A preacher’s guide to sermon illustrations

Joshua Bovis explains how and why sermon illustrations can be a valuable aid or a distracting hindrance.

Imagine this: a Bible college student is about to preach a sermon in his expounding Scripture subject. His eyes scan the hall and notice the faculty with their poker face expressions. He takes a breath and begins: “I am going to make something disappear before your very eyes, and you shall never see it again!” Reaching into his pocket, he brings out a banana and proceeds to eat it before the students. The man who told me this story laughed as he recalled it, but he had no recollection of the sermon.

Most Briefing readers have heard countless sermons and even more sermon illustrations. Illustrations are now part and parcel of sermons. So I must confess I thought that writing this article would be easy. I visualized the title: ‘Sermon illustrations: Good ones, bad ones; dos and don’ts’. So simple! Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that discussing sermon illustrations was not so straightforward. The reason for my difficulty is that I believe that the topic of sermon illustrations must never be isolated from preaching, as if it were a discrete subject. Since coming to faith in 1989, I have heard plenty of great sermons that used hardly any illustrations. But sadly, I have also heard sermons that were nothing more than a collection of illustrations with a pinch of Scripture thrown in. The lack of illustrations in the former did not have a detrimental effect on the sermon, however the latter were never sermons in the first place. So any discussion about sermon illustrations must come under the context of preaching, for it is preaching and its aims that dictate sermon illustrations and their use.

1. The aim of preaching

So what is the aim of preaching? In Colossians 1:28, Paul says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ”. He is reminding the Colossian Christians (and us!) of the characteristics of gospel ministry: proclaiming the gospel believed and taught by the apostles, warning (admonition) and teaching everyone. But what’s the goal? “[T]hat we may present everyone mature in Christ”: he wants everyone to whom he proclaimed the gospel to be presented “mature” or complete in Christ. The complete Christian is one who not only hears and understands God’s word, but hears, understands and applies God’s word—in other words, a person whose heart and will is moved to action from the word of God.

I believe this should be the aim of all preaching—to move the will of the listener to action. The Bible’s truths are always relevant, even though the Bible’s cultural context is far removed from us. As Sydney Missionary and Bible College principal David Cook said once, “As preachers of the Word, it is always our business to be contemporary—to deal with the living people who are in front of us”. So when you put these principles together, it’s clear that our mission as preachers of God’s word is to move the will of the listener to action, and to remember that we are dealing with real people with real lives who live in the real world, so we must work hard at relating to them. This is the context in which sermon illustrations live and breathe.

Here, I think, illustrations are helpful: they are a great tool in helping God’s people connect his word to real life. Everyone has context—everyone has a reason for acting, relating and responding the way they do. The angry-looking woman in the front row may have just had a fight with her husband; the bored teenage boy may not want to be in church, but was (rightly) made to attend by his parents; that despondent elderly man may be struggling because he is missing his deceased wife; the nervous-looking 20-something single woman may be worried about the lack of single Christian guys, and may feel like she is stuck on the shelf. Being aware that you are dealing with real people with real issues will motivate you to help them contextualize the truth of the Word in their own lives as you seek to preach God’s word truthfully, desiring to motivate the will of the listener to action.

One of the helpful things I learned from my old profession (hairdressing) is that almost everyone loves a good story—especially when it’s true. People love talking about their lives and experiences. So while I was busy making people look fantastic, I was exposed to everyday life as seen through their eyes. People are relational, and they rightly expect their preacher to be relational. The pulpit is not the place to have a lobotomy; preachers don’t turn off their personality when they get up to speak. There is nothing more annoying and more off-putting than hearing a preacher who acts and speaks like a totally different person to his real self while in the pulpit. The listener then thinks that the Bible is difficult and mysterious because it seems so divorced from life. Sermon illustrations show your audience your human side—that you are just like them and not a super spiritual Christian. Since humans are relational, illustrations make it easier for them to listen to you.

