Do Your Sermon Illustrations Help or Hurt?

Five Major Pitfalls to Avoid

One only needs to think of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Edwards effectively compared the precarious situation of sinners dangling over the fires of hell to the way spiders dangle by the very thinnest of webs. But, illustrations do not always turn out the way we intended. Indeed, sometimes illustrations can do more harm than good. Here are some of the major illustration pitfalls to avoid

 

Everyone loves a good story. They can be powerful, illuminating, inspiring, and, most of all, they can be memorable. And they can really enhance the effectiveness of a sermon. No doubt, some of our favorite sermons are our favorite precisely because of the illustrations or stories they contained.

And history bears this out. Not only was Jesus himself the master storyteller (and illustrator), but some of the most famous sermons in history have contained them.  One only needs to think of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Edwards effectively compared the precarious situation of sinners dangling over the fires of hell to the way spiders dangle by the very thinnest of webs.

But, illustrations do not always turn out the way we intended. Indeed, sometimes illustrations can do more harm than good. Here are some of the major illustration pitfalls to avoid:

1. Offering an illustration too soon.

When it comes to illustrations, perhaps the number one mistake is offering one before the exegetical or theological point has really been explained or adequately developed. Remember, illustrations are designed to illuminate something else. But, they are unable to do that if the something else has never been sufficiently explored.

Too many pastors use illustrations as a substitute for exegesis, rather than as something that illumines or applies their exegesis.

In short, don’t jump the gun. You may have a zinger of an illustration waiting in the wings, but hold onto it until you have made a point worth illustrating.

2. Offering illustrations too often.

Since we know that illustrations can be powerful, we might reach the conclusion that more is always better.  But, some sermons run the danger of being over-illustrated.  A new story or illustration every 3-4 minutes can actually dilute the entire enterprise. Illustrations are necessary and helpful, but use them sparingly.  Fewer and more meaningful illustrations can have a deeper impact than numerous and less meaningful ones.

Spurgeon, the master illustrator, said that a sermon without illustrations is like a house without windows. But, he adds, you don’t want a house that is only windows!

3. Offering only one kind of illustration.

In most pulpits today, the standard type of illustration is to tell a story.

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