What makes for a good illustration?

Illustrations are funny things. Some people absolutely hate them. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, for example, comes down pretty hard on them in Preaching and Preachers. Others absolutely love them. A number of preachers seem to spend almost more time putting together illustrations than explaining their text.

Personally, I really appreciate good illustrations. A good illustration connects with the hearer; 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. They really can make or break people’s understanding of your message.

So what makes for a good illustration?

I’m probably the wrong person to try and answer since I’m not really good at them. It’s taken a lot of effort for me to get halfway decent at illustrations (and even then it’s iffy) and I generally gravitate toward literary references and try to avoid obscure ones.

But not everyone gets them, which leads to awkwardness at times.

Still, there are some pretty good clues that can be picked up from other preachers. For example, one of the best illustrations I’ve heard is one Mark Driscoll shared about six years ago on 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.”

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

What I love about these illustrations is they’re relatable. We’ve all dealt with struggling to forgive others. We’ve all experienced moralistic preaching that just tells us to go do without connecting us to the gospel. And that seems to be the ticket. We can connect with these stories. We can recognize our own experiences in them. And therefore they “click.”

What makes for a good illustration? Keeping it relatable. If our hearers get it, they’re coming along with us. But if they aren’t connecting, we risk talking to ourselves.

Whether you’re a pastor or lay person, what’s a favorite illustration you’ve used or heard?

  • Andrew Bernhardt

    This is the best illustration of salvation I’ve heard – not perfect, but very good:

    I have a friend (and former pastor) who went on a short-term mission trip to the Philippines. While there, a fellow missionary accidentally dropped his expensive camera in the pit of an outhouse. He valued the camera too much to abandon it, so he reached in, rescued it out of the muck, took it apart and cleaned it.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      That is a terrific illustration!

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