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Illustration – The Spice of Life

Article 3 in a Series on Preaching
by David Cook

Interact Magazine 1990

Volume 1 Number 3

We have all heard preaching which is simply a string of anecdotes, one after another. In our concern to avoid such preaching we may have overcorrected by under-illustrating.

One of the most common complaints about expository preaching is that it is dull. Illustrations give relief. When your congregation complains that your sermons are too long, add some illustrations. Sermons seem shorter when they are more interesting!

Why are Illustrations helpful?

1. They add interest and give relief. Why did the Ethiopian go on his way rejoicing? Because Phillip had finished preaching to him! Illustrations are helpful for you and the congregation. From your perspective, there’s nothing worse than knowing that the sermon you are preaching is dull and heavy.


2. They make truth memorable.


3. They reduce fuzziness in you, the preacher. To select an apt illustration you need to clearly understand the truth you are expounding.


4. They can reveal the human side of you.

But as I have said, there are dangers:

1. They can be so good that they dominate. A good illustration does not draw attention to itself but points away from itself to its accompanying truth. Good illustrations are like John the Baptist – always pointing to Jesus.


2. You can have too many.


3. They may not be appropriate. make sure they do illustrate the truth you are expounding.


4. Make sure of your facts, especially if you are illustrating outside your area of expertise, eg farming or medical illustrations.


The most common complaint I hear from fellow preachers about illustrating is that it’s too hard. Of course it’s hard work, but preaching itself is hard work.


Here are some hints I have found helpful:

1. The best illustrations are things which have happened to you. Buy a book in which to write things down which happen to you. You will find your life is full of interesting events which you had never noticed before.


2. Think and use your senses. Put yourself on the page of the Bible and imagine what it was like to be there. Try and describe what would have been seen, heard, smelt and felt if you had been there. Put yourself on the page in order that you can put others there alongside you.


3. Biographies and autobiographies are a good source of illustrative material.


4. When you use a good illustration, refer to it throughout the sermon so that you tie a knot between the illustration and its truth.


We can all develop the ability of being more interesting expository preachers. In a disciplined way keep your eyes open and your minds working on the truth to be expounded.

When I was in the parish of Wee Waa I spent a spare day with a Christian writer from Sydney. When I picked him up from the airport I asked what he would like to do for the day. ‘My interests are omnivorous. They have to be – I’m a writer,’ he said.

So we went to the saleyards, to a cotton field, to the Cotton Gin, to a sheep property, and all the time he was taking notes for future use.

How can you be a more interesting expositor?

Develop omnivorous interests and keep your illustration book handy!

Rev David Cook, a Presbyterian Minister, served in several churches before becoming Principal of Sydney Missionary and Bible College.

© David Cook (1 July 1990)

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