Sermon Illustrations: Finding the Just Right One - Leaders.Church


Sermon Illustrations: Finding the “Just Right One”

Sermon illustrations do not simply come naturally, they take practice. We are here to help.

Video Transcript Below

Dick Hardy 0:00
Hey friend, it’s great to be with you on this video where we are talking to my good friend David Lindell from James River church. He David serves as the executive ministry pastor. So, David, thanks for taking some time to hang out with me this morning.

Dick Hardy 0:33
We want to jump right into the subject. I was thrilled when I ran this idea by David, to be able to talk on this subject for pastors as they’re setting up their message, finding just the right sermon illustrations. David has been pastoring/preaching for a number of years now and is doing a great job. So, David, give us a jumpstart. Where would you like to start when helping pastors think through finding those right sermon illustrations?

Topic of Illustrations

David Lindell 1:22
You know that the whole topic of sermon illustrations is something I think is incredibly important. Partly, because so many of us who are preaching, do it so poorly. That includes me.

David Lindell 1:36
There are times where you’re grasping at straws. I’ve been on the preaching team at James River church for a decade, which is an amazing thing. It’s a huge privilege and honor. Over the course of that time, honing the craft of hooking people, getting them interested in what you’re talking about, is critically important. That’s the value of an illustration.

David Lindell 1:57
There’s no value in an illustration, for illustration sake. You really want to go from illustration to application and where the rubber meets the road in the lives of people. For you to get to get your hooks in them, as it were, for them to really lean in and go, “Oh, okay, I care about what you’re saying” often, it’s the power of an illustration that moves them to that place.

A Few Realities…

David Lindell 2:21
I think there are a few realities about sermon illustrations that sometimes we overlook in the process. I think, first and foremost, an illustration has to be compelling for it to be useful. So, what, what makes a compelling illustration? I think that’s something people want to listen to, and they’re interested in. I think it’s something that builds a natural bridge.

David Lindell 2:47
I think we’ve all heard somebody get up and tell a funny story or an experience from life or something from history. They go, “Well, that really has nothing to do with what I want to talk about.” That was their way of saying, “I couldn’t figure out a good illustration for the topic. So, I just picked a story that I knew would entertain you.”

David Lindell 3:11
Is that is that totally unhelpful? I think it’s not near as helpful as it could be if it tied in with your big idea. So, every message that you and I preach, has a big idea that ultimately we’re trying to get across from God’s word. The illustration should really set the runway. It should create the runway for that big idea to land in the hearts of people, right? However, if it’s not compelling, it doesn’t work.

Have you ever sat down to write your message for the weekend and realized you don’t know where to start? Take a look at the Sermon Starters PDF for a multitude of effective strategies to get you started.

David Lindell 3:42
How do you know if your illustration is compelling? I think every one of us has to be gutsy enough to tell it to people around us who will be honest with us before we tell it to a bunch of people who, they’re going be forced to listen to it, because we’ve got the microphone, or we’re on stage. There are some people who probably love you enough to say, “That isn’t funny, or you lost me.” Hopefully, you have these people around. You need them, not just for sermon illustrations, but for the whole message.

David Lindell 4:14
I think having that honest feedback to ensure that your illustration is actually doing what it’s intended to do is vital. It should be engineered, start to finish. It should be engineered to draw people. If it doesn’t accomplish that, then you need to scrap it. And that’s a hard thing to hear. But it’s true.

Dick Hardy 4:33
That really and when you talk about the business of having people around you, that to me is so critical. Probably for some pastors maybe feels a little bit challenging. If they’re in a smaller setting. So, who can I trust to really be honest with me? You need to be intentional and identify those people that we’ll talk about. straight to you. Because when they do, that’s going to set the stage for you to position your message in a better way to communicate.

The Hook

Dick Hardy 5:08
Earlier you said to hook. When you, when you’re talking about getting that hook in people, you’re talking about grabbing their attention. Because you can prepare, you can preach the best thing in the world but if they’re not listening, you don’t have them.

