Many pastors find illustrations to be the most challenging part of preaching. Challenges can seem hard when you don’t know how to meet them. But when you get the hang of something you discover it’s not so bad after all.
We experienced this when mom or dad unscrewed the training wheels. We experienced this as we fumbled through changing our firstborn’s diaper the day she was born. But it wasn’t not long before we were popping wheelies and changing diapers in our sleep (literally).
Perhaps illustrations seem impossible to you. Your failed attempts end up with a trash can overflowing with crumpled pieces of paper. Your basketball shot has dramatically improved, but your sermon? Not so much.
While illustrations will rarely come easy, there is a way to make them easier: using a sermon illustration template.
“A template?” you ask. Isn’t that formulaic? Isn’t that inauthentic? Isn’t that uncreative?
Before you go Muhammad Ali on templates, let me point out that you already use templates for your worship service: welcome, singing, sermon, and benediction/closing. Your sermon has a template, too: introduction, body, and conclusion.
Far from suffocating preachers, the constraints of templates focus creativity. And with focused creativity you will write illustrations faster and better.
Sermon Illustration Template
This template lays out six steps of an illustration. Each step starts with “C,” which hopefully makes it memorable.
1. Conflict. Rather than spending time setting up the context and background of your illustration, go straight to the conflict. Good movies start out with the problem. The other night I was watching North by Northwest. Cary Grant is kidnapped in the second scene. The Bourne Identity is another example. Matt Damon is floating in the water in the first scene, and we immediately discover that he has amnesia.
Introducing the conflict early hooks the audience and makes them wonder how the problem will be resolved.
The purpose of illustrations is to take your people from not believing to believing, and from not doing to doing. There is an obstacle preventing them from making the jump. Match the conflict in your illustration to the obstacle that keeps us from believing God’s promises and living according to his Word. As your church follows the illustration to resolution, they will see their path to believing and also doing at the same time.
2. Climax. At this point your church wonders, What’s going to happen? To build the anticipation, tell the story in such a way that the problem gets worse before it gets better. Then watch everyone move to the edge of their pews.
As you build toward the climax, use concrete words to help your church picture the story in their heads. An abstract illustration is a contradiction in terms.
3. Conclusion. The next step is to resolve the conflict of your illustration. How does the story end? How does the hero win? How do they live happily ever after? How is the problem solved?
In the same way that the conflict of your illustration should match up with our obstacle to obeying, so also the conclusion should correspond to how Jesus helps us believe and do.
At this point, your illustration is over, but your work is only halfway finished. Now that you have illustrated your point you can apply it to your audience.
4. Connection. Connect the principle of your illustration to the point you are making from the passage. You must make the connection clear so that the Scriptures receive the functional power and authority in that moment of your sermon.
While it might be more artistic to imply the connection, or leave it entirely up to your audience to infer it, you must make the connection explicit so the church doesn’t miss it. As you do this, Lord willing, your listeners will transfer their emotional investment in the illustration (from step two) to the point of the passage.
5. Conviction. Was there ever a more effective illustration than Nathan’s story about the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb? David took the bait hook, line, sinker, and pole. He condemned the rich man to death, incriminating himself, though he didn’t realize it. Then Nathan revealed the significance of the story: “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7).
Every illustration you tell should have a “Nathan Moment” where you personalize it to your congregation. Our sin at least contributes to—if it’s not entirely responsible for—the conflict in step one. Don’t let your church think about how it relates to their neighbor, children, coworker, or spouse. Use the word “you” so that it is abundantly clear that no one listening is off the hook.
6. Christ. The Nathan Moment reveals our need for a savior, so the closing of your illustration must to point to the gospel. Our forgiveness and power to change is found only in what the Father has done for us through Jesus and applied to us by the Spirit. If you leave Jesus, the Hero, out of your illustration, your listeners will automatically assume that applying the principle is up to them.
In step four, you draw a principle from your illustration and your text. In step five, you apply the principle to your people. In step six, you strengthen them to live out that application in light of what God has done, and what God promises to do for us by his grace.
Do you find yourself staring at a blinking cursor when trying to think up a sermon illustration? This template is for you. Charting each step of the way helps get you going.
An illustration template is like the sail of a boat. It captures the wind of your creativity and thrusts you forward. Far from producing the same boring result, each trip out to sea is exciting in its own way. Similarly, different passages, various seasons of ministry, and your own continued growth as an illustrator will continue to fill this template with new, creative illustrations.