Help for New Expositors: Improving Your Sermon Illustrations


It has been said that sermon illustrations are like windows that let the light in so that people can better see the truths we are preaching about. There is a danger of making our sermons like a dungeon, with no light for the common man to see the truth. Below is a list of 5 truths that need to be kept in mind regarding the proper use of illustrations in sermon preparation. My posts on sermon prep checklist and 10 Do’s and Don’ts of Sermon Introductions will also be helpful to many newer expositors. As always, ask your questions in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them.

  1. Illustrations should illustrate
    • That powerful story that you found in the magazine or the funny story that you can’t wait to share is not a reason to use an illustration, so don’t force it. Remember that illustrations serve a purpose and shouldn’t be used simply for their own sake.
    • That means they should take your listener from the abstract or theological content to a concrete concept. Begin with what the average man on the street knows and move forward to the concept you are trying to illustrate.
    • The Bible can be effectively used to illustrate itself. But be aware that cross-references are not necessarily illustrations, but are used to clarify the biblical concept of analogia Scriptura, comparing Scripture with Scripture in order to drive home a point to your hearers.
    • A biblical illustration proper most often points to a narrative account of the concept you are making, i.e., Samson’s spiritual weakness, David’s dance of rejoicing, Paul’s fight of faith.
  2. Care should be taken with regard to the length of the illustration
    • Lengthy illustrations are seldom appropriate for a biblical expositor. You are a teacher of the sacred text, not a storyteller or entertainer. More time telling a story leaves less time to explain and apply the text.
    • Word pictures and biblical allusions are handy to shed light on an idea. Spurgeon often used illustrations from nature and life—following in the footsteps of Christ.
    • Details are often unnecessary in re-telling a personal story or other narrative. Get to the point quickly, removing all unnecessary material from the illustration.
  3. Illustrate each major point. Since each point needs to stand on its own and point to the central theme, make sure that you bring clarity to each part as you build your biblical argument.
  4. Make your illustrations work for you. Choose illustrations that can do double duty. Contemporary illustrations often help the listener to see how they can apply the text to their lives immediately. Take advantage of this and smoothly transition into your application if you are able.
  5. Make sure your illustrations fit a broad audience.
    • Be sensitive to your audience. On other words, be aware of how older people are slower to adapt the latest technology. Younger people can be ignorant to your references to old movies, modern history and older TV shows. Some people are not as into sports as you might be. And you might find that many people are no longer as familiar with ancient history, feeling easily overwhelmed with too many dates and details.
    • Be particularly aware of using lengthy quotes from Puritans or other older writers who wrote in English that has become outdate, along with complicated grammar and sentence structures.
    • Make sure you are cautious about references to movies, music, books and media that might be construed as a wholesale endorsement of the whole. You might have forgotten the a particular movie or book had some objectionable language or sexual themes in it, but your audience might not have forgotten.