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The Seven Commandments Of Illustrations

April 23, 2008

1. Thou shalt not overuse them.
It is definitely possible to have far too many sermon illustrations. The problem is that illustrations are like chocolate: good in small doses but overindulgence makes recipients feel sick and disorientated! Don’t feed the congregation too many!

2. Thou shalt not underuse them.
While I can think of some preachers who pass out too much chocolate, there are others who never offer so much as a chocolate button! Such sermons feel heavy, abstract and dense.

3. Thou shalt not fail to illustrate the point.
If your illustration doesn’t illustrate the point your making with a great degree of exactness don’t use it. One danger for preachers is to want to use some illustration simply because its ‘a good one.’ Yet the illustration may only relate tenuously to the point in question!

4. Thou shalt not make them overly long
I recently heard of a closing illustration that was between 12 and 15 minutes long. It was an epic. In my opinion, that’s just too long for an illustration. Overly long illustrations begin to dominate the sermon rather than serve the sermon. So we preachers should aim for brevity. How long should an illustration be? As long as it takes to tell it clearly, vividly and forcefully – that, and no more.

5. Thou shalt not misuse humour
First of all, if you are not wired with humour (and many of us are not!) don’t force the issue. No one’s called you to be a comedian but a faithful communicator of Gods Word. Don’t think you’ve got to use humour just because some great conference speaker you heard was ‘really funny’. On the other hand, if you are wired with wit, be careful. For example, there’s a difference between genuine humour (Jesus used it) and flippancy. Sarcasm may produce laughs but might simultaneously reveal some sinful attitudes in the preacher! My general rule is: never give an illustration which depends on the congregation finding it funny.

6. Thou shalt not be pastorally imprudent
The pulpit is no place to break pastoral confidences. Be very careful when you get into the territory of talking about that Christian ‘you won’t name’ or that ‘past church you attended.’ Often everybody knows what church you’re speaking about! Furthermore, with audio on the internet, the person at the last church can listen to your sermon. Therefore remember to ask people’s permission if you are using a story about them. And don’t forget: if you constantly break confidences, no one will take you into their confidence.

7. Thou shalt not use overly powerful illustrations
Some illustrations are just overly powerful. They are too good, too distracting, or raise too many tangential issues and questions. If you’re illustration will be ‘the only thing people remember’ don’t use it.

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2 comments

  1. Dear Colin,
    First, thanks for this blog. I check it frequently and am frequently blessed.
    Your post made me think of my favourite illustration on illustrations, by who else but Spurgeon! He likened good illustrations to a window. A window is not to be admired in and of itself, but is useful to let light in to illumine the objects in a room. Let us, therefore, not have ‘stained glass’ illustrations, to be admired for their own sake, but plain glass ones, that illumine the Word of God. See book three of lectures to my students.


  2. Number 3 is my favorite. Someimes I hear (or use) an illustration, then wonder if it even fit the text. Sometimes they’re close, but may end up distracting more than helping. I’ll try to keep much of this list in mind.



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