If you’re like most preachers, much of your sermons focus on abstract topics. You can’t be faithful to scripture without preaching on grace, hope, love, sacrifice, and redemption—all powerful, gospel-centered topics but all basically abstract. Presbyterian Pastor Clarence E. MacCartney once described sermons that camped out in these abstract concepts as “windowless,” as towers— “solid, substantial, lofty but without a window.” We need the windows, he added, so light can illuminate the abstract interior. Illustrations provide our sermons with these powerful windows that allow are listeners to not only hear the gospel but to see and touch it.
But where do you find effective illustrations that shine light on the abstract biblical concepts you’re teaching?
Do a quick search on Google and you’ll find hundreds (if not thousands) of sites with sermon illustrations. Many of them are categorized by topic so you can find just what you need for your sermon. While many are great places to find illustrations
, they are never as good as the illustrations you pull from your own life.
“[Personal illustrations] help us relate to our audience,” writes Jonathan Pearson, the Connection Pastor at SpringWell Church in Taylors, S.C. “Whether it’s a story about yourself or a family member or even a story you were just personally involved in, the illustration seems to be much more powerful when it’s personal.”
Three Key Habits for Sermon Prep
The time to find personal illustrations isn’t when you’re in the middle of sermon preparation. If you wait until you need the illustration, you likely won’t be able to remember it. The ability to put a regular diet of personal illustrations in your sermons is a discipline you must develop. Regularly practice these three habits, and you’ll have a never-ending supply of great personal illustrations.
- Pay attention. To find illustrations in your everyday life, you’ll need to become a keen observer of people. Not everyone is naturally good at this. (But pastor, if you master this, it’ll benefit your ministry far more than just your preaching.) If you’re naturally extroverted, this may be particularly difficult because your focus tends to be on engaging with others and less on listening and observing.Next time you’re out with other people, make an extra effort to pay attention to what others are doing and saying. Challenge yourself to come up with several observations every day that you can write down and use in a later sermon. Make it a measurable goal. Even consider giving yourself a reward if you meet the goal.
- Discipline yourself to make natural analogies. It’s not enough to make observations if you’re not tying them to abstract preaching concepts you may want to illustrate. Like any other part of preaching, recognizing natural concrete analogies is a skill you get better at through practice. Just because you understand the biblical text and have a firm grasp on the underlying theological principles doesn’t mean you’ll naturally make the necessary connections to what you’re seeing in your life.Wayne McDill writes about natural analogies in his classic preaching book, 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. He describes these analogies as a “nonreligious parallel image.”As an example, think of the term grace. Merriam Webster defines it as, “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance.” A natural analogy someone getting a gift they didn’t deserve. You can likely think of multiple examples of those kinds of analogies. They are the building blocks of great personal illustrations. Many of the people you’re trying to reach will never understand the theological concepts you want them to learn until they can tie them to non-theological concepts they are accustomed to experiencing in their lives.Discipline yourself to think through natural analogies for the most important theological concepts you need to illustrate. If you do this, next time an example of that analogy shows itself in your life, you’ll be more likely to take notice and build it into a future sermon.
- Develop a system for recording them. This may be the most important part of regularly using illustrations from your life. You can’t expect to pull personal illustrations out of thin air whenever you need them.For most pastors today, the best option will be a smartphone app. I highly recommend Evernote. Not only can you type out a quick note on the app when an illustration comes up, but you can tag them with the topic and even organize them into specific notebooks (like by sermon series potentially). Most sermon illustrations fit multiple topics, but with Evernote you can add as many tags as you need.
Great Sources for Personal Illustrations
Now you know how to develop the essential habits for digging up personal illustrations out of your life. But where are the places you’ll likely find these illustrations?
Most of them will come from your relationships
. You’ll find your best illustrations in the relationships you invest the most in. Your Christian life is largely lived on in the relationships you have with others. Your spouse, your children, your parents and your siblings provide terrific sermon illustration fodder. Remember though to ask their permission before you use their stories in a sermon. You don’t want them to be surprised when they hear the story from the pulpit.
Don’t overlook pulling sermon illustrations from your failures
either. Your congregation needs to hear them. They need to know you make mistakes and depend daily on God’s supernatural help. Rick Warren says that when you’re open about your weaknesses you gain the trust of those you lead. When you’re preaching about a topic, think about some ways you’ve struggled in the area and talk about them. Make sure you tell the whole story though—how God has given you victory in the area as well, even if those victories are short-lived at times.
Finally, keep in mind your humorous moments
as well. Just about everyone loves to laugh. Nothing disarms an audience quite like getting them to laugh with you—or at you. As you’re thinking about illustrations, ask yourself whether the concept you’re trying to show has any natural analogies that lend themselves to humorous stories from your life.
Don’t give up your favorite illustration websites. Don’t stop pulling illustrations from the news and popular culture. There is a danger in pulling too many illustrations from your personal life, but most pastors do the opposite. They don’t share enough.
Make an extra effort to find the right balance and begin to tell more stories from your own life to illustrate the biblical truths you’re communicating.