It’s a full-time job with no days off for every preacher! I am thinking about the fine art of illustrating sermons: those stories that help explain, make clear and connect listeners to a biblical truth. Here are three vital guidelines for effective sermon illustrations that have proven helpful to me through the years.

First, let me enter the homiletical confessional booth and quietly pull the curtain that I may own up to what some would call a transgression: I admit that I occasionally find illustration books and Websites helpful, although not always for the reasons you might think. I agree that regurgitating some story that captivated the heart and mind of another preacher a century ago, or even a decade ago, is an impersonal, sure-fire path to stale, anemic preaching. It can become as cheap and detrimental to one’s integrity as preaching somebody else’s sermon and calling it your own.

Books of illustrations are useful to me mostly as kindling and tools for personal inspiration. What I mean is that other people’s stories often bring to mind an experience of my own that gives my illustrations personality and life.

Powerful illustrations are gained by the preacher’s personal commitment to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Think of your sermon illustrations as a pair of homiletical glasses that you put on when you first wake up in the morning and take off only when you are ready to go to sleep at night. Always make sure that you carry something with you on which to record illustrative insights that flash into your mind through the day and through the night—a notepad or sheet of paper.

My Blackberry has become my favorite jog-my-memory-tool. I carry it with me everywhere because the gathering of illustrations is not confined to office hours and study time. It is a 24/7/365 intersection of biblical truth with everyday life.

Second, think of your illustration as a window rather than a painting. Paintings usually draw attention to themselves as much as to their subject. They usually are appreciated as a self-focused focal point.

Listen to people talk in an art gallery; their conversation is far more often about technique, media, artist, color issues and frame than subject of a painting. That is how many preachers use sermon illustrations. They become the focal point of their own sermon and Jesus fades into the background. An illustration that becomes an end in itself is a complete waste in eternity. Avoid those stories like the plague!

Windows, on the other hand, exist for the purpose of providing an opportunity to see something else clearly. Windows let the light in and allow our imaginations to run as we view God’s handiwork. Windows are designed to call our attention to something bigger; what we really need to see is bigger than the window itself.
Sermon illustrations are indispensable windows, designed to focus attention on biblical truth. That is why windows are better than paintings.

Finally, windows are better than paintings because they call us to look beyond the moment. One of my computer screensavers is a picture of “Napoleon’s Nose” on Cavehill, a penetratingly high basalt mount, 1,200 feet above sea level on the outskirts of my hometown. Jim and Audrey, my sister-in-law and her husband, have a better deal. A wide window in their Belfast living room allows me to see “Napoleon’s Nose” across the bright evening lights of the city skyline when we go there to visit.

The screensaver picture is a nice reminder of home—worth the proverbial thousand words—until I see the real thing in loving color through Jim and Audrey’s window. Now that is worth more words than I could ever count! There just is no comparison between a picture and a window.

Similarly, an illustration is not acceptable because it is compelling, humorous, encouraging or convicting. An illustration is only acceptable to the degree that it helps us see the real thing, moving biblical truth from the abstract to the concrete, from the page to the heart of a believer. Preachers should prepare every message with the presupposition that listeners always assume the application of biblical truth is meant for someone else.

You may have heard that story about the wife who poked her husband’s ribs with her elbow when a visiting evangelist preached against chewing tobacco. Yet when the preacher spoke against gossip she exclaimed, “He has moved from preachin’ into meddlin’!”

Sermon illustrations move our preaching into meddling. They therefore must not be clichéd, vague or general but rather precise, vivid, real-world stories that keep real people from personally evading the force of what is being communicated. Effective illustrations are a primary means to communicate to hearers, “I am talking to you.” They substantiate our message. They make it concrete and unavoidable so that our hearers are forced to do business with God in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So go look out a window, allow the fences of your imagination to disappear, and go preach! Paintings are nice. Windows are better!

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