Using Illustrations to Preach with Power

Using Illustrations to Preach with Power

by Bryan Chapell


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Illustrations capture our attention and further our understanding in a way that no other sermonic tool can. This former pastor and current seminary president demonstrates why illustrations should be used in biblical preaching and then goes on to share how to find and integrate them effectively. Throughout his work Bryan Chapell makes it clear that illustrations are integral to effective preaching, not because they entertain, but because they expand and deepen the applications the mind and heart can make.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781581342642
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 04/04/2001
Edition description: REVISED
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 923,779
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Bryan Chapellis the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Peoria, Illinois. Heis also the host of a daily half-hour radio Bible teaching program,Unlimited Grace, and the founder and chairman of Unlimited Grace Media ( Bryanpreviously served as the president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and is the author of a number of books, includingHoliness by Grace.

Read an Excerpt


The Art and the Argument

crisis in Preaching

Widespread dissatisfaction with preaching cuts across our churches. The disenchantment began to boil to the surface almost a generation ago. Young and old alike complained of preaching that was lost in abstraction, buried in jargon, and frozen in formula words incapable of firing the courage or of forging the answers needed for an age of unprecedented change. Thoughts too lofty to touch the realities of life precipitated criticism, the like of which American preachers had not endured since battles over slavery eroded public reverence for pulpit robes. Preachers cried for answers. Experts studied, surveyed, and assessed.

Clyde Reid offered the perspective of religious professionals:

(1) Preachers tend to use complex, archaic language which the average person does not understand; (2) most sermons today are dull, boring, and uninteresting; (3) most preaching today is irrelevant; (4) preaching today is not courageous preaching; (5) preaching does not communicate; (6) preaching does not lead to change in persons; (7) preaching has been overemphasized.

Reuel Howe spoke to laypeople and catalogued similar complaints:

(1) sermons often contain too many complex ideas; (2) sermons have too much analysis and too little answer; (3) sermons are too formal and too impersonal; (4) sermons use too much theological jargon; (5) sermons are too propositional, not enough illustrations; (6) too many sermons simply reach a dead end and give no guidance to commitment and action.

The crisis continues. These seminal surveys and many subsequent studies have triggered an explosion of works advocating novel approaches to preaching. Baby and bathwater often seem flung out the back door together in this rush to develop new forms. Time will tell whether the new approaches have enduring value. What is obvious now is that few seem satisfied. The willingness of so many to experiment with so important a spiritual task highlights how desperate many consider their situation. Both pulpit and pew echo the concern that too many sermons have no direct connection with everyday life.

This book contends that preachers who properly develop and use life-situation illustrations in expository messages already possess a powerful corrective for the crisis in contemporary preaching. Such illustrations live where people live. They communicate meaning by common experience and, thus, do not allow biblical truths to fly over heads or reside in the surreal world of doctrinal jargon and abstract principle. Through this vehicle, true communication takes place and sermons themselves are filled with vibrant life.


Preachers searching for illustrative materials soon find a variety of options available to use in their messages. The array of alternatives can itself create important questions about the types of illustrative content that best suit a sermon. The following hierarchy ranks such material by its complexity and relative emphasis on "lived-body" (i.e., descriptive) details:

An Illustrative Hierarchy

Novella Allegory Parable Illustration Allusion Example Analogy Figure of Speech
The illustrative materials listed lower than "Illustration" on this hierarchy are characterized by their brevity. Figures, analogies, and examples can add rich expression to a sermon, but they do not involve listeners to the same degree as do true illustrations. A quote from an ancient saint or a statistic from a contemporary newspaper may add interest to a sermon, but neither carries the listener into a tangible understanding of a message as effectively as a full illustration. On the other hand, the categories of illustrative material higher than "Illustration" usually have greater length than is appropriate for sermons or reflect a particular literary genre conforming to conventions not typical of most sermons. The aspect of the hierarchy most ideally suited to relevant preaching — preaching that communicates the powerful and living Word of God most effectively to its audience — is illustration.

A brief definition of true illustrations is as follows: Illustrations are "life-situation" stories within sermons whose details (whether explicitly told or imaginatively elicited) allow listeners to identify with an experience that elaborates, develops, and explains scriptural principles. Through the details of the story, the listener is able imaginatively to enter an experience in which a sermonic truth can be observed. The preacher tells the what, when, where, and why of an occurrence to give listeners personal access to the occasion. He encourages each listener to see, feel, taste, or smell features of an event as though he or she were bodily present in the unfolding account. Then, along with these sensory details, the preacher also suggests the emotions, thoughts, or reactions that would typify the experience of one living the account.

These life and body descriptions create the "lived-body" details that distinguish true illustration from mere allusion or example. In both allusion and example the speaker refers to an account, whereas in an illustration the preacher invites the listener into the experience. The lived-body details flesh out the illustration in such a way that the listener can vicariously enter the narrative world of the illustration. It is true that listeners can supply details out of their own imaginations to experience a concept to which the preacher refers in an example or an allusion. The categories cannot be strictly drawn. The point is that in examples and allusions the listener primarily supplies the lived-body details, whereas in true illustrations the preacher supplies them.

