A good sermon illustration can feel like the proverbial needle in a haystack. Where do you even start looking for one? Life experiences? Pop culture? A quick search for “free sermon illustrations” online?
Whether you’re planning a special holiday service like Mother’s Day, Easter, or Christmas, or you’re looking for general tips to connect with your audience and sharpen your communication skills, here are a few tips that will help you deliver powerful and effective sermon illustrations.
Hitting the Target
Just because something is a great story doesn’t mean it’s a great sermon illustration. Asking yourself a few questions will help you narrow your focus and hit your target.
“Many a preacher misses the mark because, though he knows books, he does not know men.” —James Stalker (1848-1929)
1. Who – Who is your audience?
You have to first know your audience to know what is going to connect. For example, a football illustration or phrase may not hit your target if people are into theatre, or if “fútbol” means “soccer” in the culture. You’d provide different details if you were a professional team chaplain at training camp than you would if you were a youth pastor at summer camp. These unforeseen missteps happen all the time when working with translators or in foreign countries, but they are just as true in your own context. What will your audience understand and relate to? Use language, examples, and even humor that makes sense to the congregation?
2. What – What is your goal?
It’s not enough for a connection to exist between a word or idea in your biblical text and a potential illustration. It’s not even enough for people to remember or like an illustration. You need to clearly identify what it is that you’re trying to help people understand or feel. What is your goal? If the illustration doesn’t help accomplish that goal, then it’s a potential distraction—no matter how engaging and entertaining it may be. If you really have to stretch to connect the illustration to the point of your sermon, it’s likely not a great illustration. See the next point.
3. Why – Why are you using this illustration?
You’ve probably heard and maybe said something like the following (often with a laugh): “That doesn’t have much to do with what we’re talking about today…” Or perhaps you’ve made some other non-transition from a story or joke to the main point. There’s a minimal window of opportunity, if any at all, for irrelevant stories told purely for the sake of building rapport with listeners/viewers. We often try to justify these as “personable” or “disarming,” but they may honestly be motivated by ego, a need for affirmation, or laziness. Be relatable, not superman on a pedestal, but be intentional. Choose sermon illustrations that will help people connect with God through your preaching, not just with you.
4. When – When should you use the illustration?
Should sermon illustrations be introduced before a point or after? Are they better for engaging listeners’ hearts and imaginations, opening them up for theological truth, or landing the plane with practical application? There’s no right or wrong here, necessarily. But think back to the first question of “Who?” Are your listeners action-oriented or relational, needing their affections stirred in order to set up the importance of a theological truth? Or are they inclined toward academic pursuits and eager for knowledge, therefore needing the illustration to follow a point to flesh out practical implications of an easily accepted fact. Whenever your illustration appears in the sermon, the goal is to be intentional in how you move people along so that they are not in the same place at the end of the sermon as they were before. Make sure illustrations aren’t scenic detours, but goal-oriented boosts in momentum, pointing them toward Christ.
5. Where – Where should you get sermon illustrations?
Finally, after a quick consideration of the Who, What, Why, and When, then and only then are you ready to ask “Where can I get a good sermon illustration?”
Bonus tip: “Where should I keep them?” is another great question. I know several pastors and authors who do a much better job than I do of categorizing quotes, anecdotes, and news in files for future reference.
Where to get your (free) sermon illustrations
There are plenty of wells to draw from, and most of them are free. As a young preacher, even as one who loves to study, I would occasionally find myself putting more energy into a creative illustration that would “wow” my students than into prayerfully preparing a clear point and progression of thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. To this day, the one sermon I’m still embarrassed of included 15 minutes of clever introductory illustrations—one after another—before ever getting to the first point or biblical text. (I hadn’t thought through the first 4 W’s above.)
“When intimidated by who's sitting in the audience, we should remember the King of Kings is also here, and it's his message.” —Charles R. Swindoll
1. Illustrations from personal experience
The sermon isn’t about the preacher. But a true story from your own experience enables people to relate to you and, hopefully, to God. There’s power in your testimony, and I don’t just mean your conversion story. How God has worked in your day-to-day life and the things you’ve witnessed as He’s given you “eyes to see and ears to hear” can be life-giving to others. There’s a reason your Bible is full of these kinds of stories. Personal stories are disarming and relatable.
