Tell a Good Story When You Preach/Teach – Part 2 of 2

This is part two of the article published in the previous post.

Illustrations that Connect

This is why illustrations matter. Illustrations help to place us in the story. But illustrations that invite us in need to be something we can actually imagine. Most of us did not fight Nazis in World War II. If you ask us to place ourselves in that story, we will always imagine ourselves as the hero—hiding Jews in our basement and standing up to the SS or giving bread to the hungry soldier from the other side.

But many of us can more realistically imagine ourselves fighting with a sibling over the remote control, or, in later years, fighting about where the extended family will have the reunion, or who should tell Dad it’s time to stop driving, or who gets the dining room table when parents have died. We won’t imagine ourselves the hero in these stories because we probably haven’t been. What we need in a story about our siblings is some idea about what to do next—what it would really look like for us to be like Christ, not in some French village in 1942, but in the family room today or on the phone tomorrow.

Because we know that illustrations help our hearers place themselves in the story, we preachers and teachers can spend a great deal of time searching for the perfect illustration: the story that ties to the Scripture passage, is just the right length, and moves us easily to the next point. This is why there are books of illustrations available to buy and websites eager for you to subscribe to their ideas. But canned illustrations usually taste that way: the essence of a good story, but lacking in color and tang.

The strongest illustrations are drawn from the life of the church and ministry itself. If you start a sentence with “This week in the Bible study, Ben mentioned…” or “Nancy, the chair of our church board, invited me to join her on a benevolence visit this week, and…” heads are going to go up. People are going to pay attention. Ben said something interesting in Bible study? What happened on the benevolence visit? 

Suddenly the life of the church has made it into the sermon. Someone was paying attention to things that happen every week. This wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event. Bible study happens every week. Board members visit people all the time. This was regular life being called out as an example of kingdom living. The illustration wasn’t theoretical, distant, or abstract. It was personal, relatable, accessible, and relevant. That gets people’s attention.

This also means we need to pay attention. If you have read and studied your text early in the week, keep watch for the rest of that week: notice anything that could link this text to the lives of these people. An exchange with the server at lunch. A magazine article. A song on the radio. Another passage of Scripture. A great quote on social media. As the week goes on, write these things down. Even if it is only remotely connected to what you’re preaching or teaching about, record it. You never know how the Spirit may use it.

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A Word of Caution

One important note: Always ask permission. If Ben says something in Bible study that catches your attention, mention it to him afterward and see if he’s okay with you using it and if he wants credit. Say something like, “I loved what you said about verse 5. I may be able to use that on Sunday—would it be okay if I mentioned your name?” Don’t promise that you’re going to use the illustration. We all know that what looks perfect Wednesday morning may not fit when we are finishing the sermon or lesson on Saturday night.

We also know that some brilliant illustrations hit us at 6 a.m. Sunday morning, and we don’t always have time to check with the person before we preach or teach. But if they don’t know you are going to use them, don’t use them. The use of others in illustrations is an opportunity for us as pastors and teachers to care well for people. We want them to look good in illustrations, and we want them to feel safe at church. Respect their wishes if they do not want to be used, or offer to change their name or the details of the event if that makes them more amenable to the idea. But if they decline, honor that. Think of your use of illustrations as an opportunity to build trust with your congregation.

This article was originally posted at: Christianity Today

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