Sermon illustrations are the best. Well, at least, they should be. A well-planned sermon illustration has so many uses- from capturing people’s attention to explaining a concept or making it easier for people to remember the message throughout the week. Plus, as any high school English teacher can tell you, the more specific your examples, the better you’ll be at getting your point across.
However, our illustrations often fall short of their intended purpose. Even though we use examples and stories when we preach, people don’t always listen, understand, or remember. While we can’t blame our sermon illustrations for every distracted person in our congregation (hello, smartphones!), it’s worth giving careful thought to our words.
If you’re wondering if your sermon illustrations could use a little help, this video is for you!
How to Evaluate your Illustrations
The biggest question we need to ask ourselves as we evaluate our sermons is, “Is this actually making my message clearer or more compelling?” You can use a couple of follow-up questions to help assess this:
- Was my illustration effective at explaining the concept I was trying to teach?
- Can they remember the Word of God and how it applies after the sermon is over?
- Are my illustrations predictable, or do I have adequate variety?
You might not be able to assess this on your own. If you find yourself saying, “I don’t know!” call in some help. Ask a trusted friend, advisor, or, if you’re really brave, ask your spouse to assess a specific sermon illustration.
You can also put your church’s live stream to work by watching yourself preach. This is a strategy used by Michael Todd of Transformation Church, which he describes this way, “NFL players go back after the game and they watch the film and they see what they did right and they see what they did wrong… I think this [preaching] is the same level of intensity.” When done well, illustrations can be a great tool for helping people understand and remember the topic of your sermon. So, don’t be afraid to watch your sermons and ask, “If I was in the audience, would this help me understand?” If you’re afraid of over-analyzing yourself, wait a few months before analyzing any particular message, so that you have time to distance yourself from the material.
Predictability Lowers Connectivity
If you’re ready to go deeper with your assessment, make sure you remember this concept: predictability lowers connectivity.
The great power of most illustrations lies in their unfamiliarity. If the people listening have heard your story before, it’s going to have less impact. This goes for your Biblical texts to some extent, but it’s absolutely true for your illustrations. When God wired our brains, He programmed them to ignore things that are predictable or “normal,” but to pay attention to things that stand out. This was part of His gift to us, to help us survive as a species and to encourage us to use creativity.
So, how do you make your illustrations less predictable? A great place to start is by making sure you’re not cycling through your 5 favorite stories or replaying a bunch of viral videos. Instead, intentionally use unique and exciting sermon illustrations that will make your message memorable.
One of the easiest ways to ditch predictability is to consciously add variety. If you find yourself repeatedly using illustrations from your early childhood or favorite sports franchise, challenge yourself to draw examples from someplace else! Here are a few places you can draw sermon illustrations from:
- Personal experience
- Science and technology
- News/Pop culture/Current events
- Theater/movies/TV shows
- Literature and poetry
- Other cultures
- Business and leadership
- Hobbies (yours or other people’s)
- Different professions (law, medicine, teaching, etc.)
And the list goes on! You can find sermon illustrations in nearly anything; you just have to look.
This might mean stretching yourself to read different books, listen to different podcasts, or otherwise entertain yourself. In other cases, it might simply mean brainstorming a few different illustrations for a single point and selecting the most unique one. Whatever method you choose, adding variety is an easy way to make your messages memorable.
Want to learn more? Here are the top 5 types of illustrations you likely need to stop using now.
5 Sermon Illustrations to Stop Using Now
If you’re like most of us, you find yourself talking about the same types of things in your sermons. Here are five things you’re probably overusing without even realizing it.
Most people love knowing about their pastor- so personal stories can be effective communication tools. However, don’t bring your favorite things into the sermon unless they directly relate.
For example, if you’re prone to talking about your favorite sports team, restaurant, or your kids/grandkids at every opportunity, it’s probably time to scale back. Before mentioning one of your favorite things, be sure to ask, “Am I talking about this because I want to talk about it, or because it actually helps move the message forward?” If it only helps people learn more about you, and not about God, then cut it.
You might also have a few favorite stories that you love to use in your sermons. If you find yourself asking, “How long has it been since I used this story? Could I use it again?” make sure you’re not simply settling for the first illustration that comes to mind. Nothing will make people stop listening faster than a story they’ve already heard.
Cliche, overused movies
While these may vary depending on your congregation and your personal favorites (see tip #1), you’ll want to avoid the movies that are generally overused in sermons, as well as movies that are cliche or over-the-top violent. While there may be exceptions to these guidelines, here’s a non-exhaustive list of films to avoid:
- Chariots of Fire
- Forrest Gump
- War Room
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- Jurassic Park
- A Walk to Remember
- The Help
Stories that are not yours (unless you give proper credit!)
Often, you may feel like your personal experiences can’t compare with a story you’ve heard from someone else. In those cases, it’s okay to use their story in your sermon, but you HAVE to make sure you credit them. Otherwise, you’re plagiarizing.
However, this comes with a huge caveat: Make sure these stories will be new and interesting to your congregation. Don’t play a video of Francis Chan or retell a story from one of his many viral sermons. Chances are, people have already heard it. Instead, look for stories that haven’t been used in a sermon, and clearly connect them to your message.
Outdated Sermon Illustration Websites
Want to know something that’s almost as bad as using viral videos for illustrations? Relying on outdated sermon illustration websites. It’s easy to recognize them- the sites usually look like they were built in 2000 and then never updated. But the design isn’t really the problem, right? It’s that the content has been used by pastors for 20 years and is outdated or cliche.
You can do better! We can help.
Sermonary has a built-in library of unique sermon illustrations that will inspire you when you’re feeling stuck. From explaining concepts like worldview to preaching on Jesus’ style of leadership, you’re sure to find something that will fit the message you’re trying to convey. Plus, our illustrations are clear and relatable, so they will leave your congregation with a good understanding of what you’re trying to communicate.
As we’ve grown our illustration library, we’ve noticed something interesting. In many cases, when it comes to sermon illustrations, the simpler and shorter, the better. Our favorite illustrations are always easy to understand and explain. This brings us to our final type of illustration you should stop using now…
Illustrations that don’t directly relate to your message
Listen, we know you want to tell that joke, do a science experiment that involves explosions, and/or drive a motorcycle onstage. And you can do all those things, as long as you can answer “YES!” to the following question:
Does the illustration directly relate to the message you’re trying to convey?
Flashy, funny, or informative illustrations don’t do any good if they don’t clearly relate to the point you’re trying to make. You’re not Dave Chappell, Bill Nye, or Evil Kenevil, and your congregation doesn’t expect you to be. So make sure your message is super clear, and let your illustrations flow from that. Ruthlessly eliminate anything that you want to do because it’s attention-getting or sounds fun. Instead, ask, “Will this help people to understand and remember the sermon?” If it will, great! If not, pick something that will.
Ready to knock your sermon illustrations out of the park?
Sign up for a free trial of Sermonary today! We have an extensive library of unique sermon illustrations that will inspire you when you’re feeling stuck.