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Illustrate to Help Rather than Impress

Bryan Chapell counsels pastors on how to model their teaching on Christ's example.
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Sermon illustrations. For some of us, they are our favorite part of the sermon. Others of us may view them as corny or simple-minded. Still more may feel anxious about sermon illustrations, fearing that they will distract people from the biblical text.

But whatever we may feel about the contemporary use (and misuse) of sermon illustrations, Jesus himself “did not speak to them without a parable” (Mark 4:34). How can preachers use sermon illustrations today in way that reflects the example of Christ? Is it possible for illustrations to actually enhance, rather than dilute, biblical exposition?

To get wisdom on these issues, I spoke on the phone with TGC Council member Bryan Chapell, now serving as senior pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois. Chapell has authored several influential books on preaching, including Using Illustrations to Preach with Power and the award-winning Christ-Centered Preaching. These notes come from our conversation.


What are some of the main reasons preachers do sermon illustrations poorly, or avoid them altogether?

If preachers avoid illustrations, it is typically because they believe that to use illustrations would be to pander to an entertainment ethic. Many preachers who want to be true to the Scriptures are concerned that the use of illustrations imports extrabiblical material into messages that are supposed to be about God’s Word.

On the flip side, some preachers present illustrations poorly because their main concern in using illustrations is to spoon-feed people basic and simple truths. Their own theory of using illustrations is that they have to present “little tales for little minds.” The first concern keeps preachers from using illustrations at all; the second creates a patronizing attitude that people readily detect.

In your books you have emphasized that the purpose of illustrations is not just to clarify, but also to engage the hearts of listeners. Could you say more about this point?

Most preachers see illustrations as primarily serving to clarify the explanation of the text. Naturally, this purpose leads many preachers to believe that if the explanation is clear, an illustration is simply unnecessary. Actually, even when the explanation of a particular point is already clear, illustrations have great power in connecting biblical truth to the heart, emotions, and everyday situations of listeners. Because we are more than merely intellectual creatures, the preacher’s obligation does not end with simply explaining Scripture. If that were our sole duty, then the best preachers would have the personality of Mr. Spock.

Effective preachers will use illustrations not only to clarify for the mind, but also to inflame the heart. In the same way, Jesus did not use parables simply to clarify his point, but to engage the entire personhood of his listeners.

What role do vivid details play in a sermon illustration?

The purpose of vivid details is to connect the illustration to the experience of the hearers. The more we are able to use sensory details—and descriptions of feelings as well as thoughts—the more we are able to connect the experience of those in the illustration to the experience of those who are listening. An allusion simply refers to an account known by the listeners, but an illustration rich with vivid details invites readers to enter into that experience in order to engage biblical truth at all levels of their being.

You encourage preachers to “rain key terms” throughout an illustration. What does this mean, and why is it important?

As the main points of a sermon develop, they typically will have key words that capture the ear of a listener. If the illustrations do not echo those key terms, then they may seem to be appendages to the sermon, or possibly even cut-and-pasted-stories from a website, rather than integral parts of this particular message. When illustrations use the terms that have been developing throughout the explanation of the passage, they are more easily seen as part of the natural fabric of a sermon.

Where would you encourage preachers to find illustrations? Do you have any advice on systems for storing and retrieving illustrations?

Preachers tend to look for illustrative material in three places: (1) the experiences of others recorded in literature, history, or news; (2) one’s own experience retrieved from memory; or (3) experiences recounted in Scripture. Accounts of others’ experiences are often helpful but only if they are adapted to the language and times of the present preacher. Personal experiences (sometimes called human interest accounts) are typically the most common and powerful way of illustrating, because they create a strong identification factor. Experiences from biblical stories have the added value of acquainting people with Scripture, and highlighting its relevance to our daily lives.

Each of these sources has dangers. Too frequently using personal experiences can seem self-centered. Too frequently using biblical or historical accounts can give the impression of detachment from contemporary concerns. Skilled preachers use a healthy variety of all different kinds of sources, but are careful not to eliminate themselves from the realities of life with which the Scripture is dealing. If you always talk about your own experiences, you will seem egotistical; but if you never do, you may appear remote and unaffected. At the end of the day, the most powerful illustrations always remain those with which listeners can most easily identify at a personal level.

In terms of storing and retrieving illustrations: I do file away illustrations on various topics, but the reality is that I rarely go to them. When I am working diligently on a text, typically what I am reading or hearing in my daily experience begins to apply naturally to the sermons that are coming. So my best advice is not to create extensive lists of illustration, but to create “pre-sermon files”—files that are labeled by the texts that will be preached on in upcoming weeks.

How would you encourage preachers to think about using pictures and movie clips in their sermons? What are the potential benefits and/or dangers?

The most persuasive aspect of any message is the character of the preacher expressing biblical truth. Pictures, movie clips, and other visual aids are occasionally helpful because they give a strong image of the truth being communicated. However, to the extent that they take attention away from the character and thought of the speaker, they will actually detract from the persuasive power of the message.

There are many good studies demonstrating that while visual aids have tremendous power for communicating information, they can actually reduce persuasion, especially when overused. Again, the primary element in any persuasive message is the perceived character of the speaker, and when too much focus is given to attention-grabbing devices, then trust in the speaker and appreciation for the message actually diminishes. This is one reason why so many of the movements calling for more emphasis on visual aids in preaching over the last few years have arisen and then quickly faded from view. Visual aids can be helpful for communicating information, but their persuasive impact diminishes quickly with over-use.

In your own experience, what has helped you grow in your skill in writing and delivering sermon illustrations?

Having a father who loves to tell stories instilled a love of narrative in me from an early age. Over the years, I’ve often reflected on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in inspiring our Bibles to be filled with 75 percent narrative material. Early in my ministry, I learned the value of illustrations in connecting biblical truth to the hearts and minds and lives of my people. I recognized that it was more important for the sermon to actually build people in their faith than to give off an appearance of professionalism or acumen. As I have sought to be helpful rather than impressive, I have found illustrations a tremendous tool for helping people fully engage biblical truth.

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