In the circles I run in, no one complains sermons are too short.
Most pastors are typically quite gifted at–and enjoy–explaining the biblical passage each week.
As pastors, the danger we must fight, though, is delivering a dry lecture instead of a compelling sermon.
One way to do so is through illustrations.
Illustrations can be a helpful tool to redirect the aim of your sermon from the head to the heart.
The trouble is, it can be difficult to know exactly how to do this well.
I admit my own shortcomings in this area of preaching, but I humbly offer some tips I’ve learned along the way.
1.) Avoid being the hero of every story.
Personal stories are great.
Examples of faithfulness in your own life can be moving.
In fact, the Apostle Paul himself said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
But, Illustrations can start to go wrong when you constantly find yourself the model of obedience in the Christian life.
Many of your church members already struggle to see you as “one of them,” and this sort of over-emphasis on your successes can alienate you further from the people you lead.
2.) Avoid being the villain of every story.
Let’s make sure to not swing the pendulum too far to the other side.
While admitting your shortcomings and failures on stage can be a powerful way to relate to others, it may also lead to negative side effects.
While it’s true that good leaders admit their own failures, a hyper focus on these qualities will leave your followers trusting you less and less.
A solution is to vary your personal stories with a mixture of examples to imitate and failures to avoid. I think you’ll find this to be a more holistic picture of the Christian life.
3.) Make them shorter
I know my story is too long when my wife kindly nudges me at dinner, indicating I’ve wandered into details not pertinent to what I am trying to communicate.
Her patience is unmatched.
In the same way, the power of a story can become muddled because your audience has gotten lost along the way.
Shorter illustrations which focus only on the essential details will improve and strengthen the point you are trying to make.
4.) Don’t use too many
Using illustrations well means knowing the purpose they serve.
It’s important to recognize that illustrations, stories, and examples play a supporting role that enhances and clarifies the greater message.
Too many of these and they will overshadow the sermon, leaving your audience unsure what you really meant to say.
5.) Don’t use too few
Improving your illustrations means, well…actually using them.
What can seem abstract in your sermon can become clear and concrete with the right illustration.
Not only that, but it also gives your listeners a mental break from following your argument to pause and reflect on a story.
There’s no hard and fast rule, but I typically aim to include one illustration in each of the main points of my sermon.
6.) Champion your church members
If you’re wondering where to find more sermon illustrations, just look in the pews.
Your church is likely full of godly men and women who live ordinary, faithful lives without ever being celebrated.
Who in your church loves their neighbor well, embodies cheerful generosity, welcomes others, serves humbly, or trains leaders?
These are stories that ought to be shared.
In doing so, you will encourage the church, create a bough-in-culture, and honor your members.
7.) Remember Your Audience
Illustrations only work well if they connect.
If someone doesn’t understand the reference, the point won’t be made any clearer.
Be mindful that others might not enjoy or pay attention to the same things you do.
For instance, while football illustrations are typically more popular among men, the average church has more women in attendance.
So, while I’m painting in very broad strokes, a football illustration may only be helpful to less than half your audience.
8.) Don’t be afraid to use illustrations from the Bible
The Bible is a book of stories.
Whether you’re encouraging your people to be bold like Daniel, or warning them from having the same attitude as the Pharisees, the pages are full of both good and bad examples of those living by faith.
When searching for an illustration, I’d encourage you to think, “Which biblical character helps me make this point?”
In doing so, the Bible might even seem more practical and relevant than ever before.
9.) Use Illustrations in Application
The hardest part for someone listening to a sermon is answering the question, “What do I do with this?”
Application, whether at the end of your sermon or mixed throughout, can become clearer for your audience when coupled with illustrations and examples.
Are you preaching on serving others?
Rather than just encouraging them to serve, list practical ways this could look in their lives today: join a volunteer team, meet real needs in the church or in the community, find ways to bless their spouse, etc.
Every preacher is a work in progress.
Take heart if this list seems overwhelming.
Small, steady steps in the right direction will help us to communicate God’s truth to God’s people more effectively than the week before.
If you have other illustration suggestions, we’d love to hear them.
Please share in the comments below.
Alex Hannis is a Customer Advocate with Breeze Church Management. When he isn't serving as the Deacon of Connections for his church in central Virginia, he enjoys drinking coffee with his wife and falling asleep on the couch while watching baseball.