Beyond Illustrations

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Most preachers have learned the lesson well: showing is crucial to telling.

We are not the first generation to recognize that there is something very wrong when the preaching of the living Word is reduced to a dry intellectual exercise, remote from life and awash in the abstractions of one sort of “God-talk” or another. “The snowstorm was real,” lamented Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1838, in reference to a deadly sermon, “the preacher merely spectral.”1 

Emerson’s indictment lives on in the twenty-first century, sharpened by the relentless snowstorm of sensory stimulation via iPod, BlackBerry, and YouTube. When was the last time that you heard someone observe that more was gained from a children’s sermon with the mystery object in the brown paper bag than from the treatise on the transfiguration that was delivered from the pulpit? You probably said it yourself.

Showing is crucial to telling.

But why?

The Case for Showing
Sociological studies, pedagogical theories and neurological research can all bolster the claim that showing is important in human communication. But perhaps more persuasive to many preachers is the fact that when you open the Bible, there is showing amidst its telling on nearly every page. Didn’t Jesus tell a story as often as he made a point?

The desire to illustrate sermons was born out of this awareness. If you want to get the message across, you will need to find images, stories, examples, applications, or photographs to bring it home.

If this is true, then it is hardly surprising there is money to be made in helping preachers stay “real” in the pulpit.

Showing has long been packaged in the form of “illustrations” — collections of anecdotes. excerpts and tidbits to liven up the treatise on transfiguration that was trumped by the children’s sermon. Illustration products are marketed as the sugar to help the exegetical medicine go down. Today they range from the pretty hokey to the media savvy.

If you search for “sermon illustrations” on, you will come up with about two thousand three hundred fifty nine books, two CD-ROMs and three DVDs. There is a lot to choose from.

But some preachers are not quite sure about this “plug and play” approach to showing, and neither are many in the field of homiletics.

What’s wrong with good old illustrations?
For one thing, there is an objection to the very idea that “showing” is “illustrating” in the first place. As some New Testament scholars have argued, parables, for example, are not merely illustrations of a point already made. The parable is the point. What is communicated by an image or narrative or metaphor cannot be reduced to a propositional statement. It is a “something more” for which there is no substitute. Given this conviction, it makes sense that illustrations sprinkled in for seasoning do not satisfy.

Second, there is a recognition of the limitations of “canned” sermon illustrations, period. The older favorites, which often have been in circulation for quite some time, carry with them unspoken values and attitudes that may well undermine whatever worthy sentiments they might offer about faith or stewardship or perseverance. And while the new and improved versions sometimes avoid the stereotypes of their predecessors (in the days of the “E-mail forward”), the best of the bunch may have already made the rounds via the inboxes of your congregation.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, there is the concern that a steady diet of imported illustrations is no substitute for the imagination and discernment of a local pastor’s eyes and ears and heart. An emphasis on distant dilemmas or literary gems or larger than life saints can suggest that God is at work — but not here.

Preaching without a net
So, how would a preacher committed to showing as well as telling move beyond illustration?

I’m afraid the answer can be hard to hear.

Moving beyond illustration is less about technique and more about a way of life. You take up the Bible and read the text for Sunday again and again, raising questions, making connections, and following leads. You do this with particular people in mind: Gladys who lost her husband last month, the deacons fighting over the clothing drive, the quiet teenagers lurking on the margins. And then with all that simmering inside you, you go about your business, on the lookout for parables.

The jolt of recognition might come with a news story or a soccer game or a Netflix pick. It might be observed at the Wednesday potluck or Thursday’s hospital visit. At least some of the time it is not something that has happened but something that might happen. It is the story that comes to mind when you ask yourself, “What would it look like here and now if . . . ?” Showing the good news requires a hearty imagination, especially when the bad news is so apparent.

Pastors often strive for separation between work-life and home-life, but where preaching beyond illustration is concerned, strict compartmentalizing simply won’t do. Live with the Scripture and its promises on the one hand. and the people and their struggles on the other. The parables will show up. It is a little scary to trust that it will happen, without the safety net of illustrations!

If panic sets in and you are tempted to plug and play, remember: Jesus came to give sight to the blind. That promise can be trusted, I think, even here in the company of the preachers.

1Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume I: Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (Cambridge: Belknap, 1971), 85.