I wonder how many sermons have been derailed by an illustration. The number is surely as numerous as there are stars in the sky or sand on the seashore. Nothing should be more alarming to preachers than persistent comments about their sermon illustrations by listeners. It could be an indication that people are relishing the illustrations but missing the point of the biblical text. Here are five brief thoughts about sermon illustrations.
- The more emotional the illustration the more likely the biblical text will be overshadowed. Preachers can consistently make their listeners cry through sharing stories that would make the producers of Hallmark Movies proud. Nevertheless, it is better to have a dry eyed listener who leaves with a firm grasp of biblical truth than a snot slinging, Kleenex crushing, heart-warmed person who cannot even remember what passage you preached.
- Humor that eclipses the biblical text is dark humor indeed. Have you ever listened to a preacher who could not help himself when it came to making people laugh? Here’s another question—is there one sermon in the New Testament with a joke in it? I can’t think of one.
- Story tellers are not expositors of the word. Those who consistently fill the air of the sanctuary with story after story only demonstrate their unwillingness or inability to explain the meaning of the text. Some preachers treat the pulpit like the rug I sat on in kindergarten where the teacher would read us a story before our nap time.
- The illustration that becomes the point has no point. I have heard people tell preachers after the service, “Let me tell you what happened to me.” That is code for “Your illustration made me think about one of my own experiences rather than about the text.” This is surely pointless.
- If you want your sermon to be unique in the 21st century, use fewer and fewer illustrations. In a preaching universe filled with the latest in technology, the most spectacular in speaking style, and on the cutting edge of creativity, nothing would stand out more than a jokeless and story-less sermon dominated by what the text actually says.
I am not against sermon illustrations altogether. I am sure that they can be helpful when used briefly, sparingly, and rightly. Yet, who wrote the homiletical law which states, “Every biblical point must be accompanied by an illustration?” When did illustrating the bible with the bible become passé? What textual variant emended Paul’s admonition to Timothy as “Preach the word in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, illustrate?” The notion that sermons must be laced with illustrations that could make it into the next book on sermon illustrations is nonsense. My advice? If your illustration causes your sermon to stumble, cut it off. Isn’t it better for listeners of sermons to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without laughing, crying, or relating, than for them to enter Gehenna remembering that story, that joke, that illustration?