If Your Illustration Causes You to Stumble, Sharpen It!

Kris BarnettGeneral, Kristopher Barnett, Sermon Illustrations

In the fall, some of my colleagues proposed a point-counterpoint theological debate for our blog posts at MinistryU.  Since several of my colleagues mined the depths of biblical and historical theology studies during their doctoral work while I simply spaded the surface exploring the practical theology of homiletics, I did not express any interest in getting involved.  Think about it, the guy who is 5’4” and weighs 125 lbs. dripping wet wisely refuses to climb into the octagon with the reigning MMA champ!  However, when I saw one of my colleagues recent posts warning against the use of illustrations, I felt the necessity to join the fray.  Illustrations are in my octagon!

 In order to follow my post, check out the cleverly titled post, “If Your Illustration Causes You to Stumble, Cut it Off,” by our resident New Testament scholar, Dr. Channing Crisler.  In this article, Dr.Crisler contends that sermon illustrations can distract listeners from the Biblical text.  He bemoans the overuse of illustrations in contemporary sermons and questions the Biblical mandate for illustrations in preaching. 

Reading Dr. Crisler’s post led me to ponder, “If illustrations are so bad, why did Jesus use so many?”  Jesus, who carried the title of Rabbi or teacher, employed illustrations often. Let me provide a few examples:

  • Jesus told his followers that they were the “salt of the earth” and a “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:13-14). 
  • Jesus spoke of storing up “treasures in heaven” that would avoid moths and rust (Matthew 5:19-20).   
  • Jesus described his teachings as “new wine” that deserved “new wineskins” (Mark2:22).
  • Jesus told the disciples that He was the vine and they were His branches (John 15). 

This brief sampling of Jesus’ numerous illustrations reveals that the Master Teacher recognized the potential effectiveness of a well-developed and appropriately placed illustration. 

In addition to his attack on illustrations, Dr. Crisler reserves serious scorn for the use of stories and storytelling in sermons.  In fact, he boldly states, “Story tellers are not expositors of the word.”  This comment sparked more questions in my mind: 

  •  If stories are so unbiblical, why did the Old Testament writers keep placing them in the text?
  •  If stories are only appropriate for kindergarteners on nap mats, did Jesus’ disciples carry around their own nap mats to listen to all those parables?  Jesus regaled his listeners with intriguing parables of seeds (Luke 8:4-15), banquets (Luke 14:12-24), and a prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), to name just a few.
  •  If a narrative sermon “just” retells the Biblical story, is it really less Biblical than a preacher’s sermon outline?

In many ways, it seems that the appropriate use of narrative in the sermon could actually provide a stronger connection to Scripture than the Enlightenment inspired sermon forms that force Scripture into linear thought patterns.

So, having noted my points of disagreement, does Dr. Crisler have a point about illustrations?  At his basic premise, I agree with Dr. Crisler’s assertion.  Illustrations used poorly have the potential to distract listeners from the Biblical text.  However, I contend conversely, based on the example of Jesus, illustrations used well have the potential to magnify Scripture.  In addition, based on the Old Testament example and the practice of Jesus, storytelling done well could illuminate the message of the text.  Eliminating illustrations, as Dr. Crisler loosely asserts, would be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.   

Perhaps instead of cutting off our illustrations, we should sharpen them so that they relate more directly to the text.  What can a pastor do to sharpen their illustrations and stories?  They need to remember this basic principle: Illustrations must illustrate something.  This seems obvious and pedestrian but many of the illustration errors described by Dr. Crisler occur when a preacher forgets that every illustration in the sermon must have a direct tie to the text.  Illustrations do not stand alone.  Preachers should never insert an illustration to fill space in the sermon or to “lighten” the mood.  Illustrations must clarify and shed light on something in the text. 

Preachers should ask these basic questions of any illustration that struggles to find a place in the sermon:

  1. “What am I trying to illustrate?”  – This question tethers the illustration to the text.
  2. “What is the purpose of this illustration?” – Illustrations often struggle because their purpose in the sermon has not been established.  This question forces the preacher to consider the illustration’s purpose.
  3. “Is this illustration absolutely necessary?” – This question helps with the issue of over-illustrating that Dr. Crisler appropriately revealed.  It keeps pastors from inserting three illustrations when one will suffice.  It also keeps pastors from illustrating a point that the listeners can easily understand without the aid of a story. 

By answering these basic questions, preachers can sharpen their illustrations, avoiding the homiletical pitfalls that Dr. Crisler rightly revealed, while still tapping into the homiletical power revealed in the sermons of Jesus.