There are several reasons why pastors don't use illustrations in their sermons. Some pastors leave them out on principle, thinking illustrations steal stage time from the Scriptures. Illustrations, they say, are ear candy to keep people's attention off their iPhones.
But I would guess most pastors don't use more illustrations because they don't come naturally. They don't avoid them; they just aren't good at them. If lightning strikes, they will put it into their sermon. Otherwise, they roll with their theologically accurate, if unimaginative, sermons.
In both of these scenarios, pastors view illustrations as unnecessary. The pastor assumes that their church will be just fine without them.
I'd like to argue the opposite. Illustrations are not optional. Your church needs them. Here are three reasons why.
1. The authors of the Bible recognize that people need illustrations.
As you read through the Bible, one thing becomes clear: the Bible has illustrations to spare. They are all over the place.
The first illustration in the Bible is spoken by God himself. He tells Cain, "And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door" (Gen. 4:7). That's a fantastic word picture, isn't it? I envision a robber dressed in all black creeping around the corner of a house at night, bending his knees to pounce through the back entrance. That's what harboring bitterness is like. If your conscience doesn't have temptation-sensor floodlights, you're soul is as good as stolen.
Since the Bible contains illustrations, we can assume that the authors thought they were necessary. Furthermore, since the Bible is inspired, we can assume that the Holy Spirit thinks they are necessary. I wonder how many preachers quench the Spirit in their preaching because they neglect this sharp rhetorical tool that the Spirit has blessed.
The prophets did it, Jesus did it, and the apostles did it. So should we.
2. Illustrations show your church the significance of your sermon.
What was the last movie that had you on the edge of your seat? Hands glued to the armrests, torso leaning slightly forward, and eyes blinking as seldom as possible. Was it an action flick? Courtroom drama?
Movies engage us when what happens to the characters matters to us. Will the terrorist get away with inflicting an entire city with an incurable deadly virus? Will the woman guilty of murdering her husband get away with it? Even though we know in the back of our head that it will all work out before the credits roll, there we sit, with a handful of popcorn suspended chest high, wondering what will happen.
Your congregation will be engaged—on the edge of their seat—when they feel the significance of what you are saying. How will they feel that significance? We like to think they would inherently recognize the significance of what the Bible says. It's the Bible after all! How could it not be significant? But it's your job as the preacher not only to re-reveal God's Word to your church, but also to demonstrate why it matters.
That is the genius of illustrations. They connect the significance of one situation that your church already senses with the significance of the passage you are preaching.
What is the significance of the cross? Satan, like that terrorist, might have gotten away with inflicting the deadly virus of sin on the entire world. But Jesus intercepted it, at the cost of his own life, so that anyone who simply believes in him may be cured.
It may be that your church does understand the significance of the Bible—they just don't know it, because you haven't yet shown them. Illustrations show people why your preaching matters.
3. Illustrations make your church want to act on your sermon.
The misconception about illustrations is that that they mainly help people understand the Bible. If something is difficult to wrap your head around, tag on an illustration so people get what you're saying.
According to Bryan Chapell in Using Illustrations to Preach with Power (14-15), this purpose only scratches the surface.
Illustrations will not allow mere head knowledge. They exegete Scripture in terms of human experience to create a whole-person understanding of God's Word. By framing biblical truths in the world in which we live and move and have our being, illustrations unite our personalities, our pasts, our present, our affections, our fears, our frustrations, our hopes, our hearts, our minds, and our souls in the understanding of that which is divine.
They are integral to effective preaching, not merely because they may entertain or clarify, but because they expand and deepen the applications the mind and heart can make.
Chapell says illustrations drive toward application, not mere understanding. So the main point of a sermon flows from explanation to illustration to application. The illustration, then, prepares your congregation's hearts to eagerly receive the application.
In Braveheart, how did William Wallace convince the Scottish to fight? Not by explaining well-conceived battle plans, but by illustrating deathbed regret: "Fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live. At least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance—just one chance—to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!"
Do you desire to see your congregation live out what you preach to them? Use the power of illustrations to motivate your church to put your sermon into action.
No Excuse Not to Try
Through its own frequent use of illustrations, the Bible at least endorses the use of them in our sermons today. So give it a shot. Try it out. Over the next few weeks, incorporate illustrations into your sermons and keep your eyes out for a response from your congregation.
And don't be surprised if by showing—not just telling—the significance of the Bible's teaching through illustrations, your church begins to live out the God's Word as they embrace its values as their own.
Eric McKiddie serves as Pastor for Gospel Community at the Chapel Hill Bible Church. To grow more as a sermon illustrator, download his free ebook Show Then Tell: 52 Illustrations for Believing and Living the Gospel. He blogs at pastoralized.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @ericmckiddie