A Few Thoughts on Sermon Illustrations

preach-from-bibleI am thoroughly enjoying the new blog put out by some friends over at ministrydudes.com. It’s good, practical content for ministry, and I find it helpful for me as a rookie pastor. So, if you’re in the same boat, go check out their stuff.

Recently Marc Neppl wrote a post titled “3 Sermon Illustrations You Should Throw Away.” I asked if i could respond to his post here as it gave me a few thoughts I’ve been considering about illustrations that originated by Bryan Chappell’s book Using Illustrations to Preach with Power. I must confess I don’t know Marc well at all. We’ve met at the NAFWB convention once. I have deep respect for him, however, as he is a church planter (something that scares me–a lot!) and he can surf (I’m one of the sissiest people ever when it comes to swimming–I still hold my nose when I go underwater). Marc, thanks for letting me give some thoughts in response to your post.

First, he made some good points about integrity when using illustrations. Some illustrations used claim to be factual when they aren’t. Bad deal. As Marc implied, telling a story while claiming it’s true could “damage our credibility” (keep in mind that half your congregation can google the story as you’re telling it!).

Also, he is right that illustrations do have an emotional impact on people. I agree that a sermon based entirely on getting people to make an emotional “decision” is likely misleading and unhelpful to people. Illustrations can be abused, and based on the post, it appears Marc has observed quite a bit of that.

I gather that Marc’s post is intended to warn against the dangers of illustrations being abused in preaching. I concur with those dangers. At the same time, I want to affirm some things I’ve been learning about illustrations, especially from Bryan Chapell’s book Using Illustrations to Preach with Power.

First, it’s not necessarily bad that illustrations have an emotional appeal to them. Chapell points out that people are not just thinking beings, we’re also feeling beings. Chapell said, “Not to control emotions is wrong, but not to experience emotions is warped.” I think he’s right. The goal in preaching is not simply to help people learn new information, it’s to help people experience God so their lives are changed. This includes informing and urging, convincing, prodding, and even motivating. Preaching void of emotion (using illustrations falls into this) is not preaching that engages the whole person.

Chapell continued to note that people need to “walk in” an idea before they made a decision. They need to picture themselves there. This is why colleges want potential students to visit the campus and why realtors work to show the house to potential buyers–those people are more likely to enroll or buy because they picture themselves in the new situation. As Chapell says, illustrations in sermons serve the same purpose. They help listeners picture themselves in the way God’s Word is urging them to live before they actually change. In turn, this helps them make the change they need to make.

This is not a lack of dependence on God’s Spirit to use God’s Word. Of course, it is only by these two things that anyone is changed. However, pitting dependence on God’s Word and effective communication against one another is a false dichotomy. Communicate as well as you can in the parameters that preaching allows, and completely depend on God’s Word and Spirit in the mean time, realizing it is God who creates by His Word. The gospel is what holds the power, but if people don’t understand our explanation of the gospel because of poor communication, then the power is held hostage.

I take Marc’s warning and affirm it. There are dangers in using illustrations as he has mentioned. I want to also mention that I don’t think that means we shouldn’t use illustrations, just that we should use them intentionally.

I welcome Marc’s feedback on this, as well as other preacher friends of mine as we think through this together.

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2 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Sermon Illustrations

  1. Intentionally using illustrations makes great sense. I love that statement at the end. I love good illustrations. I would agree that they are useful when used appropriately. The best illustrations (in my opinion) aren’t found online or in a book of sermon illustrations. They are the real stories we’ve witnessed of people dealing with God.

    Great post Jacob! These are great points from another angle I didn’t even consider. Be intentional with your illustrations.

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