Finding sermon illustrations is one of the most difficult parts of a preacher’s job. Creativity takes time. It also often flows best when it is not under pressure. Yet most pastors barely finish one Sunday’s sermon before the anxiety about the next one sets in to their bones. So how do you find sermon illustrations? Here’s a step by step process to work through with a sermon to find illustrations faster, make them more concrete, and most of all, to ensure they help change lives.
1. Prayerfully sit under a passage until it speaks to you.
This is a key step. This works for any sermon, any time, anywhere. How has the scripture changed you? Fred Craddock suggests we ‘wrestle with the text as Jacob wrestled with the angel, saying ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me.” Have you wrestled with the scriptures this way? This is the central point for creativity and illustrations that move and instruct. We can’t illustrate what isn’t there. Don’t fall into the trap of finding stories and visual illustrations as a substitute for having something worth saying.
2. Write a sentence that summarizes the gripping concern of the sermon.
This isn’t a term paper sentence. It isn’t a five part thesis. In a simple, preaching worthy sentence describe how this passage grabs and takes hold of your life. Here are some gripping concern sentences from real sermons:
– Every single decision we make in life is a chance to worship God.
– The Spirit of Christ can, wants to, and will help you overcome sin.
– Forgiving someone else is more about cleaning our own heart, than clearing their account.
These sentences, as Tom Long puts it, make a claim on the listener. However, they are not academic summaries.
3. Brainstorm an analogy or image that makes the gripping concern feel concrete.
A metaphor is formed when we use analogical reasoning. One way to practice analogical thinking is to force yourself into an analogy game. Allow me to play with this for a minute taking the first summary sentence listed above: every single decision we make in life is a chance to worship God. I will take two parts of that sentence (chance and worship) and try to create an analogy from it. A chance is to worship, as _______ is to lottery. Hmmmm…ticket, opportunity, statistics. I am not satisfied yet since that makes it sound as if our worship is a matter of luck not choice. Since I am not satisfied with the idea I might try another random idea or object. A chance is to worship as ________ is to castles. Drawbridge comes to mind. Interesting. So a chance is sort of an entryway, a passageway into something else. Every decision then, is a door I have a chance to open, a drawbridge that stands between me and a royal castle full of worshiping God.
So you see how we got there? It was a game of forced analogy. Here is another example:
The Spirit is to sin as _____________ is to construction. Bulldozer, jackhammer, wrecking ball. I like those images. But what if I shifted it? (I really am just thinking these up as I write to show you how to go about it). The Spirit is to sin as ___________ is to weather. A hurricane, a tornado, a relentless monsoon or a slow and never ending trickle. Now which is it? The passage should tell you.
Now you have a creative image that serves as an illustration. Find a picture, video, or actual object to go along with it and our illustration will come to life.
4. You can craft a parable to illustrate your point.
You don’t always have to ‘find’ an illustration. The above example helps you create a metaphor or analogy that is visual and gripping for your sermon. This step reminds us that we don’t have to always ‘find’ the right story. Usually this leaves us telling far to many ‘last week when I was in the grocery store’ kinds of stories. Is preaching really about us? It should be personal, but can we reduce the ‘I’ language?
Ask yourself this: if you could find the perfect story to illustrate the gripping concern of the sermon what would it be? Now write that story as a parable. Jesus did, remember?
Simply start it with the literary markers of a parable like this:
Once there was a woman who…
In a land not very far away…
John Somebody was a nobody from day one…
A certain rich man…
Never make it sound as though your crafted parables are factual historical stories or you will rapidly lose credibility. Do however, make sure they are true-to-life stories that might as well be true.
5. Craft an experience for the listener.
Another way to ‘illustrate’ or paint or bring light to the subject is to help the listener engage their own imagination. Visualization exercises can achieve this ‘imagine you can see a door reaching from the floor of the earth to the ceiling of the sky…’ These can be cheesy or overdone so be careful. Another way of engaging the mind is with a simple list of questions. ‘Can you imagine for a moment what it would be like to beg on a dusty road? Can you feel the clouds of dust from a crowded street? Can you smell the dung from the animals that carry the rich? Do you hear the clamor and commotion of a marketplace filled with buying and selling and bartering?’
6. Tell a story.
Here are a few ways to come up with some stories for your sermons:
– Remember a time when you met someone whom God helped live out your sermon. Tell their story with permission and care.
– Type in one of your key metaphors or concepts into Google news. Sort it by the latest news first so that you find fresh illustrations.
– Highlight a group of people in your church who are getting this right. Celebrate their ministry or lives.
– If the only hero you can think of is you, don’t let the people know it! At worst, say ‘I know a person well who…” or “I want to tell you about Tara. That’s not her real name…” You alone will know you are Tara (or Tim).
Unfortunately, too many sermons trade stories for substance. We should share the depth of the concept and press the logic of the passage before jumping to tell a story. However, there are times when the best thing to be done is to tell a story. If you do, tell it with craft and care. Make every word count. Don’t use the story as a chance to let up on your preaching effort and ramble. Seed the story with key phrases that bear theological weight. Use the story to craft a lens through which the listener can then see the scripture in a new light, in a new way, and with more personal conviction than before.
Often stories work best as illustrations of how to apply the sermon. Tell a story of someone we can emulate. Share the life of someone you have met along the way.
7. Make your illustrations submit to the text.
There are many ways in which an illustration can serve itself or serve the preacher more than it serves the scripture for the day. Be careful not to allow yourself to be the hero in your own sermons. We will all boo that and quietly head for the door. Also, be careful to avoid illustrations that overtake the sermon, leaving scripture as a dim memory. The best illustrations emerge from the imagery and metaphors in the passage, return our thoughts to the passage, and help us live the passage in our own lives.
Dave Ward teaches Homiletics at Indiana Wesleyan University. He has served as an Itinerant Preacher for the last ten years, preaching at local churches, Christian colleges, conferences, and camps. He has also ministered as a local church pastor, ministry director, and trainer of itinerant evangelists. He received his M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary and is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dave and his wife, Holly, have three young children: Ella, Zoe, and Dawson.