Sermon Illustrations That Relate (and How to Find Them)

by Josh King

Lead Pastor, Second Baptist Conway (Conway, AR)

Boring sermons are a sin. I’ve said that more times than I can count – and I’m playing – but there is a measure of truth to it. Most of those reading this post are going to find 1) a well-exegeted text and 2) strong logical argument to be the standard criteria of a “not boring” sermon. Believe me, you’re right and I agree, but that’s not where most of those sitting in the pew are going to be – and as communicators we need to meet them where they are. Bottom line, there is no reason a sermon cannot be both contextually and exegetically sound and personally engaging.

In my opinion nothing engages the mind and heart of the hearer as does a well done personal illustration. Illustrations are the oil in the engine of the sermon. A good illustration keeps things moving smoothly and keeps everything from grinding along. The challenge, though, is finding good sermon illustrations that don’t sound canned; in other words, illustrations that are original and personal. Below are the steps I take to find the right illustration each week.

  1. Get your mind right about illustrations. This point alone should probably be another post but I’ll just rapid fire out a few thoughts. Illustrations are not to entertain; they are to connect the heart to the mind. Personal stories are the most effective means to do this in our current culture. Just about any story can illustrate any point. And, since you have lived through a full week since your last sermon, it’s not that you don’t have a story to tell, you just haven’t noticed it.
  2. Do your exegesis first. Many sermon illustrations don’t fit the sermon, or more specifically the text from which your sermon is preached, because they were chosen first. In other words, you chose a story and then tried to shoe-horn a text into it. That’s not how this works. So don’t even think about how to illustrate the points until you know the point of the text.
  3. Make a small chart. I just sketch this out in my notebook using three columns – themes, opposites, brainstorm. Under the “themes” column, list out all of the themes you will touch on in the sermon. Under the “opposites” column, list the opposite of that theme. For example, if you will touch on the idea of “knowledge,” then list next to it the idea of ignorance. Under the “brainstorm” column just start listing anything that comes to mind related to those two words. In this example you could jot down, “a big exam at school,” “not knowing how something works,” “the largest book you’ve ever read,” etc.
  4. Now make it personal. Many preachers stop at this point and just tell about a long book or about taking a big exam. They might say – “this would be like needing to study for a final exam in your college days, it’s tough because you need to know a lot about the topic while not knowing exactly what will be asked.” I mean, that works – but it doesn’t connect. A better approach is to tell about a time you had a big test to take, about how late you stayed up the night before, about how many Whataburger coffees you drank, about how your study partner had color-coordinated flash cards, and about and ultimately you cannot remember one thing on that exam. Everyone can connect to various aspects of that story.
  5. Tie it in. Now that you have a great story that connects the hearts of those listening to what your mind is relaying you need to tie it back to the original point you’re making from the text. A mistake many make is thinking that a story is a transition; it is not. When your story is complete, say a sentence or two on exactly what you meant to convey. For our ongoing illustration here you might say – in the same way I had a superficial grasp of those facts on that exam, many of us have a factual knowledge of Jesus without truly understanding Him. And that’s where Paul’s prayer here is going, that the Ephesians would have a true, intimate, meaningful knowledge of Him.

Let me just finish by saying this – don’t stress over illustrations. Some preachers get worked up trying to be as funny or captivating as some other preacher, but you are trying to convey the thoughts of Scripture. Just say it. When you are preaching, speak similar to the way you would instruct your child. Give the concept and use a personal story to convey how you learned it. That is all. You are not an entertainer, you are a preacher – but keep in mind, boring sermons are a sin.

Josh King has been the Lead Pastor at Second Baptist Conway (Conway, AR), since August of 2018. Prior to moving to Arkansas, he had served churches in Texas full time since 2001. His experience includes student ministry, serving as Associate Pastor, and Lead Pastor. Josh is a proud graduate of Criswell College in Dallas, Texas and holds both a Bachelors Degree as well as a Masters. Both are in Biblical studies and ministry. He is married to Jacki, a passionate and talented women’s minister, and they have three sons, Haddon, Leland, and Amos.

Matthew Emerson
Dr. Matthew Y. Emerson, Dickinson Associate Professor of Religion, earned a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. in from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Emerson joined the OBU faculty in 2015. He previously taught at California Baptist University, where he served as Chair of the Arts and Sciences Department in the OPS Division. Emerson has authored or co-authored over 20 publications. His research interests include the Old Testament’s use in the New Testament, early Christian interpretation, and theological method. He serves as co-Executive Director of the Center for Baptist Renewal, co-editor of the Journal of Baptist Studies, steering committee member of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, and Senior Fellow for the Center of Ancient Christian Studies. He is also a member of a number of scholarly societies. Emerson grew up in Huntsville, AL, where he met his future wife, Alicia. Married in 2006, they have five daughters. He and his wife are both members at Frontline Church in Shawnee.