The Art of the Illustration

As I’ve been going down this road of substitute preaching, there’s one thing that’s become obvious:

I’m not good with illustrations.

I know that there are some, like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who are staunchly anti-illustration. Then there are others who are of the opinion that illustrations will, to a limited degree, make or break your sermon. Personally, I really appreciate good illustrations, but don’t find it terribly interesting when a message is basically a long series of them that don’t really have a lot to do with the text being preached.

Probably one of the best illustrations I’ve heard is one that Mark Driscoll used a while back to talk about the power of forgiveness. My paraphrase of the story is this:

Just before a couple from Mars Hill got married, the wife committed adultery. She kept it hidden from her husband for years until finally she couldn’t any longer. When she told him, he left the house, got in the car and left; she wasn’t sure if she’d ever see him again.

A while later, he came home. He asked her to undress and he put on her a white nightgown that he’d gone out to buy for her. And all he said to her was, “I choose to see you the way Jesus does.”

That was an extremely moving example; in my mind it’s one of the best that Driscoll’s come out with.

Matt Chandler’s “Debt is Dumb” illustration is genius:

as is “Jesus Wants the Rose”:

While I’m sure a lot of it is just that I need practice, a problem for me is I’m not always sure where to look. Despite writing a blog filled with my opinions on theology, I don’t actually like talking about myself (I’m not all that interesting), and I’m not always comfortable talking about work (particularly since I wouldn’t want to say something that could be misconstrued). Plus, my wife has mentioned how much she dislikes it when preachers talk about their wives in sermons excessively, so out of respect for her, I am cautious about family remarks.

So I’ve got a couple of questions:

What’s an illustration you heard in this weekend’s sermon that brought the message home for you?

Do you have a “favorite” sermon illustration?

And for the preachers out there:

Do you find it challenging to find appropriate illustrations? Where do you look first?

How do you use an event or conversation involving another person without it coming across as defaming or dishonoring of the person talked about?

How are you doing on mastering the art of the illustration?

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  • Amber

    My favorite illustrations are always book illustrations, because if I’ve already read something in a book, it’s more likely to have resonated deeply with me. Children’s books and C.S. Lewis books are great for this.

  • Danny Lucas

    What a rich yet humble post you have penned, to explore, to learn, to grow, to embrace!

    A couple of years back, I read “The Power of Writing Things Down” in a blog called “Dumb Little Man”.

    I commented; I think it applies here and post it anew:

    It was early Spring, 1992. I was in church. The pastor said “I want you to think a moment on your favorite gift from Christmas.
    Oh wait!
    Not last Christmas….scratch that from your mind.
    I want you to think about your favorite gift from Christmas of….. 1989.

    Blank stares arose as people struggled to recall.
    It was only a few years ago, he continued.
    At the time you got the gift, you opened it up, and likely exclaimed to the giver “Oh Thank You…this is just what I wanted”.
    “I’ll NEVER forget this!”

    Yet, within three short years, your favorite Christmas gift of 1989 can not be recalled for most of you.
    Do you know why?
    BECAUSE you didn’t write it down! You forgot.

    I have a gift for you in my message today and I do not want you to forget it, so take out your pens and write it down.
    Pens came out everywhere.

    It is 2008 and another Christmas is upon us.
    Isn’t it amazing that I can recall this intro and the sermon almost verbatim, from nearly two decades ago?
    I wrote it down.

    Back to today, ……..I like to think of the Bible as “God’s To Do List”. (HE wrote it down!)
    “Let’s see”, says the great I AM.

    1) Do some creation
    2) The little people are in trouble already; help them.
    3) Make some rules so they don’t destroy each other.
    4) Time for rainbows
    5) I need a whale for that hothead Jonah.
    6) All these flies at my picnic remind me of Moses tapping the rock twice. Watch out!
    7) Job wants to talk, and the telephone has not been invented yet. So be it Job!!!
    8) I want a son.
    9) 33 years of life, or eternal life….my son, I weep too.
    10) The crib, the cross, the crown, the coming. (an actual sermon outline that I heard, and recall well)
    11) Explain eternity to the little people
    12) ???

    You get the idea.

    Ps. I hope you open the “preacher questions” to everyone. We all preach anyway.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for sharing this, Danny – I really appreciated reading it. The example above that you provided is a helpful reminder to me that I actually need to writing stuff down more as I go; I tend to overlook the examples that are given everyday all around me.

  • Sean Chandler

    The idea of being anti-illustration seems crazy to me. The teaching of Jesus is packed full of illustrations. The point of illustrations is to bridge the gap between the hearers current understanding and where you want them to be. The hearer doesn’t understand a concept, therefore you illustrate it using a concept they do understand. You dress the unfamiliar with the familiar.

    I get frustrated when I read about people who are anti-illustration or like John MacArthur who’s indicated whenever possible you should illustrate with Bible stories (which is a good thing but it leads to place where you need to know the Bible to be taught the Bible which assumes people have a large knowledge of scripture). These are men who are really good at preaching to men who are just like them and not too many other people.

    O yeah questions….

    Do you find it challenging to find appropriate illustrations? Where do you look first?

    No. My mind naturally links things. The only time I have problems is when I’m preaching a topic I’ve preached before and therefore I’ve already used the illustrations which naturally come to mind.

    I’m fairly positive I’m an over-illustrator. I use illustrations to keep people engaged, and do to the pace of ministry, if i don’t have time to prepare properly, I tend to stack illustrations instead of developing really good illustrations. This causes me to go long and use up my ideas for illustrations.

    I start with personal stories because I’m a good story teller. Beyond that, I let the subject matter determine where I go next.

    [b]How do you use an event or conversation involving another person without it coming across as defaming or dishonoring of the person talked about?[/b]

    Don’t use their name.
    Don’t talk about people the audience will know (I made a huge blunder on this point once).
    Let time pass.

    [b]How are you doing on mastering the art of the illustration?[/b]

    When I can give it adequate time, I’m doing very well. However, I frequently can’t give it the time it needs.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for this feedback, Sean (and great to see you back around these parts – things going well?)

      I’ve found the anti-illustration thing a bit odd, esp. from MacArthur since he’s not afraid to use them (the other day we were listening to a message from the 2009 Shepherd’s Conference and he told a story involving his granddaughter – maybe he’s mellowed?)

      Anyway, this is really helpful stuff, especially the last point about how to use a real life event involving another person in a way that doesn’t dishonor them. I really appreciate it.

      Take care!

      • Sean Chandler

        No problem.

        Things are going well, just really busy. Summer time in particular is where things get real crazy for me.