By Chris Philbeck
In the 1990s, while serving a church in Oklahoma, I took all my elders to the Leadership Conference at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. During the opening session, our church was awarded a yearlong subscription to SECC’s weekly tape ministry for being the church that came the farthest with their entire board of elders. So, over the next year, I had the opportunity to listen to weekend messages delivered by Bob Russell and Dave Stone.
I still remember many of those messages, including one from Dave about the urgency of reaching lost people. To illustrate the message, he told the story of a child who went missing during a family trip to Deam Lake in Southern Indiana. At one point, to locate the child, several people linked arms and walked step-by-step through the shallow swimming area where the child was last seen.
The good news is the child was found alive, but what stood out to me was the way Dave used that real-life event to illustrate the urgency believers need to feel when it comes to reaching (and rescuing) lost people. As I listened, I had a powerful mental image of what that search must have looked like, and I felt the urgency of the moment.
As a young preacher, instructors taught me that every good sermon contained three things: explanation, illustration, and application. To phrase that in a more contemporary way, in every sermon, you need to tell people what you want them to know, what you want them to feel, and what you want them to do. The “what you want them to feel” part of the message can be challenging. Every preacher knows what it’s like to search for illustrations that enhance the message. So the question becomes, how do we find illustrations that enhance our sermons today? Here are five places to find them.
Few things are more powerful than our own personal stories. One of my favorite sermon illustrations is the real-life story of my grandmother’s conversion. She and my grandfather owned a bar on the west side of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I won’t go into detail, but she lived a very sinful life.
One day, however, she was in a serious car accident that left her with a crushed pelvis and broken legs. Some men from a local church visited her in the hospital and told her the good news that God loved her so much he sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to die on the cross to pay the penalty for her sins. Her sins could be forgiven, they assured her, if she put her faith and trust in Jesus. As a result, on the Sunday after being released from the hospital, she went to that local church where two men carried her in a metal folding chair into the baptistery because she didn’t want to wait another minute to confess her faith and be baptized.
My grandparents sold their bar, and my grandmother became a church secretary for the next 17 years. There’s so much more to the story, but her dramatic conversion continues to impact our family today.
One word of warning about real-life illustrations. Don’t make yourself the hero of every story. There’s more impact when you do the opposite by revealing your struggles. But be careful and thoughtful about how you use your stories.
Every preacher needs to be a reader. And every preacher needs to develop a system or method for cataloging stories and illustrations from their reading for use in the future. If you don’t have much time to read, find one or more people in your church who would be willing to read books you give them and then highlight usable stories or illustrations.
The news is filled daily with stories and information that can be used for illustrations. Case in point, the story Dave Stone told in his message about a sense of urgency in reaching lost people.
I’ve always loved movies, and I frequently have used something from a movie to illustrate a message.
A few years ago, I was preaching a series on the family that included a message to fathers stressing the importance of being strong spiritual leaders who protect their wives and children.
On a flight home from vacation, I watched the movie 12 Strong which tells the story of U.S. Army Special Forces sent to Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. In one scene, Colonel Mulholland gives Captain Mitch Nelson, who would lead the team into Afghanistan, a piece of metal from the World Trade Center and says, “The most important thing a man can take into battle is a reason why.”
That became a powerful illustration with the fathers in my church, as I challenged them to be spiritual leaders in their homes who make it a priority to protect their families.
I’ve always believed we interpret the Bible with the Bible, and we illustrate the Bible with the Bible. Most of Scripture comes to us in narrative form filled with powerful stories and characters that can be used as powerful illustrations.
Illustrating the sermon is an essential part of preaching, for it helps us inform, instruct, motivate, and convict our listeners.
It’s been more than 25 years since I listened to the sermon from Dave Stone mentioned earlier. And yet, the image of people linked together arm-in-arm looking for a lost child is just as convicting to me today as it was then. That’s because people are visual by nature. So, using illustrations to create mental pictures as we preach engages our listeners on a whole new level and helps us connect with the mind, stir the heart, and make God’s Word come alive.