2. Illustrations about kids and family
Stories about kids often become the illustrations of choice for many pastors. These illustrations highlight innocence, often contain some comic relief, and can soften the blow of our own childish behaviors or misunderstandings. A word of warning: unless they’re anecdotal and fictitious, be sure to get permission to share any true stories involving kids or family so that they don’t feel like zoo animals on display. Also be sure to avoid always using your own precious kids as illustration source material. It can be easy for such stories to become predictable and therefore less engaging or even bothersome.
3. Illustrations from biography
Church history, missionaries, martyrs, and other historical figures provide a treasure trove of quotes, stories, and illustrations. Not only do they exemplify faith in action (or even how these “superheroes” of the faith were men and women with real doubts, problems, and imperfections), they also educate our churches about the ongoing mission of God. He is still alive and working today, not just in the pages of Scripture.
4. Illustrations from pop culture
This is all about knowing your audience—the “Who” from above. Sports, movies, shows, music, social media trends are all great fodder for meaningful illustrations. “Pop” culture isn’t limited to those realms; it’s anything popular enough to be easily recognized. In your own context, local news, events, landmarks, or traditions may provide the perfect sermon illustration. Residents fishing from a nearby bridge, commuters hanging on during a subway ride, or the leaky hydrant on Main could all work, depending on your content and context.
5. Illustrations from preaching and teaching resources
Finally, online and physical resources specializing in sermon or teaching illustrations are a dime a dozen. Actually, some are a significant financial investment while others are free. But we’re back to the needle-in-a-haystack feeling again. So here are a few popular resources to get you started:
Compilations of sermon illustrations used by famous pastors and writers include: Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations, Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations & Quotes, The Quotable Lewis, and 300 Sermon Illustrations from Charles Spurgeon. Other popular compilations of more generic sermon illustrations include: 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, and Preacher’s Sourcebook for Creative Sermon Illustrations.
Important reminder: It’s fine to use someone else’s quote or illustration, just give them credit. This only adds to your credibility as an informed preacher. Few things are more disappointing than hearing a preacher tell someone else’s stories, quotes, or jokes as if they were their own.
Holiday sermon illustrations
Whether you need a memorable and engaging story for holidays like Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, or you just need general tips to help you make your messages more engaging, here are a few final tips to consider in creating, choosing, and delivering your sermon illustration.
- Keep the mood and audience in mind, especially for holiday messages. For instance, a war story may not be your best option for a family friendly service.
- Leverage the natural enthusiasm and constant reinforcement of cultural cues, especially during holidays. For example: illustrating a point using a candy cane at Christmas time may stick in people’s hearts and minds all season—and maybe even every time they see a candy cane for years to come.
- Keep it simple. The connection should be easy enough for children to understand the real point and not just the creative prop, story, or joke. Profound simplicity cuts through the white noise of our overly-informed and infinitely-customizable existence. The more complex you try to make an illustration—using too many connection points and metaphors—the more likely your audience is to get confused and forget it.
- State the obvious. Don’t belabor the point and insult people’s intelligence, but at least state the connection between your illustration and the point you want them to understand or the emotion you want them to feel. Connect the dots, even if just briefly.
- Is it repeatable? Can someone retell your story in a way that would help them share what they learned about God and hopefully how their life was changed as a result?
Over to you
Ultimately, sermon illustrations should serve as spotlights shining on the biblical text or truth. People should walk out of a worship service or turn off a livestream clearly seeing the main point—not the clever illustration. It should be a spotlight, not in the spotlight. So, consider who you are trying to engage, what you want them to understand, feel, or do, why you’re thinking about using a particular illustration, when you should use it, and then where to pull the great idea from. Remember: What makes a sermon illustration “good” or not, is not how creative, comical, or even catchy it is. A sermon illustration worth sharing and remembering is one that moves people deeper into their love and knowledge of God.