More on “Illustrations”

Ed note. As will be evident as you read, this article was written in 1981 and thus the references to some dated “current events.” The article’s value for preachers remains current.

I have never appreciated the fact that the word “illustration” is used to cover all storytelling in preaching. Because the word focuses on the visual alone (to illustrate is to “brighten” or “throw light on” something), it has tended to limit appeal to the other senses (hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), and that, in turn, has tended to impoverish our preaching. Perhaps it would be well if the word storytelling were to replace it altogether.

Stories, well told, are sense-oriented; they appeal to the senses. Dialog, for instance, an integral part of most good stories (see Christ’s parables), appeals especially to the sense of hearing. The prodigal son talks to himself, rehearsing what he will say to his father (here, in a modern translation, you will even find quotes within quotes!—dialog with himself!).

This is an important point, about which I have said more in a chapter of my book Preaching with Purpose. But, here, I shall zero in on two issues involved in illustration (or, better, storytelling): (1) recent vs. timeless stories and (2) contrived vs. actual.

Let it be said that there are distinct advantages to each. The Bible uses all four, so I am not suggesting the elimination of one or the other but, rather, an understanding of the values of each, so that they may be selected and used more powerfully.

Recent vs. Timeless

Of course, the recent may become timeless, but in many instances this will not be true, and also in most cases you will not be able to make this determination beforehand. So, in choosing a given story, it is useful to remember the distinction.

Recent events, known to all (like the assassination of Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt—a contemporary and still strongly felt happening—have impact so long as this emotional climate remains. But the chances are, by the time that this Journal can be published and distributed, and certainly in a year or so, it will have lost most (if not all) of that added impact. Such stories, then, are best used right away, but lose their impact with the passage of time (unless a great deal of background is used in order to recreate something of that feeling, so that the listener/viewer may relive the event). Today, November 3, 1981, the papers are filled with the story of a Soviet submarine that ran aground in Swedish waters. Have you forgotten this story by now? Surely, even if this recalls it for you, it will be stale. So, widely known recent events are best used right away, while they are still recent.

Timeless events are good any time. Certain events (Lincoln’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, etc.) have that character naturally, that is, they have become timeless by becoming memorable over long periods of time. The preacher can refer to them and stir memories or emotions with a minimum of backfill. (Of course, any event can be used if enough background is given to recreate the event for the listener—but that takes sermon time—often a good bit of it.) Timeless events also are reusable at any time. A sermon can be preached—stories and all—largely as it was the first time, if its examples and stories are of a timeless quality. Clearly, new materials must be sought if the stories are dated. One of the hallmarks of a poor reused sermon (there is nothing wrong with reusing sermons, per se) is stale stories.

My advice is that unless a recent event has great impact on the entire congregation, as a rule, it would be better not to use it. Moreover, if you follow the general rule, one illustration for each point. then it would be better to limit dated stories, allusions, and examples’to a maximum of one per sermon. Christ seemed to use dated material sparingly, for example, “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell”; “Zecharias, son of Barachias, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” Apart from those two instances, it is difficult to find any such material.

Contrived vs. Actual

I have been discussing actual events thus far; not all stories, examples, etc., must be so. Christ’s parables were contrived. Manufactured events (“Suppose a farmer wanted to kill the weeds in his field …”) have one great advantage: you can produce them and shape them precisely to the point you wish to make at any time. You do not need to search for them or to settle for a story that only partially fits. Of course. there is a disadvantage too: you must do creative work: some don’t like to; others think they can’t (on this point see my book, Insight and Creativity in Christian Counseling). But creative thinking, in the long run, is an advantage, because the more of it that is done, the more it tends to make one a more effective thinker and preacher. Contrived stories ought always to be presented as such—the question of their reality never should be left ambiguous.

There is also the possibility of taking an actual event and reversing it: “Suppose the Soviet submarine had been found in the San Diego harbor.…” Often, doing this will (1) bring an event closer to one’s own sphere of activity and (2) allow for the sort of alterations that are needed to make a point from the passage being discussed.

Real stories do, however, have the value of recency, when freshly used, and (again) do not require so much time to tell. But, when one takes the time to fill in details, like many of Christ’s parables, these stories become memorable.

All in all, the analysis of various options itself is what is most valuable. Think about them; be aware of what you are doing when you select a story and why you are doing so. If you take the time to do so, you will be delighted with the results.—J.E.A.[1]


[1] Adams, J. E. (1982). More on “Illustrations.” The Journal of Pastoral Practice, Number 4, 1982, 5, 151–153.

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