fingers, usually due to repetitious overuse of handgrip activity. Illustrations, too, become far less “gripping” with overuse. A pastor’s overzealous repetition of that “favorite illustration about grace” can eventually transform it into the congregation’s least favorite. If a particular illustration remotely resembles a cliche, it is time for surgical removal. Another “favorite” story or example is out there somewhere, ready to be discovered.
Carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists put a friend under the knife. It wasn’t pleasant. Neither is the congregation knowing that your worn illustrations will not grip them into attentive consideration of your message.
Indigestion: Finally, even excellent illustrations can be too complex, or be presented too rapidly for listeners to digest. A few startling statistics estimating the number of planets and stars in our galaxy leaves listeners in awe with the Psalmist, who wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). To quote the technical comments of astronomers, however, or to stack numerous inconceivable statistics in listeners’ minds, overstates already overwhelming testimony.
Unlike reading, listening to a sermon allows only one opportunity to process each point. When, in sermon preparation, it seems an illustration will require explanation by yet another illustration, that’s the hint to simplify. If it’s persistently confusing rather than clarifying, perhaps the point itself can be stated more simply, so that no illustration will be needed.
Pace and placement of the illustration also affect listener “digestion.” Sermon introductions often need energetic illustrations, for example, but at a measured pace that allows listeners time to “get into” the topic. Conclusions tend to be more climactic, so an up-tempo stride toward the closing challenge feels appropriate.
We hope a last minute checkup will rarely discover any of these disquieting symptoms. Careful self-critique is the surest inoculation against unhealthy illustrations. Every dedicated preacher feels much better on Saturday evening when assured the sermon is feeling well, too.

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