Illustrations are important. But, busy preachers sometimes forget to use them. I think a preacher could save himself several minutes of explanation if he can fasten upon a good illustration to drive the point home. I tried this myself a few weeks ago, and it worked very well. It took a few minutes to think of something appropriate, but that illustration was worth 10 minutes of explanation. Here, J.C. Ryle explains why illustrations are so important:1
The fifth and last hint I wish to give you is this: If you would attain simplicity in preaching, you must use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. You must regard illustrations as windows through which light is let in upon your subject. Upon this point a great deal might be said, but the limits of a small treatise oblige me to touch it very briefly.
I need hardly remind you of the example of Him who “spoke as never any man spoke”—our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Study the four Gospels attentively, and mark what a wealth of illustrations His sermons generally contain. How often you find figure upon figure, parable upon parable, in His discourses! There was nothing under His eyes apparently from which He did not draw lessons. The birds of the air, and the fish in the sea, the sheep, the goats, the cornfield, the vineyard, the ploughman, the sower, the reaper, the fisherman, the shepherd, the vinedresser, the woman kneading meal, the flowers, the grass, the bank, the wedding feast, the sepulcher—all were made vehicles for conveying thoughts to the minds of hearers.
What are such parables as the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the ten virgins, the king who made a marriage for his son, the rich man and Lazarus, the laborers of the vineyard, and others—what are all these but stirring stories that our Lord tells in order to convey some great truth to the souls of His hearers? Try to walk in His footsteps and follow His example.
If you pause in your sermon, and say, “Now I will tell you a story”—I pledge that all who are not too fast asleep will pick up their ears and listen. People like similes, illustrations, and well-told stories—and will listen to them when they will attend to nothing else. And from what countless sources we can get illustrations!
Take all the book of nature around us. Look at the sky above and the world beneath. Look at history. Look at all the branches of science, at geology, at botany, at chemistry, at astronomy. What is there in heaven above or earth below from which you may not bring illustrations to throw light on the message of the gospel?
Read Bishop Latimer’s sermons, the most popular, perhaps, that were ever preached. Read the works of Brooks, and Watson, and Swinnock, the Puritans. How full they are of illustrations, figures, metaphors, and stories! Look at Mr. Moody’s sermons. What is one secret of his popularity? He fills his sermons with pleasing stories. He is the best speaker, says an Arabian proverb, who can turn the ear into an eye!
For my part, I not only try to tell stories, but in country parishes I have sometimes put before people familiar illustrations which they can see. For instance
- Do I want to show them that there must have been a first great cause or Being who made this world? I have sometimes taken out my watch, and have said, “Look at this watch. How well it is made! Do any of you suppose for a moment that all the screws, all the wheels, all the pins of that watch came together by accident? Would not any one say there must have been a watchmaker? And if so, it follows most surely that there must have been a Maker of the world, whose handiwork we see engraved on the face of every one of those glorious planets going their yearly rounds and keeping time to a single second. Look at the world in which you live, and the wonderful things which it contains. Will you tell me that there is no God, and that creation is the result of chance?”
- Or sometimes I have taken out a bunch of keys and shaken them. The whole congregation, when they hear the keys, look up. Then I say, “Would there be need of any keys if all men were perfect and honest? What does this bunch of keys show? Why, they show that the heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”
Illustration, I confidently assert, is one of the best receipts for making a sermon simple, clear, perspicuous, and easily understood. Lay yourselves out for it. Pick up illustrations wherever you can. Keep your eyes open, and use them well. Happy is that preacher who has an eye for similitudes, and a memory stored with well-chosen stories and illustrations. If he is a real man of God, and knows how to deliver a sermon, he will never preach to bare walls and empty benches.
But I must add a word of caution. There is a proper way of telling stories. If a man cannot tell stories naturally—he had better not tell them at all. Illustration, again, after all I have said in its favor, may be carried too far. I remember a notable instance of this in the case of the great Welsh preacher, Christmas Evans.
There is in print a sermon of his about the wonderful miracle that took place in Gadara, when devils took possession of the swine, and the whole herd ran down violently into the sea. He paints it so minutely that it really becomes ludicrous by reason of the words put in the mouth of the swine-herders who told their master of the loss he had sustained.
“Oh! sir,” says one, “the pigs have all gone!”
“But,” says the master, “where have they gone?”
“They have run down into the sea.”
“But who drove them down?”
“Oh! sir, that wonderful man.”
“Well, what sort of a man was he? What did he do?”
“Why, sir, he came and talked such strange things, and the whole herd ran suddenly down the steep place into the sea.”
“What, the old black boar and all?”
“Yes, sir, the old black boar has gone too; for as we looked round, we just saw the end of his tail going over the cliff.”
Now that is going to an extreme. So, again, Dr. Guthrie’s admirable sermons are occasionally so overlaid with illustrations as to remind one of cake made almost entirely of plums and containing hardly any flour. Put plenty of color and picture into your sermon by all means. Draw sweetness and light from all sources and from all creatures—from the heavens and the earth, from history, from science.
But after all there is a limit. You must be careful how you use color—lest you do as much harm as good. Do not put on color by spoonfuls, but with a brush. This caution remembered, you will find color an immense aid in the attainment of simplicity and perspicuousness in preaching.
1 J.C. Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching: A Few Short Hints on a Great Subject (London, UK: William, Hunt and Co., 1882), 33-40.