When I search for preaching resources, I will undoubtedly find one of three types of resources: preaching theory, preaching how-to, preaching illustrations. The most popular of the three may very well be the illustrations.
As a premature preacher, even I can sense the pressure for our sermons to be interesting and illustrative…and our selection of preaching resources reflect that pressure. Parishioners don’t care about the fine details about the sermonic process. Most don’t share the preacher’s obsession with Greek. So preachers (I included) respond with this mantra: illustrate, illustrate, illustrate.
I believe this response is largely due to the well-intention to help the listener understand what is being said. Some theological points are not very easily digested without some parallel analogy. Jesus used parables for a similar reason. Other times, illustrations help liven up the sermon to help people to follow along mentally.
In my own quest for genuine preaching, I am coming to the conclusion that illustrations are overrated. I am overwhelmingly guilty of this, having well over 10 illustrations in one sermon. My point is not that illustrations are bad, but I believe that they primarily engage the mind and the imagination. If I want my congregation to mentally understand a specific point, then I illustrate it. If I feel like they’re getting lost, then I illustrate my point to ground it in reality.
My problem with illustrations is that while they engage the mind and imagination, they often stop there. Michael Fabarez wrote a book Preaching That Changes Lives, I have only begun reading it, but the title alone was enough for me; the aim of preaching is not to merely instruct the mind, nor just to warm the heart. Preaching must change lives. Illustrations aid in mental engagement, but does little to affect change in the listeners mind.
My current solution is not that we abolish illustrations altogether. I believe in the value of illustrations. Furthermore, I reject any reductionist approach to preaching, whereby some believe that the Word of God alone should be enough to keep our hearts interested…anything else is symptomatic of sin! I tend to shy away from simplistic solutions, and I believe that posture to be wise especially when addressing this topic. My current solution, instead, is that we give examples.
Examples? But isn’t that the same thing as illustrations? Well, it can be, or it can be totally different. In my opinion, an illustration is an analogy or a metaphor, something that is not related to the actual content of whatever point is being made, but maybe has the similar structure. When Jesus talked about the heart being like rocky, hard, or fertile soil, we obviously understand that our hearts have nothing at all to do with soil, but we understand by analogy how there are comparisons about soil that can likewise be made about our hearts receptivity to God’s Word (the seed). An example, on the other hand, is not an analogy, but a true life story or example that actually gives flesh to a sermonic point. John Piper is one of the best at this. In one of his most famous sermons, Doing Missions When Dying is Gain, he refrains from relying on analogies to help his listeners understand his points. Instead, he tells stories of how saints of old and of today actually live(d) the message of the sermon.
Analogies, by and large, engage the mind through imagination. Examples, by and large, engage the person through identification. If I can actually hear or see for myself what does it mean to live out God’s Word, I am more likely to do it. I have a real life example! Analogies, as memorable as they, often times stay in our minds and do little for our hands and feet. If I can identify with the example and see the example as a model for action, then I see that Christianity is not just a nice philosophy, but a way of life that is meant to be lived out.
You might say that I am just bickering about definitions: illustrations vs. examples. Maybe I am. But that is not my point. My point is that we need to engage the person and move them into action and life-change. We cannot be content to just hear from people that our sermon was interesting, though-provoking, or “very good”. Let’s make our sermons interesting and mentally engaging, but let’s make that continuous with the ultimate goal of preaching: to change lives. We can’t settle for anything less.
The problem with this approach is that it is much easier to concoct illustrations than examples. First of all, there are entire encyclopedias dedicated to sermon illustrations. Secondly, anyone can dream up of illustrations…it just requires a mildly imaginative mind. The reason why example are much harder to come up with is because in order to acquire a wealthy body of example we must acquire a wealthy body of experience. We can search through magazines and books for numerous examples. It takes a little more work, but it is certainly one way to do it. But those with the most powerful and effective examples are those who hear them first hand or experience them firsthand. Unless the preacher lives a life that allows him to constantly experience the fullness of the Christian life, he will be out of examples. This shows just how important it is for me and those much more experience than I am to refuse to confine ourselves to our ivory towers and be willing to walk in the streets and trenches (talk about mixed metaphors!). Preaching must begin with the life.
This is an untested thought about preaching. But it’s here for now.