Illustrations, therefore, lead listeners into events. In an example, the preacher says, "I have observed ..." In an allusion, the preacher says, "This reminds me of ..." With an illustration, the preacher says, "I'll take you there." In essence, when the preacher illustrates, he says, "You will know what I mean by comparing this to a memory from your life," or "Live through this new experience with me so you will know." This means that illustrations, however briefly expressed, reflect life-stories. Whether the account is new to the listener or conjured from memory, the preacher verbally re-creates a slice of life that defines a sermon's ideas.

historical overview

It would be incorrect to suggest that ours is the first generation to discover the value of using illustrations in preaching. We need but glimpse the best preaching of practically every era in the history of the church to discern illustrations' value. With rare exceptions the most esteemed preaching has consistently relied on the vision of the inner eye.

Had not the apostle Paul punctuated his words with images of the full armor of God, the race course, and the altar to an unknown God, we would strain to remember his instruction. Had not Jonathan Edwards dangled sinful spiders over the pit of flame, no one would know "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." If William Jennings Bryan had not decried, "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," his political "sermon" would have been forgotten the next day. If Martin Luther King, Jr. had not led us through a "dream" and onto a "mountaintop," the march on Washington might have become nothing more than a ragged hike across a majestic mall.

Books have extolled the sensory appeals of Charles Spurgeon, the images of Peter Marshall, the characterizations of Clovis Chappell, and the human dramas of Harry Emerson Fosdick. None of these men, of widely varying theological perspectives, preached in times dominated by visual electronics, yet they dressed their sermons in strong illustrative images with powerful results. Prior to our contemporary "age of visual literacy," these preaching giants tapped something deep and fundamental in human understanding. We are just beginning to discover in scientific terms what this fundamental something is.

Hidden Prejudice

Many recent studies support the use of sermonic storytelling and illustration by citing the long tradition of their use. Contemporary insights into the narrative structure of Scripture have spawned a spate of books and articles defending the use of stories in sermons and organic "story sermons." Other works explore the role of storytelling and illustration in various preaching traditions in order to prove their use is neither novel nor damaging. Unfortunately, such an appeal to past works potentially reinforces a hidden prejudice that these devices are the preaching forms of preliterate, unlearned, or folk cultures and are thus ill-suited to today's sophisticated audiences.

The twentieth century's classic textbooks on preaching often stereotype illustration as primitive or elementary. Henry Grady Davis reflects this attitude in his Design for Preaching, the most widely used homiletics textbook of the last hundred years:

Again it is contended that illustrative stories are necessary to supply interest, to give the human touch, and to make the message relevant to concrete human situations. The answer is the same. What does this imply concerning the texture of the thought before and after the story? ... If the preacher has something relevant to say, and if the fabric of his thought is a woof of particulars on a warp of clear generalizations, his sermon will need no artificial adornments to make it interesting.

Further it is said illustrative stories are needed to supply pauses and resting places for listeners in the progress of the sermon's movement. This is by all odds the most valid claim made for them, in my opinion. That they are necessary in the contemporary sermon, however, is a dubious argument.

For this premier homiletician, illustrations are popular frill rather than an essential element of excellent preaching. His cautions and qualifications virtually outlaw illustrations from "quality" preaching.

Other classic texts of the century show less antipathy to illustrations than Davis, but they reflect his prejudice nonetheless. John Broadus devotes just thirteen pages to illustration in his massive On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons — and the last two pages of the chapter are cautions. More revealing, he begins his discussion with this "faint praise":

Strictly speaking, one would not call illustration a distinct element of the sermon co-ordinate with explanation and argument, or with persuasion, which will be studied in the next chapter. Its function is solely auxiliary, coming to the support now of one and now of another of the principal elements [emphasis added].

Such a lukewarm introduction hardly fires serious consideration of the subject.

Illustration receives a little more favorable treatment in Ilion T. Jones's still popular Principles and Practice of Preaching. His chapter — also relatively short — on illustration begins, "Illustrations are essential because of the way the human mind functions." This auspicious beginning makes the following lines all the more disappointing:

Abstract statements of truth, detached from the practical experiences of real people in live human situations, have little power to convince ordinary minds. ... It is safe to say that the great masses of the people do not think — are not prepared to think — in exact, carefully worded formulas.

Jones has excellent insights into the practice of illustrating, but he only considers illustrations "essential" because preachers must accommodate people with "ordinary" minds who are "not prepared to think." In this light, illustration remains a demeaning chore.

Most newer textbooks still relegate illustrations to the category of "preaching aids," though some offer exceptionally valuable insight into their use. An attitude of reservation pervades the advice on illustration given to prudent preachers.

