A few years ago, a good friend of mine spent months studying the way Jesus used the physical world around him to illuminate Scripture. Salt, light, roads, flowers, birds, and bread are all examples of concrete, vivid illustrations Jesus pulled from everyday life. He told stories with tax collectors, Samaritans, Roman centurions, and farmers because those were the people around him.
My friend discovered that our everyday lives are ripe with illustrations that communicate the truth about God. Metaphors from creation that point to our creator and build profound, tangible connections between life and Scripture. He was preparing to be a mountain guide at a Christian camp in Canada. Studying Jesus’ use of illustrations helped him see connections between life and Scripture on every trail, so he had more opportunities to point kids to Jesus through simple, meaningful conversations.
Jesus’ model doesn’t give us free reign to “illustrate” Scripture however we see fit, but it should inspire us to explain Scripture in practical, thought-provoking ways. We can transplant the truth of Scripture into a specific context—a carefully constructed hypothetical situation or a story plucked from real life. The challenge is not to distort that overarching truth for the sake of having an attention-grabbing illustration.
Every pastor wants their message to do two things: help the congregation grow closer to God, and present the Word of God faithfully and accurately.
That’s the tension every sermon illustration lives in. Good illustrations help people see the Bible in new, practical ways. They don’t change the truth of Scripture, but they help us see how that truth is applied.
Here are three tips to provide consistently solid sermon illustrations:
Keep it simple
Some of the most profound connections I’ve made between the Bible and my own life have been through analogies. Analogies highlight the similarities between two different things to help you see each of them in a new way. But those two things are still different. And sometimes (especially when dealing with complex theological concepts) you have to be willing to take the time to dig into those differences before it can be useful.
That’s time you probably don’t have—or at the very least, time that could be better spent elsewhere.
If it takes longer to explain the illustration than it takes to actually share it, you may need to ditch it. You have a limited time with your congregation, and in most cases, an even more limited time with their attention. Save those illustrations for personal conversations, or work them into small group materials.
Make it personal
I attend a church with several thousand people. I don’t know all of the pastors personally, but I’ve had conversations with all of them, and I’ve listened to them teach and connect the Bible to their lives for almost a decade. Even when a personal sermon illustration has been less than great, I’m seeing how they process Scripture in the context of their lives.
Your ministry is built on relationships. Maybe you don’t personally know every person in your church (kudos if you do), but when your sermons reflect your heart and you share from your own experiences, your congregation gets to know you, even if you don’t get to know them.
In our small groups, we draw from the sermon and use the illustration as an example to apply Scripture to our lives as well. Our pastors’ personal examples become common ground for us to see the story of Scripture in the story of our lives.
But you certainly don’t have to be a great storyteller to be a great pastor, or even to have great sermon illustrations. The digital age connects us to the global church, and we have access to incredible stories that point to the greatest story ever told.
Say, for example, you’re preaching about the overarching narrative of Scripture, and you’re trying to help your congregation learn to read the Bible as story. Even the best storytellers could have a hard time working in a relevant personal illustration for that series. And you could be unpacking that single idea for weeks. A solid illustration can help communicate or supplement the main idea of your sermon (or series) in a few minutes.
Several years ago, a creative videographer named Dan Stevers listened to a talk by Tim Keller, where Keller explored how the story of the Bible continually points us to Jesus. Inspired by Keller’s words, Stevers produced this powerful video about the storyline of Scripture:
When the main idea or structure of your sermon doesn’t easily lend itself to relevant, personal illustrations, or if you’re simply drawing a blank, you may find it helpful to see what creative Christians like Dan Stevers have put together specifically for you to use in this situation. Many of Dan Stevers’ videos are based on teachings of prominent pastors and Christian thinkers, and some are animated excerpts from popular books.
As you explore what’s out there and hunt for the right sermon illustration video, don’t settle for watered-down theology or cheesy messages. Take the time to find videos you can comfortably stand behind as a pastor. Use the same guideline from tip number one—if you have to explain why it doesn’t fit or pick it apart, don’t use it. It may still be appropriate for small groups to discuss, but it’s probably not the best use of your time at the pulpit.
The best sermon illustration videos may even help you see Scripture in exciting new ways. Who knows, one of them could be just the inspiration you need to connect Scripture to your life, and share a personal illustration of your own.
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