ILLUSTRATIONS ARE LIKE LOCOMOTIVES. They only help if they’re on a track and move the passenger (in this case, the listener) to a particular destination the speaker has in mind. What does that track look like? As stories and humor are used of the Holy Spirit, what makes them move listeners?

1.) Illustrations Must Be Relevant

Stories have to interest non-Christians, not just you. They need to be relevant. Part of that means spending time with non-Christians. Otherwise, you forget what interests them. Stories and humor used in evangelistic speaking are often different from ones used with believers. They are prepared for unbelievers and given to unbelievers. The illustration is relevant to where they are now, not where they will be after they come to Christ.

Suppose you choose a story about a missions trip to Africa. The fact that it was a mission trip doesn’t need to be mentioned. Use aspects of the story relevant to non-Christians. You may, for example, relate the confusion experienced in determining how to get from one city to another when the people around you give conflicting directions. Then you use that frustrating experience to illustrate the confusion your listeners experience in knowing how to get to heaven when people give conflicting messages. Use the part relevant to non-Christians, not the part that isn’t. Non-Christians can’t identify with the “mission” part of the trip. They can, however, identify with the confusion about conflicting directions.

If you’re using an illustration about prayer, use aspects of prayer that interests non-Christians. Where and how often your church meets for prayer is immaterial. Telling about encouraging answers received to prayer might be helpful to your listeners. Though it may be difficult, step outside your circle of believers and think non-Christian.

2.) Illustrations Must Address a Particular Point

The most effective illustrations are not like a shotgun shell full of pellets that scatter. They’re like a rifle shell with a single tip, or in this case, a point that penetrates. There must be a single truth the illustration drives home. Never use an illustration unless you have a purpose for using it. We use illustrations, after all, to communicate.

Purpose, then, is the critical area. An illustration you have chosen to address the need for honesty may actually address the benefits of honesty. An illustration selected for the deceitfulness of sin might actually address the consequences of sin. If you have any questions, ask a trusted friend for feedback. Encourage your friend to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.

3.) Illustrations Should Have the Proper Amount of Detail

Details also make illustrations effective. When you say “office building on a busy street,” that doesn’t catch my attention. Neither does it help me envision the building. When you tell me, though, it was a dark granite, five-story office building, at a crowded intersection in downtown Philadelphia, I see it. Was the woman blonde or gray? Did she amble or jog? Was the man a businessman or a plumber? Was the vehicle a VW or an SUV? Did the man jump out of bed, or did he stumble his way into the kitchen? Was the cake chocolate with icing dripping down the sides or was it a bland sponge cake? Did the accident occur as the sun was coming up or going down? Such details help your listeners visualize those people, places, buildings, circumstances, and events. Details make the stories come alive.

Suppose you don’t know the details. To make up the details can destroy the integrity of the illustration. If, though, you can reasonably determine as much as possible about the circumstances, the more you can share, the better. If you don’t know the details, the illustration (if it’s a good one) can and should be used. But any available details are helpful.

Yet balance is critical. It’s possible to share so many details one loses the main point of the story. Here’s a helpful question to ask when considering how many details to use: “Will these details help the illustration without overwhelming the listener?” If so, use them. If not, leave them out. Again, the key word is balance. It’s possible not to have enough details but it’s also possible to have too many. Also, as you’ll see when we examine illustrations that use quotations, the person who made the quote sometimes matters. Other times it doesn’t. The year of the occurrence may be important. Other times it isn’t.

4.) Illustrations Must Be Believable

An illustration that lacks believability hinders communication. It might fascinate the listener but distract from the truth. We don’t want our listeners to doubt the accuracy of the story. That doubt can lead to a lack of trust in what we’re saying. The listener might wonder, if we’re not truthful with the illustration, are we truthful in other areas? What about an illustration that sounds unbelievable but is true?

If you can convince the audience it is real, use it. If nothing you say would convince the audience of the illustration’s integrity, it has to be laid aside. Illustrations that don’t sound truthful—even if they are—will hurt more than help.

Be careful how you use illustrations from your own life. Personal illustrations have the advantage of being fresh. They’ve never been heard. But every illustration shouldn’t be about you. Warren Wiersbe and David Wiersbe in The Elements of Preaching state, “Some preachers talk about themselves so much, you could reconstruct their lives from their sermons. Others are so private that their personal experiences are told as anonymous anecdotes. Both extremes should be avoided.”[1]

Also, with non-Christians, personal illustrations should deal with where you have failed, not where you have succeeded. Most people can handle you being transparent about your failures. When you share that you received two speeding tickets within two weeks, they can relate.

C. S. Lewis speaks to this issue when he says, “I cannot offer you a water-tight technique for awakening the sense of sin. I can only say that, in my experience, if one begins from the sin that has been one’s own chief problem during the last weeks, one is very often surprised at the way this shaft goes home.”[2] Listeners cannot handle your bragging about your accomplishments. You may have trained hard to win a triathlon, but someone else needs to mention it, not you.

Check back on Friday for elements 5–8!

(Adapted from Show Me How to Illustrate Evangelistic Sermons)

[1] Warren Wiersbe and David Wiersbe, The Elements of Preaching (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986).

[2] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).