In my mind’s eye I can still picture the professor’s red pencil marks across my sermon manuscript and the blunt words in the margin, ‘Don’t clutter the illustration!”
I was a senior in seminary, a budding pulpiteer enrolled in “Advanced Expository Preaching,” and I thought I’d handed in a sermon for the ages. Its lines, if not quite inspired, were treasures — every one.
But, as much as I hated to admit it, the teacher was right; several sentences could be excised without loss. And no loss is great gain when you’re fighting to keep people’s attention and trying to say as much as possible in twenty-five minutes.
Since then, in my efforts to make every word of every sermon count, I have paid special attention to uncluttering illustrations.
What can be cut?
Lengthy citation of sources. “According to Dr. J. Maximus Brainpower, who held the Arthur Cash Dollar donor chair of Old Testament and Semitics at the University of Northern Jibip, in his majesterial multi-volume study …”
No. Forget it. Say, “A better scholar than I wrote …” For publication or a scholarly lecture you may have to provide a fuller citation, but on Sunday morning excessive citation is like barnacles on a boat: it slows you down.
How you came by the illustration. “On returning to Colorado my wife and I subscribed to the Rocky Mountain News rather than the Denver Post, not because it’s a better newspaper (it’s not); but because it has better comics. Our favorite is ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’ I was reading it last week on Tuesday, when Hobbes said …”
As I recall, it was verbiage of this sort that attracted my professor’s red pencil. All I need to say is, “According to that eminent theologian, the cartoon tiger in ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ …”
Word wax. Every book of sermon illustrations includes the background of the word sincere. To conceal cracks in marble statues, Roman sculptors used melted beeswax. Eventually the wax dried and crumbled, revealing the cracks. To be sincere, “without wax,” thus means to be honest, solid.
Good illustrations are carved out of solid rock, without wax.
A government report said, “Decomposition of shellfish is detected by organoleptic analysis.” What that means is, “We smell it.”
A nursing school catalog said, “The school focuses on the care of clients throughout the life cycle who have basic alterations of health status. It stresses a multidimensional approach and encompasses the amelioration of the health status of the client.” What it meant was, “We’ll teach you how to care for sick people.”
A preacher said, “Apart from a radical reorientation of your attitudes, behaviors and values, there will be for you, I fear, grave eschatalogical consequences.” What he meant was, “If you don’t repent, you’ll go to hell.”
Purge your illustrations — purge your whole sermon — of word wax.
Connecting material. Sentences starting, “Here’s a story which illustrates the point I’m trying to make,” or “Just like the boy in the cellar, we too should …” insults your listeners’ intelligence. If the illustration can’t stand without these props, you shouldn’t be using it.
Explanation of the illustration. To “illustrate” means, literally, to shed light on something. If your story needs a lot of explaining to make it intelligible, it is itself “dark” and defeats your purpose.
If I could require members of my church to read J. R. R. Tolkien, I’d have a rich source of imaginative illustrations. Unfortunately, most of the illustrations I’ve considered using from The Lord of the Rings would require too much explanation.
This is not to say you can’t cite a novel when everyone in the audience hasn’t read it. If you can set the scene or introduce the character succinctly, do so. But if you find you have to illustrate your illustration, it’s not worth it. Good illustrations stand alone.
It’s not always obvious whether words clutter or not. Jesus’ parables, for example, though models of economy, include details we call “local color.” They aren’t absolutely necessary, but they make the story a story.
Assuming your detail is not an egregious example of wasted words, how can you decide if it’s color or clutter?
Does this detail help the listener enter the story? If it makes her smell the field, shiver with cold, or relive the terror, then it’s color and should be included. If it draws attention to the speaker, the story’s success or the sermon outline, it’s clutter.
How does this detail affect the sermon’s pace? Are you trying to evoke a thoughtful mood? Then you may want to take your time with the story, letting people savor it. Details will help. Are you trying to drive to the sermon’s climax or convey urgency? Then a lean, concise, even rapid-fire illustration may be more suitable.
Is this detail necessary for this particular sermon? Experienced preachers know that the same story may fit four or five sermon themes. But it may need to be tailored to each theme. (Note the way the synoptic writers modified their material for different contexts.)
When I tell the story of my father’s conversion to make a point about altar calls, I can ignore details about his prior life. If I’m preaching 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man is in Christ he is a new creation,” Dad’s life before he met Jesus must be painted in bold color, while the altar call recedes into the background. On another occasion I may wish to stress my kid brother’s role, or Mom’s prayers, in bringing my father to faith. I choose those details — and only those details — germane to the point I’m making at the time.
Do yourself and your hearers a favor. Do what my homiletics professor did for me — get out your red pencil and unclutter that illustration!

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