(In my last post, I discussed elements 1–4. Today, I am finishing up with elements 5–8.)

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?

5.) Illustrations Must Grab Attention

An illustration that is true, has a point, and is believable still won’t do any good if it doesn’t grab and hold the listener’s attention. That’s why the newer the illustration, the better. It’s important to consistently add to your collection of illustrations.

Some illustrations, however, are applicable even if they happened twenty years ago, because the event could happen today. A story about someone who rushes into the path of an approaching car to save a child is relevant because that act could just as easily occur today. A quote about death made forty years ago may be just as applicable today. For many illustrations, the date doesn’t matter. The content makes it timeless. Also, it’s sometimes difficult to find a current illustration on a specific topic.

One suggestion in using a familiar illustration is to tell it in a way the audience may not have heard it or add a detail often overlooked. That makes even a familiar illustration interesting.

Are historical illustrations out? No. They deal with what has happened, not what might happen. They are about fact, not fiction. Also, many people love history. And sometimes the best illustration is one that happened thirty years ago, not last week. What happened matters. When it happened isn’t always important.

6.) Illustrations Must Be Understandable

If the story is difficult to explain, it’s difficult to comprehend. Some stories and humor are hard to grasp. Those stories may not be worth your time and effort.

7.) Illustrations Must Be in the Right Amount

It’s possible to use too many illustrations. The greater danger, however, is using too few, not too many. In Illustrating the Sermon, Michael Hostetler makes the point, “Very few sermons are over-illustrated; multitudes are under-illustrated.”[1]

We are speaking to a generation of people who watch. They don’t read. Illustrations help them watch. They see truth, not merely hear it. Think of illustrations consisting of quotes, stories, statistics, analogies, and so forth. As a general rule, you need ten to fifteen per message. This, of course, depends on time, the message, and your audience. You need fewer illustrations for a fifteen-minute evangelization message than for one that takes thirty minutes. Certain messages, such as unfolding a biblical drama, may require fewer illustrations than a message from the book of Proverbs. A message to young people may require more illustrations than one to middle-aged parents.

Be sure to use a wide variety of illustrations in each message. Every quote should not be from a sports figure. Two “lost at sea” illustrations are too many. The illustrations should cover a spectrum of circumstances.

8.) Illustrations Must Be a Good Mix of Humor and Serious

Humor is enhanced when it’s properly mixed with serious illustrations. Serious illustrations are enhanced when they are properly mixed with humor. At times humorous illustrations are placed back-to-back after consecutive points in a message. If, for example, you deal with four ways we try to relieve guilt, two of those ways might lend themselves to humorous illustrations. The more you can spice the message throughout with humor the better.

Humor is more appropriate in the beginning and middle of the message than at the closing. As you approach your conclusion, you’re going to call upon your listeners to make a serious decision about their eternal destiny. Humor no longer fits at that point. It would distract from the seriousness of the moment.

Using effective illustrations makes you a communicator, not just a speaker. The proper use of stories and humor keep your message from becoming an abandoned train. Illustrations can instead help your message be a power-driven locomotive. The train is on a track toward its destination. Illustrations help the message arrive there.

(Adapted from Show Me How to Illustrate Evangelistic Sermons)


[1] Michael Hostetler, Illustrating the Sermon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989).