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Where Should Illustrations Be Used in the Sermon?

By Jess Hall Jr.

religion, articles, christianity

The use of illustrations is an art, not a science. While it is not an art that requires the preacher to be a Michelangelo, it does require more ability than that of a monkey throwing paint balloons at a canvas. Just as the first task of the artist is to select the scene to be painted, the first task of the preacher is to select an illustration that both makes the point and appeals to the hearers. Just as masterpieces have never been produced with one swish of the brush, good illustrations are rarely the product of the inspiration of the moment. The preacher should test and perfect his illustrations by first presenting them to his wife, child, or secretary. If the illustration is good, there will be an immediate favorable reaction. If the reaction is less than favorable, the illustration should either be perfected or be discarded in favor of another. To use less than a good illustration detracts from the truth that is being taught.

Illustrations should be used in every portion of the sermon. Illustrations in the sermon's introduction may be no more than "sound bites" designed to whet the hearers' mental appetite for what follows. Illustrations in the sermon's conclusion help the hearer to remember what has been said. The most important illustrations, however, may be those used in the sermon's body where the life­sustaining nutrients should be found. While the difference between a well illustrated sermon and a sermon having either poor or no illustrations is similar to the difference between obtaining necessary nutrients through a delicious meal or through vitamin pills, it is not the same. Nutrients can be obtained through vitamin pills. When the hearer has "turned off" the preacher, the hearer can starve to death in the midst of nutrients.

Because properly illustrating a sermon is a difficult task, and using illustrations well is even harder, some refuse to use them. Instead of applying themselves to learn how to prepare and use illustrations effectively, they eliminate illustrations, criticize those who use them, and belittle hearers who appreciate them. Failure to use illustrations is not a sign of intellectual surrender. To the contrary, failure to use illustrations is a sign of intellectual lethargy and indifference to the hearers. The use of illustrations affirms that the preacher places a priority on the hearer's understanding. Illustrations permit the hearers to "see" with their minds.

Hearers can tell from the illustrations whether a sermon is practical. The preacher's illustrations will indicate whether the preacher is kind and discriminating, or whether he lacks those qualities. Neither propositions alone nor illustrations alone can bridge the gap between generations, much less centuries. Illustrations without propositions have n o framework; propositions without illustrations often have no meaning. Together they make truth accessible and comprehensible.

The best preaching never addresses the intellect alone or the emotions alone. Man is both an intellectual and an emotional creature. Illustrations that address the intellect through the emotions address the hearers as the scripture addresses them. The aim of preaching is not just to explain or define. Preaching also aims to implore hearers to believe what God said and to do what God commanded. What good is explanation without purpose or motivation?

Christianity is incarnational. Preaching should be as well. Ideas and propositions should be clothed in the flesh of illustrations.


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Published December 1997