2. Tips

However, illustrations can easily become a thorn of distraction if you are careless and casual about them. Here are four things to remember when you use them:

a) Don’t add more information, but show how the information you have talked about applies to what the text is saying. Illustrations fail when you end up teaching the congregation a fact about the illustration. For example, “In cricket, a ‘no ball’ means that the bowler’s foot has gone over the…”. Who cares! An illustration is not supposed to convey information about itself; it’s supposed to emphasize or introduce a truth about the Bible passage. Illustrations are self-effacing; they shouldn’t draw attention to themselves.

b) Don’t preach the illustration, and don’t blur illustration with application. Illustrations are not applications; they are a tool, not the substance of a sermon. The preacher’s authority lies not in his illustrations but in his explanation of God’s word. No matter how good, how clever or how profound it may be, preaching an illustration lacks power. A sermon does not need illustrations to be a sermon, but without a sermon, sermon illustrations do not exist.

c) Don’t use illustrations to soft pedal the hard truths of Scripture. Some sections of Scripture are tough going, sometimes the application is pointed and challenging, and sometimes the passage is in-your-face and downright confronting. Don’t ever be apologetic about preaching the hard stuff. Don’t give in to the temptation to mask or sugar coat it with an illustration that trivializes the passage in order to take the edge off. Don’t be afraid to offend middle class sensibilities with the truth of God’s word.

d) Know your congregation. Ask yourself what are they grappling with? What are you neglecting? What issue do you need to address? In other words, be pastoral and love the people you serve. If you do love them, you will spend time with them; if you spend time with them, you’ll find out what issues they’re grappling with and what things you need to address. For example, recently I preached on Matthew 5:27-30 where Jesus warns against mental adultery. I wanted to use an illustration about how mental adultery is just as much a problem for the old as for the young. When I went down to the barber’s, I found myself surrounded by old guys who were reading men’s magazines, which was a rather revolting experience. But even though I knew this illustration would be helpful, I thought twice about using it in a congregation that mainly consisted of 20 women over the age of 80. In the end, I used it, but I toned it down a lot.

3. Pitfalls

However, there’s more: you can preach with the right aim in mind, you can work hard at helping the people in front of you to connect God’s word to their lives, you can follow the four points I just outlined, and still distract your listeners. This happens when the relationship between sermon and sermon illustration becomes reversed. When the illustration draws too much attention to itself or to the preacher, the sermon becomes self-effacing and you will not achieve your aim. When does this happen?

When sermon illustrations dictate the application of the text. Never allow a sermon to be shaped by an illustration. Never allow an application to be dictated by the illustration. There ought to be a law against this! We are on about glorifying God, not ourselves; God’s word must be the focal point. We all love a good story, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “I must use this one this Sunday”; file it away and wait until it fits. I found a story about a hippo that swallowed a dwarf named Od in a freak circus stunt in Thailand; I had to wait 13 years to use it.

When sermon illustrations are too power­ful. If the illustration is too sad or too powerful, people tend to remember the illustration and nothing else. There have been times when people have come up to me after the talk, thanked me for the great sermon, and then laughed and said they thought the illustration was really good or funny. I realized then that I had used the wrong illustration. Illustrations need to be self-effacing, and they only work when they point people back to the text.

When sermon illustrations are too many. Not every single point of your sermon needs an illustration. Be selective. If sermons end up as stories, you end up with no substance. Preaching is not a lecture, but it’s not a storytelling session either. The Bible is relevant to everybody; it doesn’t need to be made relevant. Don’t swamp people. It’s better to have too few than too many.

When sermon illustrations are inappropriate. This is either because the illustration doesn’t match the truth of the text (which only confuses everybody) or the illustration is rude (which offends everybody). On occasion I’ve fallen into the trap of the former: when I was a student minister, I preached on Isaiah 53 to a very patient 8 am congregation, and I started off by telling a politically correct version of Jack and Jill. They had no idea what this had to do with Isaiah 53, and, seven years later, I don’t either!

When sermon illustrations are inaccurate. Don’t get your illustration wrong as 98% of the time there will be someone who will know it is wrong. A bloke I knew mentioned in a sermon that Kerry Packer, upon being asked, “How much money does it take to satisfy one of the richest men in the world?”, replied, “Just a little bit more!” It was a great illustration but it failed because someone in the congregation knew that it was billionaire John D Rockefeller who said it, not Packer. As much as possible, check your facts before you preach.

When sermon illustrations are too funny. If you are a hilarious person, or if you’re someone who likes a good laugh, be very careful. Tom Clancy once wrote, “No matter how funny [a joke] is, somebody will be offended by it”.1 I reckon he’s on to something here. Humour can be dangerous, and it can easily backfire! If you offend someone with humour, they will miss the point of what you’re trying to say because they will be distracted by their hurt feelings and violent thoughts. Of course, sometimes people can be a bit too precious, and some need to develop a thicker skin, but the pew is not the place for that to happen. If you’re not sure about the humour you want to use, don’t use it; it’s not worth it, no matter how funny it is. The gospel is offensive enough, and if you are going to offend people, let the Word do it, not your illustration.