Holy Pollutants

There are good reasons for caution. Though the marketing of illustrations is as old as the collections of "exempla" that flourished in Medieval Europe, no one has yet found a way to control the mania that often accompanies them. Where there are illustrations there are showmen, and where there are showmen there are charlatans. Ralph Lewis, for example, records the performance of a contemporary preacher who jumped on the pulpit and rode it as a camel going "Whumpf! Whumpf! Whumpf!" over eight-hundred miles of imaginary desert dunes, imitating Eliezer's quest to find a bride for Isaac.

Such antics are not new — nor extreme by some ancient standards. Catharine Regan records the medieval cases of a friar who surrounded his pulpit with decomposing bodies for illustrative impact and of a preacher who, with a magician's timing, would withdraw a skull from under his cloak. It may seem unnecessary to assert that the potential for abuse should not preclude the use of illustrations, for the obvious excesses of the past need not be mimicked in order for illustrations to be of value today. But in the ministry, where the integrity of speakers and the purity of messages are of utmost importance, past errors greatly influence present thought.

For the best of motives preachers may conscientiously shun any appearance of popularizing a message lest truth appear to be compromised for appeal. After all, the apostle Paul urged that preaching not be characterized by "enticing words" (1 Cor. 2:4), "flattering words" (1 Thess. 2:5), or "the wisdom of this world" (1 Cor. 2:6). No doubt these apostolic injunctions have inhibited the use of communication tools that are perceived as mere "rhetorical devices." Godly pastors are rightly concerned that worldly wisdom or popular artifice not pollute biblical preaching. Unfortunately, such concerns are often translated to mean that a message that appeals to an audience, or is readily understood, is somehow inherently flawed. These are matters of attitude and opinion that may sound ridiculous to nonpastors, but they cannot help but affect the conscientious preacher who would rather fail than manipulate.

In addition to the possibility of manipulating audiences, the use of illustrations has sometimes raised suspicions because of its propensity for manhandling truth. For example, medieval interpreters asserted that a variety of allegorical meanings underlay every biblical text. A literal interpretation based upon grammatical-historical insights was considered simplistic. The approaches considered more profitable attempted to expose hidden, spiritual meanings behind the plain sense of every biblical statement or object. The intent of the author was not as important as allegorical insight in determining what a text meant. Analogy piled upon analogy led to wild interpretations that left the church with few, biblical anchors since a text could mean whatever a good imagination determined. The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rebelled against this hermeneutic, as Augustine had centuries before (in theory more than in actual practice) in early Catholicism and as modern Catholics have done again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Centuries of effort to rid the church of allegorical imprecision has resulted in a latent suspicion of all analogies including illustrations. Preachers must understand this background to use illustrations intelligently. To use the words of Ralph Lewis:

Analogy ran amuck for centuries, plaguing the Christian church with wild excesses. Legitimate Bible analogy slid to absurd depths when preachers allowed their imaginations to race without restraint, reason or responsibility....

Such excesses led to the basic exegetical principle of the Reformation insisting every Scripture passage has but one meaning. John Calvin championed the cause against allegories. Luther too said, "Origen's allegories are not worth so much dirt."

The conflict in the church persists. ... It's true that freedom to expand meaning has often become license to distort truth with illusory fancy, fiction and figments. Yet scriptural models suggest there must be a legitimate use of analogy. While the ministerial record warrants caution with this technique, analogy can be another effective inductive ingredient in sermons.

Discoveries of the trailblazers

We can be thankful that three recent approaches to preaching have moved in the direction of supporting the use of illustrations by high lighting the importance of linking understanding to experience. Each trailblazing effort more clearly marks a fundamental role for illustrations.

Inductive Preaching

The first school is "inductive preaching." An inductive sermon focuses on particular human dilemmas, personal problems, or common concerns that help listeners discover scriptural truths. In contrast to a deductive sermon that tries to prove doctrinal principles before making specific applications, inductive messages start with the human need. The sermon and its major divisions typically try to lead to conclusions on a personal level rather than prove universal principles. Particulars take precedence over propositions. Interest and relevance drive the message as doctrinal answers unfold. Whereas logical proof and expositional argument dominate a traditional deductive sermon, personal concerns and real-life experiences highlight inductive approaches.


Excerpted from "Using Illustrations to Preach with Power"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Bryan Chapell.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Wizened or Wise?, 11,
Part One Background and Theory: Deciding About Illustrations,
1 The Art and the Argument, 19,
2 The Path of Scripture, 37,
3 Insights from Learning and Communication Theories, 49,
4 The Genius of Life-Situation Illustrations, 65,
Part Two The Method: Making Illustrations,
Introduction to Part Two: Snapshots from Life, 85,
5 Framing the Picture, 89,
6 Filling the Frame, 107,
Part Three The Practice: Working with Illustrations,
7 The Character of Illustrations, 131,
8 Cautions for Effective Illustrations, 139,
9 Finding and Filing Illustrations, 167,
Conclusion: Tell Me a Story, 175,
Appendix: The Limits of Narrative, 177,
Bibliography, 193,
General Index, 205,
Illustrations Index, 207,
Scripture Index, 208,

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