Illustrations provide precious windows into the truth of Scripture. Illustrations often help those truths to be more easily remembered, understood, and applied.
As you grow in your delivery of the truth, you will often spend more and more time thinking through new ways to illustrate ancient truths. Thus, illustrations are often a critical part of your preparation and delivery.
However, just as illustrations can assist in crystalizing truth, illustrations that are not developed or used well can actually distract or mislead your audience from the truth and in some cases call your credibility into question.
So, here are six tips for using illustrations:
Use illustrations to support the text (not other way around).
Be careful not to develop a lesson around a great illustration. Spend time understanding the point of the biblical text and then find illustrations that support that point. If this process is reversed, it will increase the chances of using a verse out of context.
Use resources to help find illustrations.
Once the passage of Scripture has been studied and the applicational points developed, then go look for specific illustrations to highlight those points. Generally, your life is the best source for illustrations since the stories are personal and easily remembered and delivered; however, you also need to look beyond your life for good ways to illustrate the text.
Here are a few online resources to consider:
Don’t assume a quote or historical event is accurate. Do some research. Just the other day, I was studying for a sermon and found an illustration on “The Unbaptized Arm” of Ivan the Great. At the time I didn’t realize how overused it was, so I was considering using it since it fit well with a point I wanted to make. However, as I dug a little deeper, I could not verify the story outside of Christian circles and, from the little research I did, it seemed to be a historic fable used for illustrative purposes only. In other words, as far as I could tell, the event didn’t really happen.
Using illustrations as fact that are actually fiction can distract people from the truth of God’s word and take away from your credibility.
Occasionally, you may find a good illustration that isn’t true, but is still helpful. At other times, you may make up a life-like story. Just don’t present the story as fact.
For example, use the Ivan the Great story, just let the audience know that you realize it is a historic fable or legend invented to help show people the tendency to compromise, etc. And sometimes it's fine to make up illustrations, just preface it with, “Let’s imagine a couple who….”
Don’t sensationalize or exaggerate illustrations.
There’s no need. Trust the Spirit to do his work. That doesn’t mean that some illustrations aren’t inherently emotional, because some are. Just don’t oversell it. Don’t exaggerate it for effect. Tell the story well. Pause at the right places. Change tone of voice. That’s good communication. But don’t stretch the truth or add facts that are irrelevant, unnecessary, or out right untrue for the purpose of emotionally manipulating the audience.
Protect the people used in illustrations.
The more you minster to others, the more stories you will have involving other people. Use those stories to help the audience, just either get their permission beforehand or change things around to protect his/her identity.