If you are a man, never ever pay out women; you will alienate over half your congregation. In addition, don’t copy popular pastors from mega churches in North America: just because their churches are massive and they appear to get away with murder does not mean what they do will work for you, nor does it make it okay.

Although humour is a great tool for making points that can get under people’s defences, never give in to the temptation to tell a joke simply to break the ice. Don’t be funny for the sake of being funny. You are a preacher, not a comedian, and your role is not to entertain. Once words are out of your mouth, you can’t put them back in. The laws of physics are disastrous to the careless tongue: we simply cannot move faster than the speed of sound or the speed of thought! Before you even have time to regret your words, they’ve already lodged in your listener’s brain. So be wise with your words.

When sermon illustrations are boring. This may be the most controversial point in this article: don’t use boring illustrations. I know, I know! This is hard to apply as ‘boring’ is very subjective. For example, many people love cricket. Myself, I think test cricket is great… for insomnia! I’m sure you know the type of illustration I’m talking about; it’s stuff like “When I visited Israel during a tour of the Holy Lands personally led by the Rev Dr…” and “I went to the Sydney Cricket Ground to see Australia play England during the Ashes, and the atmosphere was…” and “My Aunty Jessie in Glasgow loved making sponge cakes and deep fried Mars Bars, and often her false teeth would fall into the frying pan…” Work hard at not being boring. Spurgeon, who is considered to be one of the great preachers of the 19th century, once said, “We must not talk to our congregations as if we were half asleep. Our preaching must not be articulate snoring.”2 The same applies to sermon illustrations: work hard to engage with your listeners, and remember you are speaking to the living, not the dead.

When sermon illustrations are off the top of your head. Don’t ad lib illustrations! Every mistake I have ever made with illustrations has always been the result of using ones that just popped into my brain while I was preaching. I have the sort of mind that would have had me diagnosed with ADHD if I had been born in 2004 instead of 1974; things pop into my head all the time. Often when I preach and I use an illustration, three more illustrations pop into my head at the same time—illustrations I didn’t think of when I was preparing my sermon. If you’re like me, don’t use these illustrations! Stick to your notes.

When sermon illustrations are always about you. This is an easy trap to fall into as most of us love to talk about ourselves, and we all have huge reservoirs of experiences that make for good illustrations. Though personal anecdotes make for good illustrations, we must be careful not to overdo it. When it comes to preaching, we must teach the whole counsel of God. Similarly, it’s best if your illustrations are not all about you. Mix it up!

 4. The best types

So what are the best types of illustrations to use?

The ones that happen to you. This point may seem strange, considering what I’ve just said. However, illustrations about you help your congregation to relate to you as the preacher. The more self-deprecating, the better.

Illustrations derived from observations about life, people or nature. These help the preacher to achieve his aim of connecting God’s word to the minds, hearts and lives of his listeners. The most engaging comedians do this all the time. Preaching should never be divorced from life, and these sorts of illustrations stop the sermon from becoming a lecture by showing that the key to Christian living involves the whole person instead of just the cerebral cortex.

Others’ experience. Most people love hearing stories about other people. I am a people person so I love hearing the experiences of others. You can find these by reading biographies. Now and then people tell me about something that’s happened to them. I have an elephant’s memory, so I file these away to use at a later time. Just make sure you ask them if it’s okay before you use their story.

Quotations. Quotes are great as long as they are clear and not too long.

Most of us forget things at one time or another. One of my most embarrassing moments of forgetfulness occurred after church one day when I was trying to load our three children into the car. My oldest climbed in and my wife strapped in number three, and then I got that horrible feeling in my guts—the feeling that only parents get when you have lost a child or have forgotten to bring them with you like that daft mother in Home Alone. I looked around for child number two and could not see her. I started looking around the car. In desperation, I said to my wife, “Honey, I can’t find Natalie!” She stopped, then looked at me with bemusement. You see, back then, Natalie was two, and she was so small, light and quiet that I had forgotten I was holding her in my left arm while I loaded things into the car. I had forgotten the obvious.

When it comes to sermon illustrations, don’t forget the obvious. Remember the aim of preaching, which is to move the will of your listener to action. Remember your business, which is to help your people connect God’s word to their lives. And finally, remember the place of sermon illustrations: a sermon does not need illustrations to be a sermon, but without a sermon, illustrations don’t exist.


1. Tom Clancy, The Teeth of the Tiger, Putnam, Penguin, New York, 2003, p. 65.

2. CH Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: Complete and Unabridged, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1980, p. 226.

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