To illustrate…

Our illustrations often don’t really work. Here are 11 danger signs.


I was trying to explain the Incarnation last week, and what it meant that Jesus was simultaneously fully God and fully human.  I tried Dual Citizenship as an illustration.

Now if you push that illustration not-so-very-far you end up with all kinds of heresies and misunderstandings.  My friend who holds British and Australian passports – she can only be in one of those modes at a time can’t she?  Isn’t she a weird hybrid?  And don’t her children have to choose?  If you heard her speak, her accent would be one or the other, wouldn’t it?

And here’s the problem – every illustration will do that at some point.  So how can we guard against the problem, with a clear conscience?

We could do without any illustrations, of course, but as you’ve just discovered, they re really useful way of reeling people in…

Here are 11 questions – answer ‘Yes’ to any of them and an amber light should flash.

1. Is it redundant?

A lot of illustrations are just not needed, really.  The biblical narratives and language are stuffed full of illustration in themselves. Words like ‘redeem’, ‘kingdom’ or ‘Father’ all unpack a biblical narrative in themselves, and they don’t need an extra layer of material on top.  They quite often just need time and space to breathe.

When I was starting out as a preacher I was taught, “Explain, illustrate, re-explain, apply”.  That’s good advice if all that’s needed is to stop me overloading people with stodge, and saying something lighter to give their brains a chance to catch up.  That’s good communication.  That’s putting in ‘illumination’, though, rather than ‘illustration.’  Putting in some light. But the text itself is often good to do its own work, if we explain it well enough, and I usually need to unlearn that lesson.

Keep them for when there is a really difficult concept, or something culturally alien.

2. Is it fictional?

I confess to an allergy here, which is to illustrations which are convenient fictions.  The judge who lets the criminal off the charge; the landowner who writes a cheque to cover the rent.  They smell phoney to me, and I suspect they do to others.  I came across one the other day about a non-Christian family member who wouldn’t go to church for the carol service because he couldn’t believe in the incarnation, and instead ended up rescuing some geese from a snow-drift by imitating a goose, and it occurred to him… well, you couldn’t make it up.  Except that somebody did.  And they shouldn’t have.  IMHO.

I very rarely use fictional illustrations these days.  If something is biblically true, it will have an echo in our culture and news.

3. Is it negative?

A negative illustration is one that makes a point, and says ‘But God isn’t like that.’ The trouble is, they are the easiest kind to discover and use, and when it’s late in the day and we need something fast, we grab one. But that leaves our hearers knowing that it’s a poor illustration – and they’ll try to find other holes in it too.

Do your listeners a favour – go the extra mile and try to find a positive one that works.

4. Is it clichéd?

Some are just overdone.  I remember an over-exposed teenager complaining, “Is there any other way to describe how Jesus died for me, than putting a book in this hand, and passing over to that one?”  Yes, it’s a powerful picture, but it’s been over-used.  Let’s try something else for a while.

A ‘cliché’ is a French word, meaning pre-formed phrase.  It comes from the old days of printing newspapers, when some words phrases were kept ready-made because they were used so often, rather than having to make them up letter by letter each time.

5. Is it trivial?

I think it’s Ed Clowney somewhere who describes lightweight content as “being pelted to death with popcorn.”  Sometimes we are so concerned not to bore people or safer them off, that we keep all the material at a light simmer.

I think it’s Ed Clowney somewhere who describes lightweight content as “being pelted to death with popcorn.”

He says in the same article, that we preachers “go fishing in deep waters.”  The truths we are talking about our life-changers, and it doesn’t do them or our hearers justice to keep everything at the level of a mildly amusing after-dinner speech.  Don’t mishear – I am not saying be dull, boring and humourless.  But match the depth of the material with the depth of your illustration. Don’t be afraid of emotional depth.

6. Is it inappropriate?

The student worker was going over a talk for teens with me.  He was talking about sin, and wanted to cover the story of Jeremiah burying a linen loincloth, and unearthing them months later, rotten and unwearable.  It is a powerful story in itself. “Should I,” he said, “talk about Jeremiah’s boxer shorts?”  And he produced a pair.

We decided that a mixed audience of teenagers wasn’t the right context for him to flourish a pair of his boxers, and he found another passage.  it was a good job that we had a standard filter, “If in doubt, don’t.”  Wise advice.

7. Is it off-centre?

Does it illustrate exactly what you need it to, or is it slightly too vague, or not quite the right descriptive language.  Does this occurrence of ‘Redemption’ need financial or slave language? What about ‘Justification’ this time?

8. Is it ugly?

Last minute prep, late-night Googling or SermonCentraling for something – anything – that’s mildly humorous and roughly on target means that people will be able to smell  the illustration doesn’t really sit properly with your material.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of personal style and credibility – no matter how hard I try, I can never be plausible about any illustration involving football (soccer).  Rugby, cricket – yep, I can pull those off.  But when it comes to that sport, as one of my sons says, “Dad, don’t even try.”

9. Is it too niche?

I read.  A lot.  And most of the stuff I read for pleasure isn’t the kind of thing that connects with folk on Sunday.  I am probably the only person in the room who would be gripped by a biography of Charles de Gaulle (yes, really).  So I have to watch the stuff that too easily comes to mind because it is comfortable and close for me.  I have to try to have a broader bandwidth.  I fell into this on Sunday talking about going to the opera (although it was a puppet performance, which was meant to be funny and was making my point), and going to see a play in the West End of London.  Fortunately I redeemed myself with a fairly crass way of explaining a key Christian doctrine with a tin of chilli con carne, but if I’m not careful I paint myself into my own niche.

10. Is it unsafe?

Is the centre of the illustration the centre of the text? Given that every illustration breaks down at some point, does it break down far enough from your main point that it’s safe to use?

11. Is it inauthentic?

Burned into my mind is the time when I flew too close to an old-time preacher and re-used one of illustrations.  No doubt in his day the particular story about the Russian Tsar was front page news, but for me it was dead, and the people knew it.  Why was I using it?  Because the preacher I was copying and learning from was A Great One, and I was trying to learn his moves.  But of course had he been there although he’d have been rightly flattered, but should have just given me a slap for being so silly.

So as we all step up to Christmas and we’re looking for new illustrations for old truths, what works? Pile in!

5 comments on “To illustrate…”

  1. Is there a 12th warning light – Is it going to embarrass your family? I remember being struck by you warning about illustrations by talking about a preacher holding up a baby and saying,”Ah, my little bundle of sermon illustrations.” I, therefore, make a point of not including my children as sermon illustrations because I want them to feel home/life with us is a safe place (or as safe as possible). I like trying to find something that people are likely to ‘collide’ with after the sermon. So last Christmas, when speaking from John 1 about the word becoming flesh, I used the film collateral beauty which had a character writing letters to love, death and time not expecting to get an answer as an illustration – because in the film love, death and time did show up bodily… The hope was, that every time the trailer for that (terrible) film came on the thought that Jesus is God showing up in person and answering our deepest questions about God might just bubble back to the surface.

      1. Oh, they do… I’m more than happy to make myself look foolish…

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