?“Mrs. Hudson, it’s missing!” shouted Holmes.
As she ran into the pastor’s study, Mrs. Hudson worried. “What’s missing?” she asked.
“The illustration I need for Sunday’s sermon,” Holmes exclaimed, “I can’t find it anywhere!”
“Did you look in the toe of your Persian slipper or in your file of past problems?” she inquired.
“Of course not,” Pastor Holmes replied. “My mind is usually the most orderly of filing systems. Given any topic, I can draw from countless cases of personal experiences, seminary lectures or Scripture references. It’s quite elementary. But I ran across the perfect illustration in a magazine a few months ago-no, not The Strand-and now for the life of me I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Well,” opined the faithful Mrs. Hudson, “I’ve been the pastor’s secretary here at Baker Street Baptist Church for 20 years, and every year I’ve suggested you get a real system for filing your sermon illustrations.”
“Quiet, please, let me think,” Holmes asked. “I wonder if that Methodist fellow-Moriarty-might know something? He did a good job in The Final Problem of the Purloined Poetry.”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Hudson replied. “I’ve got to get back to work. By the way, John Watson called in sick. Something about a stomach bug.”
“That’s expected,” smirked Holmes, “With Watson, it’s always ailementary.”
If you can identify with Pastor Holmes as Sunday approaches, this monograph is your solution. Many pastors rely on personal experiences, church history tales from seminary or Scripture passages to illustrate their sermons. Some desperate clergy cling to 10,001 Illustrations from the Annals of the Dead Preachers’ Society or search Internet sites filled with tired old retreads or spurious stories of doubtful veracity. No wonder congregations cringe whenever the new pastor begins a tale they have heard time and again. They politely laugh at the right time to make him feel better, but privately they wish he would be more original.
Begin with a Database
Even with a superior memory, Holmes did not completely depend on his mental capacities for every fact and figure. He developed a filing system that allowed him to access information within moments. Modern preachers use a plethora of electronic gadgets to keep up with e-mails, text messages, Internet resources and daily appointments. Yet they fail to employ the most basic tools to store and retrieve vital illustrations, leaving them to a Saturday-night search through old Reader’s Digests for last-minute material.
While Microsoft Access, Logos software or other databases are excellent tools for categorizing sermons and illustrations, many pastors need something simpler and easier. Microsoft Excel is a fine alternative. Simple, easy to use, highly efficient. Excel uses rows and columns of cells into which any amount of text can be applied.
When you find a good illustration, determine which topic it describes. Type the topic into a cell in the first column of an Excel worksheet. Excel allows selected sets of cells to be alphabetized. Being able to sort illustrations by topics in alphabetical order puts all your material into easily accessible order.
Into the cell of the second column, type the name of the speaker. Record the source of the illustration with bibliographical information in the third cell. The fourth column allows you to note the date you found the illustration so you can cull old illustrations from your database.
The illustration itself goes in the fifth column. It can be typed or copied and pasted from another location, Web site, e-mail or document. (Hint: Paste copied data into the active cell of the formula bar to avoid having information placed in multiple cells.) The illustration can be as large as you need without unduly distorting the appearance of the worksheet. Simply format the cell to “wrap text.” If the height of the row becomes unwieldy, format the row height to “13.”
Hyperlinks provide another option for larger illustrations, scans of magazine articles, sections of books, maps or pictures. Simply save the scan, jpeg picture or other material into a Word document or other file. Right-click on the active cell into which you want to create the hyperlink and click on “hyperlink” in the drop-down menu. This simple box allows you to hyperlink the cell to the document saved elsewhere on your computer. You also can hyperlink directly to a Web page that has a story, statistic, quotation or other illustration. Of course, you risk the good chance that the provider may change the Web site, and you’ll lose your content.
Put the date and place you use the illustration into the sixth cell. You may want to use the illustration again-but not at the same church. People may forget your sermons, but they will remember good illustrations. Finally, if you want to associate this illustration with a particular biblical text, type the textual reference into the seventh column.
As you add rows of illustrations, you can find illustrations by alphabetized topic or by searching for specific words within an illustration. Using the edit function of Excel, click on “find” and simply type the key word for which you are hunting.
You can view the entire illustration by clicking on the active cell. The formula bar will open a box with the whole text available for viewing, editing or copying and pasting into a Word document containing your sermon outline.
Don’t Save Junk in Your Trunk
Once you have a database to store sermon material, make sure what you save is worth the effort. Too many sermonic illustrations are weak and only remotely relate to the textual point. Determine to locate, save and use only the most powerful illustrations.
Illustrations are meant to connect people with the exposition or the application of sermonic points. A good illustration does more than shed light on an idea; it moves people emotionally and intellectually. Unfortunately, like Pastor Holmes, the average preacher relies on personal experiences, stories from church history, quotations from long-departed preachers or scriptural references.
Personal illustrations can be powerful if used with discretion. People are touched by the transparency of a preacher who is not afraid to be vulnerable. However, no congregation wants to hear about the preacher and his family every week. Too, no minister’s family likes being the source of sermon fodder Sunday after Sunday.
