Sermon Illustrations


Dee, thanks for both your question about illustrations and for your thoughtful response to Mike about how not to get burned out from giving counsel to the people.  I found that very helpful.

As for illustrations, I don’t think I’m very good at it at all.  It’s another area I need to work on as a preacher.  But I’m happy to add my two cents to your questions.

1.  Do you try to illustrate every point in your sermons?

Perhaps I should, but I don’t.  My wife says I illustrate more naturally when I preach from an outline or extemporaneously.  I think she’s right.  There’s something about working from a manuscript that tempts me toward more of Mike’s Es, Ts, and As than toward illustrations.

2.  Do you have some system in place to save illustrations (i.e.,
stories you read in books or newspapers, good quotes you find, etc.)?

“System” is much too sophisticated a word for what I do.  I highlight in books things I may steal  uh… borrow later.  I have a little folder in my Outlook folders where I keep anecdotes and illustrations I may use later.  Beyond that, there’s not much there.  I tried a Word document with quotes and illustrations by subject, but I don’t have the discipline or interest for keeping that going.

3.  Do you feel compelled to use contemporary illustrations, or do you prefer biblical or historical illustrations?

I prefer biblical illustrations, but I’m not shy about contemporary illustrations.  But I have the same difficulty Mike has with contemporary illustrations.  I’m serving in a very diverse church with people from about 25 nations.  Being lazy about illustrations by assuming that the current pop issues or stories will communicate just doesn’t work.  I have to ask myself, “Will this contemporary illustration communicate with the bulk of the people here?”  I once used an illustration about sun shining off a fresh snow as a picture of glory.  While using the illustration I thought, Yeah, Thabiti.  Nice.  Most of your Caribbean membership has never seen snow.  Only the Canadians get it.  So, I have to give contemporary things a little added thought.

The other reason I prefer biblical illustrations is that its another way to let the Bible interpret itself, to demonstrate the unity of the Bible, and hopefully enrich the people’s familiarity and understanding of the Bible.  Plus, biblical illustrations have an authority and power that my best ideas don’t.

4.  Finally, how do you feel about using personal illustrations (stories about your own life) in the sermon?

Why are these last two questions about our “feelings”?  Don’t be trying to get us to talk about feelings and try all that psychologizing stuff on us.  This is why men don’t go to church.

But you are a counselor, right?  So it’s safe to share, right?  The truth is… I feel so… so… conflicted.  I mean… what do they want from me anyway?

Actually, over the last two weeks I’ve had lunch with two different brothers who offered their feedback on the life of the church and our services.  They volunteered comments on everything about serving one another in the church, serving the wider community of Cayman, and the public gatherings of the church.  Completely independently, both brothers offered me this one piece of feedback: use more personal illustrations.  They’re not the kind of men who think preaching should just be a bunch of stories or anything like that.  They simply think my preaching is more effective when I illustrate and when I use personal illustrations from time to time.  I think they’re probably correct, and pointing it out was kind.  I pray the Lord will make their counsel helpful.

You know, there’s another benefit to at least some sprinkling of personal illustrations.  They allow the people to get to know you better.  If our churches are of any size, a good number of our people will get to know us mainly through our preaching.  They’ll form pretty quick opinions about what we’re like from what we say and what we’re like in the pulpit.  This came home one night when a brother who faithfully attends Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights said, “I wish everybody could see you on Wednesday nights.  I think they’ll get to know you much better.”  It was a cue that I wasn’t as natural nor did I share as much of myself on Sunday mornings as I did on Wednesday nights at that time.

But I do feel a little self-conscious about it.  Perhaps too much Lloyd-Jones influence early on in my thinking about preaching.  I don’t know.  And I think there are enough personality cults in the world.  I want people drawn to the truth of the word and the majesty of God, not to the cleverness or the interesting life anecdotes of the preacher.  There are some important lines to watch out for, and an important balance or proportion to guard.  It’s necessary that we decrease so that Christ would increase.

Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is one of the pastors of Anacostia River Church in Southeast DC. You can find him on Twitter at @ThabitiAnyabwil.