My new book, Illustrating Well, coming out this week is written to serve as a guide for preachers to learn and investigate the various common types of sermon illustrations used today. I particularly identify eight types, I analyze each to answer the question, “what makes an effective sermon illustration?” Below is an excerpt from my upcoming book.
Listeners, preachers, and homileticians generally agree that illustrations enhance sermons.1 If used well, they help listeners understand, apply, or experience the text. However, to be effective, they must be used well. If not, they can get in the way of communicating the biblical message.
For instance, too many illustrations will dilute the sermon’s substance.2 Some personal illustrations can split the focus between the message and the messenger, drawing attention to the messenger instead of the message. Those that contain factual errors can destroy the preacher’s credibility.
In short, if not used well, sermon illustrations can get in the way of the message instead of helping listeners understand, apply, or experience the text. However, when illustrations are used well, they break down communication obstacles.
Communication: The Goal and Some Obstacles to Reaching It
In communication, speakers attempt to replicate a message from their minds in the minds of their audience members. In the simplest of terms, transmitting meaning is the speaker’s goal, while receiving meaning is the listener’s goal. However, successful meaning transmission is not automatic—far from it. Public speaking is more like an NBA player attempting to dunk a basketball with two seven-foot players trying to block the shot than it is the layup line in a pregame warmup. While the obstacles speakers face are not as blatant as the basketball player’s, they can be just as real and daunting.
One of the obstacles that get in the way of meaning transmission is that words have extrinsic meaning but no intrinsic meaning. Words simply carry meaning that the users will nuance or alter in the communication process. The way speakers deliver the words—the context, vocal inflections, facial expressions, and body language—is part of the meaning transmission. Some of those elements are under speakers’ conscious control, but some of them are not, and likely, none of them is under their full control. Also, the listeners’ level of concentration, their previous experience with the word, and other factors could nuance or alter the meaning.
Another obstacle is that a particular word may carry multiple meanings. “Apple“ is not just a fruit. It can also refer to a computer or a watch. In some Latin American countries, “apple” (manzana) is also a term used to refer to a city block. While speakers can select a word to carry a specific meaning, the listeners might not experience a clean meaning transmission in the communication process, necessitating a feedback loop to ensure that the listeners are experiencing the meaning the speakers are intending.
Other obstacles, like miscommunication, the distance between people in a room, poor enunciation, unfamiliar accents, cultural differences, ambient noise, biases, and emotional dispositions, threaten pure meaning transmission and must be mitigated in appropriate ways by the speaker. In short, effective meaning transmission is not a slam dunk.
In preaching, the goal is not exclusively to communicate the preacher’s idea; it is to communicate the meaning that the biblical authors intended while they were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This adds another layer of complication. The Bible is an ancient book written by multiple authors, each within the specific contexts of original audiences that spanned more than a thousand years. The geography, customs, culture, and languages of the Bible are foreign to most modern readers. All these realities form additional communication obstacles. This is where good sermon illustrations, used effectively, can help.
Sermon illustrations that are familiar, clear, interesting, and appropriate can assist audiences in understanding, applying, or experiencing the Bible’s teachings. Good illustrations assist preachers in overcoming communication obstacles that hinder effective meaning transmission with their congregations.
Certainly, preachers have to get it right. Their sermons (including the illustrations) must be biblically accurate and theologically rigorous. However, good theology is not enough. Pastor and author J. D. Greear says, “I regularly look for both exegetical insight and illustrative insight as I’m researching specific texts, because the people in my church don’t just need good theology; they need to understand and feel the gospel. And the perfect illustration or story will often make a gospel truth relevant in a way that dozens of word studies never will.”3
The point is not that a well-illustrated sermon does not need theological rigor; nothing could be further from the truth. Every sermon should be theologically rich and thoroughly biblical and should have its meaning emerge from the text. Nevertheless, preachers should also present the message in a way that is accessible to people. Preaching professor James Cox writes:
“Many sermons fail, not because they are not based on sound exegesis, not because they are not arranged carefully or because they are not expressed precisely. They fail because preachers often take the people for granted. They use few or no examples to illustrate what they are talking about or to emphasize its reality, few or no comparisons to throw light on the subject.“4
To reach the minds and hearts of their listeners, preachers must do more than explain truth; they must demonstrate how the truth relates to and works in real life. The truth must become more than an abstract concept; it must become a concrete reality—one that the listeners can relate to and apply to their lives. Seeing a concept demonstrated increases hearers’ understanding of the concept and their motivation to apply it to life situations.
There is something about a good illustration that helps the unfamiliar become familiar and the distant become close. In the Old and New Testaments, as well as throughout church history, prophets, teachers, and preachers have used illustrations to increase their effectiveness in communicating.
1 There are some who dissent. For instance, Farmer writes, “What sermon illustrations should be banned? Nearly all of them!” “What Sermon Illustrations Should Be Banned from Pulpits?,” 31.
2 “One danger is to rely too much on stories. The one thing worse than a sermon without illustrations is a sermon that is nothing but illustrations; it is like the Empire State Building: ‘one story on top of another.’ All this does is present a sermon devoid of substance.” Raiter, “On Sermons and Preaching,” 95.
3 Greear, “Pastor J. D., How Do You Prepare Your Sermons?”
4 Cox, “Evaluating the Sermon,” 230.
This article is excerpted from Illustrating Well: Preaching Sermons that Connect (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022).
Dr. Chris Chun hosted a digital symposium with Dr. Michael Haykin and Dr. Robert Caldwell to discuss Edwards’ spirituality, devotional life and theological impact in American Christianity.