This blog is part of a four part series.
Hunting for Illustrations
Illustration is one of the four functional elements commonly used in preaching. Traditionally, illustration has been defined as “to shed light upon or cast light upon.” Illustration has typically been subservient to explanation and has been used by necessity. Illustrations help keep the audience engaged, and they assist the audience in clearly understanding the topic or point. Developing illustrations during sermon preparation can be tough and might go as follows:
Dave, our imaginary preacher, is working on Sunday’s sermon. As he works through the sermon titled “God Is Love” from 1 John 4:7-16, he concludes that he needs an illustration to help his audience understand and see God’s love. Dave has a few choices. First, he can reach for a book on illustrations. The book is indexed by topics and will provide a few anecdotes related to his sermon. Dave flips through the book but is unsatisfied with the results.
This is one viable option, but the problem with this option is the book only contains anecdotes. An anecdote is a short story that contains an interesting and applicable character or scenario. The anecdote Dave found seems dated and is not a good fit for his audience or sermon. He concludes that he could use the illustration, but it might cause more problems than it provides solutions; therefore, Dave moves to a second option:
He picks up the phone and calls his wife to ask if he could use a story from their marriage that took place a few years ago. After a long, pregnant pause on the other end of the line, his wife replies, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” A discouraged Dave agrees and has to move to another option.
It’s Thursday and Sunday is coming. Dave has tried two different approaches and still does not have an illustration for his sermon. He continues thinking about where he could find an illustration for his sermon on Sunday. He calls Fred, a fellow pastor, and asks his opinion about an illustration. Fred doesn’t answer, so Dave leaves a voicemail. Frustrated by the failure of his resources and efforts, Dave goes home to watch his favorite nature show that releases a new episode every Thursday. He decides to deal with the situation tomorrow or Saturday. Dave might leave out the illustration if he can’t find what he is looking for by Sunday.
Have you ever been in this situation? You are pressed for an illustration but unable to find what you are looking for in a story. The functional element of illustration has typically been synonymous with anecdotes. Your objective is to find a story that fits the explanation of the point, but other options besides anecdotes are available. In this article, I will look at building natural analogies, and in a follow-up article I will develop illustrations using figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, personification, etc…
Building Our Own Illustrations
Author Wayne McDill has a five-step process for building natural analogies. McDill uses the term analogy in a general manner to refer to the preacher appealing to the imagination to create vivid images and provide clear meaning to the audience. In using imagination, the preacher should follow the method below.
- Begin with a clear and specific idea. The functional element of illustration relates to a concept within the sermon. Be sure the concept is accurately identified and clearly written.
- Generalize the concept. Move from the specific idea in need of illustration to general concepts related to the idea. If you are looking for an illustration on God’s love, you could use the words sacrificial, faithful, and other adjectives that describe God’s love. Choose one of these concepts and move to the next step.
- Brainstorm Natural Analogies. Search other arenas of life that contain the concept. Think about business, politics, nature, sports, etc. Can you find the concept in other arenas of life? Write out the analogies you think work best.
- Choose the Best Analogies. Identify the illustration that best fits your sermon.
- Particularize the Analogy. Tailor the illustration to fit your sermon.
Let’s put the method into practice in Dave’s sermon. Dave was looking for an illustration to help his audience understand the love of God. The first step in the process is to identify the concept clearly and specifically. Dave is looking for an illustration to support the point in his sermon: God’s Love is Sacrificial. The point comes from 1 John 4:10, “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice, for our sins.”
- Dave needs an illustration that portrays love as a sacrificial, loyal relationship that provides for others. This element of God’s love is emphasized by the author in this specific text.
- Next, Dave continues studying the text and takes note of God’s love addressing a need. Humanity needed a resolution to the problem of sin, and God addressed this problem through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. Another concept Dave saw was initiative. God took the initiative and addressed the sin problem. These two concepts are generalized from this passage. Dave chose to go with the concepts of need and initiative. He hopes to be able to blend the two concepts.
- Where does one see need and initiative in the world? Almost everywhere! In the world of business, a young entrepreneur just launched a new startup to address a need in his realm of business. In the family, a husband takes a second job to meet the needs of his growing family. In the natural world, birds and mammals take the initiative to meet the needs of their young. These are a few of the analogies Dave considered. Dave’s context and sermon style favor analogies from the natural world. “Start-up” is what people in Dave’s area hope their automobiles do in the morning.
- Remember, Dave just sat down to watch his favorite nature show, and God has clothed creation with natural analogies ripe for the harvest and ready to cultivate the audience’s imagination. If he knows exactly what illustrative concept to look for as he watches the nature show, his mind can be searching for correlations. While watching, Dave notices the instincts of the mama bear in caring for the needs of her cubs. The cubs are clumsy and irresponsible. In one scene, the mama bear rushed onto the highway to lead her cubs off the road and toward safety. In another scene, the mama bear fought a male grizzly bear trying to consume her cubs. She’s left bloodied and beaten while the cubs are unaware of the danger.
- Dave decides to go with the bear analogy and highlight the actions of the mother bear. He tells his audience the following in his sermon. “God’s Love is Sacrificial. Jesus came to take away your sins even though you never asked Him to. You were unaware of your need, but God took the initiative to address this need. I was watching my favorite nature show the other day and noticed this mama bear’s care for her cubs. These cubs never asked for help, but they needed it. They wandered into traffic on a busy highway. Have you ever wandered into danger without realizing you needed help? This bear saw her children in danger and rescued them without their asking.
Next, the cubs wandered too closely to a male grizzly and were unaware of the danger before them. The mother of these cubs came running to rescue them from something more powerful than they were. They were in need but did not have the initiative to ask for help. Friends, humanity was in a desperate situation when God came to rescue us from our plight. We had a huge need. We needed reconciliation to God, and God took the initiative to rescue us from the certain destruction of sin, reconciling us to Himself. He addressed our need for reconciliation through His own initiative and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The Love of God is Sacrificial.
In this article, I sought to develop a method for building natural analogies so that your illustrations align with your sermon point. Aligning the sermon point and the illustration can be difficult. The important step is to identify the clear and specific concept you are illustrating. The points of correspondence will be more discernable to your audience. In the next article, I will look at how to create illustrations through figures of speech.