David Lindell 5:22
It’s so true. I think the fact of the matter is, probably everybody listening to this has either a phone with video recording capability, or they can get one. They have a friend who has one. I would say, here’s what you need to do. This is really painful. If you don’t have somebody to give you honest feedback, here’s the low hanging fruit. Record it and watch it.

David Lindell 5:45
If you don’t think it’s funny or interesting, then you better scrap it. So, that’s a hard thing to do. But honestly, it’ll make your illustration way better. Even if it’s something you end up wanting to use, recording yourself doing it will help you. We don’t practice on people. That’s something we say here at James River Church. We don’t practice on people.

David Lindell 6:03
As preachers, oftentimes, the reality is, parts of our sermons, when people are hearing it, they’re hearing the practice run. Because we didn’t take the time to practice, or the illustration tends to be off-the-cuff.

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David Lindell 6:16
So, I would say, if you’re going to tell a story and you’ve thought about it, tell it to a few people in the week. Work it into conversation. They don’t have to know you’re going to use it as an illustration. You’re practicing though before the game, before Sunday morning. You’ve really got to land all your jumps.

David Lindell 6:34
Often, for an illustration to really have the power that it needs to grab people, it’s not just, “Is this the right story?” It’s, “Is this story told in the right way?” So, is there too much detail? Sometimes, we find things from history that are really fascinating to us. But to somebody who’s not as interested in that, it’s not fascinating, and you need to scrap that part. There’s some parts of the story that they don’t need to know to get to the punch line.

Dick Hardy 7:01
Even though you find it fast, you got to scrap it.

David Lindell 7:05
Even though that might be actually part of the story. That doesn’t matter for the purposes of illustration.

A Practical Example

David Lindell 7:14
A couple of months ago, I told a story about camping with the kids, with the two oldest boys. So, we’ve got four children. Owen and Elliot are the oldest. I was really excited about this illustration. We broke down. We were out camping, and the car got a flat tire and it was just a debacle start to finish.

David Lindell 7:39
Owen, at the end of the sermon, I came off the stage and he was, “Daddy you lied today?” I lied. And he said, “You acted like when we got the flat tire. You were happy about it.” I said, Oh buddy. It’s sarcasm. It’s sarcasm. So, I had to explain to him what sarcasm is. And he was like, “Do they know that?” They know that especially if they’re a parent.

David Lindell 8:07
There are things from his vantage point, that’s not the way it actually happened. But I think you’re engineering the illustration for maximum impact. That means that it’s your expression, it’s your tone, it’s your cadence, it’s your pacing, it’s your pauses, all of that really, really matters. And that’s hard work. T

Dick Hardy 8:30
That is so good. That is so real. So practical. We didn’t talk about this ahead of time. I’m going to throw you the one here. Somebody watching this could say, “You’re doing all that your own strength. You’re asking all these people around you to speak to you. Where’s God and all this? What do you say?”

Have you ever sat down to write your message for the weekend and realized you don’t know where to start? Take a look at the Sermon Starters PDF for a multitude of effective strategies to get you started.

David Lindell 8:53
I would say that would be, what I’ve described about the importance of the illustration, would be the same, that how I’d process the points in the message, how I’d process the supplemental scriptures that I would include.

David Lindell 9:10
My brother in law, awesome guy, attended a church many years ago, and I asked him about what he liked about the pastor there. He said, “I really like the pastor. It’s just that sometimes when he preaches, I feel like there should have been a step in between him writing the message and me hearing the message where he cut out some things. I don’t think he has that step in his process.

David Lindell 9:33
Here’s a guy, he’s a business guy and he’s not a preacher, but he’s listening to his pastor preach and teach me saying, “Some of this should have been cut out.”

The Importance of Study

David Lindell 9:46
I think we can forget that you can delve into a lot of stuff. You can have a lot of stuff in a story about an illustration. In your study for your message you should be backloaded with content that the people in the audience or the auditorium never hear because I am overflowing from the study.

