Stage Lights: Thoughts on Illustrating a Text

Editor's Note: This is Part Two in a four-part series on the functions of preaching. Read Part One here.

"I cannot remember the sermon, but I sure remember that story!"

This sentiment, spoken or not, is more real than I want to admit. It makes us think of how powerful stories are. But maybe there is something deeper here.

If people remember the stories we tell and not the truth they illustrate perhaps this has less to do with the power of story than it does the weakness of my application of the truth. In other words, if stories serve to illustrate truth, then a story that does not surface the truth, no matter how emotionally compelling, is a bad illustration. It's like a diver who returns to the surface with an empty treasure chest. He has the package but not the gold. Whatever that story does, it has to bring the treasure of scripture to the surface of consciousness.

The point is that everything we say in the sermon, we say to the exclusion of something else. So I have these few moments to steward before God's people, holding God's word. As a pastor, this stewardship pitches to the larger accountability that I will give to the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:1-5). In that moment I don't want to do anything that will take away from the text. After all, the text is leading them to Christ (Jn. 5:39), and Christ is leading them to the Father (Jn. 8:28). Therefore, we are only leading people to God in so much as we are leading them to scripture.

So now we have defined what makes a good illustration. An illustration is good only in so much as it leads people to the text. If it takes people's minds off the text, and as a result turns their heart away from the truth of the text, then it is trash.

Think of a music concert. When the artist arrives on the stage, the house lights dim—this is really helpful. Our optical senses are naturally drawn to the stage and the sensory perception of things around us is gone. All the focus is there. Front and center.

I am the house lights. I dim so the text can be bright.

This applies to all my illustrations. No matter how compelling, provocative, interesting, or moving, if they put the mind on anything but the text, they are off the table. Any lesser luminaries that blind us from the great light of the text are fighting the very purposes for my preaching. In this way, sometimes the "best" illustrations can be the worst. They have to draw us to the text, so it can draw us to Christ, and Christ to the Father.

The best illustrations of course are both compelling and faithful to the text. They tap into human need but they are so lashed to the truth they illustrate that when they are recalled by the listener, the truth they illustrated comes to the surface with it. This is what we want! We want to lash the mind to forgettable truth with an unforgettable illustration. Toward that end, here are some practical questions that we preachers must wrestle with.

  1. Topic or Text? The illustration is like a window: people look through it and see the text. Yet in another sense illustrations are like mirrors. They should exactly reflect the text. In other words, The illustration must say what text is saying, the way the text is saying it.
    We are not illustrating topics; we are illustrating texts. The difference may seem nuanced, but it's important. Take for example Ephesians 2:8-9. This text is not about grace generally. Rather it's about saving grace specifically. There are large databases of illustrations listed topically; right after "Gluttony" and somewhere before "Guilt" is the topic "Grace." Even if you find a gem in there it may illustrate the topic of grace, but not the truth of this specific scripture. Therefore, a general illustration of grace (common grace, saving grace, etc.) is not helpful unless you can massage the illustration to fit the text specifically.
  2. Personal or Corporate? Use personal illustrations. Personal illustrations demonstrate the text forged out in my life—with success or failure. They can be some of the most helpful to use. However, the advice to include one in each sermon may be a little bit presumptuous. Here's why.
  3. Don't use personal illustrations. If I try to use one in every sermon, then I might feel forced to reach into my private life and share something that is unrelated to the text just for the sake of illustration. At times, this has led me to some errors in judgment. We should never use the pulpit to draw attention to ourselves (the hero of every story). And, this can be done with false humility as much as false pride (the brunt of every joke). If an illustration draws more attention to me than the text, it's off the table.
    People have a natural curiosity about the preacher's life. That's fine. However, to manipulate this for personal attention shows a deep insecurity; preachers willing to pander to that curiosity don't serve the text, they serve themselves. God help me.
  4. Long or Short? Most people can organically connect with about one long narrative in a sermon. If I decide to tell a long illustration in the introduction or conclusion, I might opt for peppering the sermon with smaller metaphors or analogies throughout. If the text itself is a narrative (i.e., parable, Old Testament narrative, Gospel narrative, etc.) then I certainly don't want a competing story line, only the thoughts that will support that text. The preacher is striving for balance.
  5. Where do we find good illustrations? There are illustrations all around us. They are sitting there in plain clothes waiting to be noticed for our purposes. The best illustrations are often drawn from the fabric that is the backdrop of our collective lives, the ordinary. Then the preacher tells the story, makes the observation, and manipulates it in such a way that it serves the text.

My fear is that I will manipulate the text to fit a story. I'd rather die. To protect ourselves from this, we take ordinary stories or ideas that resonate with people's mind, will, and emotions and show how they mirror the text.

This is dangerous ground, but if we do it well, we will hear the greatest compliment a preacher, can hear: "Now I know what that text means." When this is achieved, as François Fénelon observed, le poète disparaît, "the poet disappears." The house lights dim and the stage is bright.

Next time we will discuss the art of application—putting that truth to work.

4/6/2011 4:00:00 AM
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    About Steven Smith
    Steven W. Smith is a preacher and author who is attempting to die in the pulpit and call a generation to do the same. He is the Dean of the College, and Professor of Communication, at the College at Southwestern. Follow him on Twitter.