Try depersonalizing and universalizing personal experiences. Instead of saying, “Last weekend my son and I were on a hunting trip and …,” try this: “Have you ever been on a hunting trip with your son and ….” You are able to translate the personal experience into a common-life situation with which many of your people can relate. The anecdote becomes their story, not just your story, evoking memories and emotions.
Historical illustrations can be useful provided they do not require contextual knowledge. Any reference to a historical event or character should be self-contained if possible, making the point whether the hearer knows the historical context or not. Preachers wanting to connect with postmodern hearers will not limit themselves to church history, since most listeners will not be familiar with pages from seminary textbooks.
Biblical illustrations have their place but are best if self-explanatory. A biblically illiterate congregation may not understand references to Hagar or Haggai. If you use Hosea and Gomer in trying to describe unconditional love, some of your people may think you are talking about Gomer Pyle. If you must explain the biblical illustration’s context, you may divert attention from the primary text of the sermon.
Keep Your Homiletical Antenna Up
Every day, we read, see, hear and watch countless illustrations. Like Holmes’ friend, Dr. Watson, we see but do not observe. We miss valuable material because we are not looking for it. Lacking a database, we tend to focus on finding illustrations for next Sunday’s sermons rather than realizing that what we are seeing might be exactly what we need in
The morning newspaper, weekly magazines, the evening news, even those annoying forwarded e-mails-all contain potentially potent illustrations. You might not need them right now, but sooner or later they will come in handy. The key is recognizing good material when you encounter it and immediately plugging it into your database for future use.
Consider these possibilities:
1. Newspapers and Magazines
• Look for human-interest stories that move you emotionally. Identify the story with a particular topic or issue common to people’s everyday experiences-love, hate, sin, grace, family, jealousy, kindness, etc.
• Watch for statistics of all types, but be sure to date the source. Statistics change quickly. You do not want to use numbers from 1973 in 2009!
• Don’t overlook anything-even the obituaries. One obit I found was eight column inches long, noting the deceased’s wealth and numerous civic activities but no faith affiliation. I compared that person with another of the same age who died without wealth or fame, but whose history testified to a lifetime of service to Christ. The point? Which would you rather have as your obituary? Who laid up treasure in heaven?
2. Television and Movies
• News broadcasts may contain stories that connect with your listeners, though you should avoid using specific names.
• You might occasionally refer to characters in a television show, but be careful to choose those that are appropriate for
children. Too, such references should be self-contained; don’t assume everyone is watching the same show.
• Movies and movie clips can help tell a story but only if you don’t have to re-tell the movie plot in order for hearers to understand the point. Too, avoid any movie with a rating that would raise eyebrows or lower respect.
3. Internet and E-mails
• The Internet can be a treasure chest of illustrations as long as you are not researching illustrations. By that I mean do not go to Web sites of sermons or sermon illustrations as your first resort. Instead, do a search of stories, quotations or statistics related to the topics or ideas contained in the scriptural text. Double-check the validity of anything you choose to use.
• Widen the scope of your search. I discovered testimonies by educators at a secular university in the west. The school had given Christian professors a page on which they could record their thoughts. Six months later I used one testimony in a message to college students at my church.
• Be wary of forwarded e-mail material since it often is spurious, such as the perennial claims about Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
• Many electronic newsletters can give you valuable information for illustrations. From Michael Duduit’s PreachingNow newsletter I regularly pick up humorous lists and great stories. Max Lucado, Jack Graham, Rick Warren, John Piper, Charles Stanley and others also have electronic newsletters that contain quotes or stories worthy of repeating (with credit). Culture Connection, ChurchReportDaily and CTDirect (Christianity Today Direct) keep me informed of newsworthy religious and cultural issues from the contemporary scene. The Christian History Connection newsletter reminds me of historical issues and characters. Prisoner Alert and Voice of the Martyrs offer stories of faith in the face of persecution. Newsletters from the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention also keep me informed about God’s work around the world, sharing many stories of faith to encourage my congregation. LifeWay Christian Resources also offers various helpful e-letters, including Pastors Today and The Bivocational Pastor.
4. Everyday Life
• Watch people around you. If you really want to connect, next time you are at the mall, go to the food court and spend an hour people watching. Take a notebook because what you see and hear will be priceless.
• Observe signs on billboards, trucks and bumper stickers as you drive; but wait until you are at home to record the illustration!
• Spend time with people of all ages. Listening to them will provide wonderful insight into human nature, build deeper relationships and (with their permission) possibly yield additional anecdotes for future sermons.
• Be on the lookout for appropriate metaphors. Postmodern listeners perk their ears to well-formed metaphors or similes. Although that should not be really new-Chestor Swor and Vance Havner were using sweet turns of phrases to make one-sentence illustrations long before most postmoderns were born.
However you discover and file your illustrations, remember that the primary point is the Bible and its application to your people’s lives. Illustrations are not the main thing; they merely help us understand the main thing. A well-balanced sermon has solid exposition of the biblical text, practical application to the lives of real people in the pews and powerful illustrations that connect with your congregation. To which Holmes replied, “Elementary, dear preacher, elementary.”