David Lindell 10:08
TD Jakes says, “Study yourself full.” I think your level of fullness, that’s not everything, you’re not going to give all of that to people. But people can feel that.

David Lindell 10:23
I think on the illustration, the reality is this, just like your points, you would submit those to the Lord and say, “God, do you want this? What do you want the trajectory of the message to be?” In that same way? You’re saying, “God, is this illustration helpful?”

David Lindell 10:40
That’s part of my prayer. Honestly. God, if you don’t want me to tell this story, I don’t want to tell this story.

David Lindell 10:47
There may be a joke, you know, that you’ve slipped into for people to come up for air, because that’s the way I look at an illustration in the middle of the message. There are strategic times in the message, especially if your content is it’s causing people to self-examine, or there’s weight of conviction. The content is deep. That’s good. That’s not bad but you have to recognize that people can’t sled down that hill for 30 minutes and at the end go, “Wow, I’m ready to just really allow the Holy Spirit to do work on my heart.”

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David Lindell 11:22
There’s got to be a moment where they can go, “Ahhhhh…” It’s almost like a release, a pressure release valve in the room.

David Lindell 11:28
So, all of that’s got to be strategic to accomplish the objective that God wants accomplished. So, here are two things that we tell our preachers and teachers in the prayer meeting or on Sunday mornings, as you go into a service, here’s what you need to ask. What does God want? And what do people need?

David Lindell 11:46
I would say, it’s a great question about sermon illustrations. What did people need to engage the topic? And what does God want accomplished through the message. Does this illustration further that along? All of that’s got to be submitted to God.

David Lindell 11:59
So, if you’re saying, “You’re doing that in your own strength,” well, an illustration in your own strength could be funny, but it’s not going to be spiritually powerful or impactful. I don’t care about a funny story that’s not spiritually powerful or impactful, or that moves people down the road, where the Holy Spirit would lead them through to apply that passage to their own life.

Your Own Strength vs The Holy Spirit

David Lindell 12:23
I have no interest in a story that’s engineered in my own strength or whatever. I’m going to trust, though, the Holy Spirit is guiding me through my week. As I move toward that message, he’s guiding me in my thinking. There are some sermon illustrations that honestly the story happened on Saturday. The kids, we had something crazy happen, or we had a fun day together and out of that, I got a story that God said, “That’s your Sunday illustration.”

David Lindell 12:54
So, I just trust that that all happens in the providence of God. Some of it you plan and some of it, you say, “Jesus, you got to leave me by the Spirit to what the content that’s going to be the most productive for this this point.”

Dick Hardy 13:08
That is so good, David. How would you advise for this? We’ve all seen pastors get up, and, the story is so good, that the story overtakes the message. People walk out and say, “That was a great message.” What was it? “Well, it was that story he told about…” They don’t have the message. How does the pastor help not have that happen, where the story overtakes the message?

David Lindell 13:34
That’s a great question. I think the way you avoid that is through a grounded philosophy of preaching. What is preaching to you? I think you’ve got to answer that question.

Have you ever sat down to write your message for the weekend and realized you don’t know where to start? Take a look at the Sermon Starters PDF for a multitude of effective strategies to get you started.

David Lindell 13:48
Is preaching storytelling. It’s not. Is preaching oratory? It’s not. That’s part of preaching and maybe a very important part. I actually think it is. Being a good orator, is that part of preaching? I think being a good orator is very valuable in communicating the gospel.

David Lindell 14:08
So, I would say yes and yes, but is that what preaching is? I would say, “No, that’s not.” Preaching, the prototype are the Old Testament prophets. The prophets were preachers. Then Jesus, when he went into the synagogue, he unrolled the scroll, and he read the scriptures, and he explained that it to them.

David Lindell 14:32
So, I view preaching through the lens of opening God’s word and explaining it to people so they can apply it to their lives. So, the illustration is a handmaiden, it’s a servant to that philosophy. It helps me do that better.

