On Sermon Illustrations

There are three basic elements to a sermon: explanation, application, and illustration. At any given point of the sermon, you are doing one of these three things.

Explanation is the foundation of a biblical message. The goal is to explain what the text means by what it says. However, interpretation without application is abortion. You must explain the text and exhort the congregation to do what it says (James 1:22).

But your work is not done there. The effective preacher must also work to clarify meaning, make ideas stick, and call the listener to action. To this end, Illustrations are the preacher’s friend. Want proof? Read the Gospels again and note how Jesus taught. A compelling illustration sheds light on the message and helps the congregation see what you are saying.

Here are 9 tips for making good use of sermon illustrations in your preaching.

Illustrate! An illustration that does not illustrate is counterproductive. A good illustration is like a window on a house. It helps your listeners see in or out. But to prop up disconnected sheets of glass is useless. So is giving an illustration, just because it’s a good story you had to tell. Make sure the illustration has a relevant point.

Location, Location, Location. The value of real estate is based upon its location. The same is true of sermon illustrations. You will hurt the sermon if you stick a story somewhere it does not fit. Position illustrations where they will best clarify the text, highlight the point, or enforce the application. And don’t use it at all if it’s too good. Illustrations should support the message, not overpower it.

Avoid indecent exposure. Get your wife permission before using your family in the message. Don’t embarrass people. Use parental guidance. Don’t say inappropriate things that are unnecessarily offensive. Keep confidential conversations out of the pulpit. And don’t be the hero of the stories you tell.

Look for them everywhere. Life presents possible illustrations everyday. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and you will find more illustrations than you can use. Likewise, if you can get several good ideas from that illustration book, it’s worth whatever it costs. Ultimately, scripture is the best place of find illustrations. Using biblical illustrations allow you to continue to teach as you illustration. And scriptural illustrations carry divine authority.

Write out the illustration. I advocate that preachers write out full sermon manuscripts. But I know this is not possible for everyone. As a concession, I would say that you should write out sections of the sermon. For instance, fully write the introduction and conclusion. Craft your transitional sentences. And write out your illustrations. Make it clear. Include important details. Check your facts. Edit it down. And be creative.

Don’t read the illustration. If possible, write a complete sermon manuscript. But don’t read it in the pulpit. Prepare a set of notes from the manuscript to use in the pulpit. Again, I understand that some preachers work best with a full script. So here’s another concession. Try not to read your illustrations. Familiarize yourself with the illustration so you can tell it in a personal way.

Let the illustration stand on its own. Do not begin the illustration with an apology. If you have to apologize for it, don’t tell it. Don’t introduce it by telling the congregation how sad or funny it is. Let them be the judge of that. Comedians say that if you have to explain a joke, it bombed. The same is true with sermon illustrations. Just tell the illustration and let it stand on its on.

Do not bear false witness! Consider sermon illustrations a matter of ministerial ethics. Guard your credibility. Be honest and accurate about your sources. Where appropriate, give credit where credit is due. And don’t tell someone else’s personal story as if it happened to you.

Preach the text, not the illustration. We are charged to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). The proclamation of scripture, therefore, must be our priority. So build the sermon around the text, not illustrations. Give the illustration. Make the application. Then move on. Let the text guide the sermon. And don’t let a good story lead you astray from your assignment to preach the word.

What tips would you give on sermon illustrations? Any good sources you can recommend? Do you have warnings of things to avoid? Join the conversation in the comments section.   

Related Posts:

Indecent Exposure in the Pulpit

On Sermon Preparation

On Writing Sermon Manuscripts

On Preaching Without Notes

On Sermon Introductions 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Nathan

    One of the first things that I learned as a teacher was that the perfect illustration wasn’t perfect for every student. I needed to learn to teach to every student — not just the ones that think like I do. It’s really easy to unintentionally exclude people by the illustrations you choose to use.

  • Riley

    I thought the three things to do with any sermon point were 1. explain 2. prove 3. apply. Answer the, “Is it true?” I like your comment about biblical illustrations. When preaching from the gospels and other narrative texts, I usually find that I can just stick to the ways in which the narrative illustrates its own teaching without have to reach for additional illustrations.

    • hbcharlesjr

      Riley, I agree about the built-in illustrations in both Gospel narratives and even poetic passages, like psalms.

  • Charles Bruce Jr.

    Do you have any good books on Expository Preaching?

    • http://www.facebook.com/michael.maccaughelty Michael MacCaughelty

      Christ Centered Preaching by B. Chapell

    • hbcharlesjr

      I would recommend “Biblical Preaching” by Haddon Robinson, “Christ-Centered Preaching” by Bryan Chapell, “Rediscovering Expository Preaching” by John MacArthur and TMS Faculty, and “Anointed Expository Preaching” by Stephen & David Olford

  • Mr. Butler

    I am a new to the ministry i try write down notes but it just won’t work for me. It is real easy to get caught in moment and lose your place in notes. I’m in process of developing something that will work for me. Maybe key points to sermon or an outline.

    • admin

      As a new minister, Mr. Butler, you still have time to work on your pulpit practices. I think it is best to write yourself clear before you get to the pulpit. I try to go without any notes. But I don’t make a fuss about it. My goal, above all, is to be faithful to the text and clear in my presentation. Whatever process helps you to do that, go for it!

  • Edward L. Smith

    I believe Charles Spurgeon is a good example of a preacher using sermon illustration. But his key was that he read extensively. Preachers need to read more.

    • admin

      Edward, this is a good point. I will add it to the post. Most of my illustrations come from the things I am reading for my personal edification. I mark pages so I can find my way back to the things I have read.