David Lindell 14:51
I think you can avoid that by being willing to always say the illustration can always die. I don’t need the illustration. If you need it, then you become a servant to the illustration, even if it doesn’t work, or it’s not the best.

Biblical Exegesis

David Lindell 15:09
We teach through books of the Bible. There are some times you come to a passage in Scripture and you go, “Oh, I know the perfect story for this.” And you’re thinking about it all week. But when you sit down to write the message, and you’re working yourself exegetically through the passage, you come out on the other end of that and go, “Oh, that story won’t work. That won’t serve the big idea.”

David Lindell 15:29
Then you’re at a crossroads because the question is, “Are you going to be truer to the story, or truer to the passage?” Or are you going to say, “You know what, that story is really funny, I’m going to write it out, I’m going to put it in a Word document on my computer, and I’m going to save it under some subject headings, that would be applicable for it. Then I’m going to go back, and maybe I don’t use it. Maybe this is the way the Holy Spirit is telling me, “You don’t need an opening illustration this week. People just need you to go right into the passage.”

David Lindell 15:58
There are times where that’s true. So, I think we’ve got to hold those stories that we love loosely. Part of holding them loosely is saying, “I’m not going to make the message a servant to the illustration, I’m going to make the sermon illustrations serve the message.”

Want your sermons to get better every single week? Check out It Takes a Team to learn about 4 teams you can build or involve in your sermons.

David Lindell 16:17
Oftentimes, that’s why it’s better to save your illustration formation till the end of the message formation process. You’re working through that big idea? What are the points? What are those exegetical jumps that you want to make? And what is the application? Now, I’m going to reverse engineer the illustration.

Dick Hardy 16:40
You know, that’s good. David, this has been so helpful. And you’ve got pastors out there watching this video and they’re saying I’m tracking with you. I’m tracking give us a parting shot. If they don’t remember anything else about what we’ve talked about, what do you want to speak to the pastor watching this video right now?

David Lindell 17:00
I would, I would want you to walk away saying, “Sermon illustrations are really important. However, they take a lot intentionality and a lot of work.” Here’s how important they are. In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of one of the passages in the gospels, he’s paraphrasing where one of the gospel writers is talking about how Jesus taught people.

Jesus Always Had A Story

David Lindell 17:23
I love that Eugene Peterson says, his translation of it is, Jesus always had a story ready. I think that is so true. Jesus understood. What are the parables? If not a living illustration to help Jesus get people to understand the priorities of the Kingdom of God and how they those priorities work themselves out in their lives.

David Lindell 17:54
So, if Jesus thought stories were valuable, you should too. If Jesus thought parables would drive home the point then you and I have to say, “God help me to land on the right illustration. I pray that, that you would use that illustration to connect this message to the hearts of people.”

David Lindell 18:11
You lay that at God’s feet, and I think he will bless that attitude and that mentality, and he’ll help you better than you ever have before. Connect with the people who are in your congregation.

Dick Hardy 18:22
That is so good, David. I can’t thank you enough for your investment in pastors around the country and around the world through this video. You’ve been a good friend, and frankly, you’re a great gift to James River Church. I count it a privilege to know you and be able to partner with you in this way. So, thanks for taking time to be with me today.

Dick Hardy 18:40
To the viewer, we’ve certainly enjoyed having you here with us. Feel free to read down in the blog and anything we can do here at Leaders.Church to be helpful to you we stand ready to do so. Thanks for being with us today. Make it a great one and be blessed.

So, we hope this resource on sermon illustrations has helped.

Check out these blogs on preaching, as well.

It Takes a Team to Create Sermons
Why Should You Ask for Help with Preaching?
How to Preach Online and In Person
The Top 5 Preaching Questions Asked
Emotionally Healthy Preaching
Doug Clay on Preaching Sermons Online
5 Ways to Get That Sermon Started
Practical Tips on How To Do Sermon Prep
Preaching for Life Change
Fighting the “Last Minute” Fatigue
The 3 Parts of an Altar Call
2 Preaching Lessons Learned from COVID-19

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