Illustrations: the dessert!
If the Bible is the meat of your message (which it always should be!) then illustrations are the dessert! I love the Word of God, and make no mistake - preaching is about the Word of God. Illustrations within a message serve to open people's eyes to the relevancy, the "now" way the Word of God is working in hearts and lives. Illustration certainly shouldn't replace the central role of the Bible, rather they serve to explain what we are communicating from God's Word. My husband and I always say that they help people to know how to live out the Word of God on Monday. It's one thing to read in the Word of God what happened with Moses, but how does that apply to you? To me? To us? Illustrations also serve to motivate and inspire people with how Word has been made manifest in people's lives, how He is moving in power today.
A lot of people seem to struggle getting good message illustrations and a great number of people even pay for them from various websites or books, (there's nothing wrong with that, by the way), or they get them from suggestions from other preachers. I have never done that and for me it's not an issue of right or wrong but preference. Again let me state that in this blog series, I'm NOT sharing, "THIS IS THE WAY YOU DO IT" rather I'm simply sharing at a friend's request "WHAT WORKS FOR ME."
I feel really strongly about this when it comes to what I personally do because next to actually loving the Word and enjoying making Biblical concepts very understandable for people, I am most passionate about illustrations. The reason is because I only share ones I'm extremely excited about -- ones I've lived. I have never had a need to search for an illustration or pay for one because even from the beginning of my ministry I just went to the storehouse of my brain to search for one. I share transparently about my life and also firsthand stories of people I personally know whose lives have been changed. One HUGE benefit of this is that I never have to worry about memorizing my illustrations! I already know them like the back of my hand because they are happenings in my life or ones that have personally touched my life. Therefore, I never have to stand over my notes and read an illustration or struggle to remember how to share one most effectively. Many times while I'm sharing illustrations I come down from the platform and walk up close to the audience, sometimes even among the audience and look right into their eyes. All this is possible because I don't need my notes to share what I've lived.
I find that for me it's very difficult to share with passion a story about some guy in 1892 who had a horse farm, or a lady who moved from England in the 1940's, or some guy who became a millionaire at 29 years old. Even if it's true, if I haven't experienced it -- if I don't at least personally know the person or had some first hand experience with my illustration it's a challenge for me to share it authoritatively. I believe people share best about what they have actually experienced.
I usually have an illustration to go with each point I share in a message, sometimes more than one. And I normally always use one to close out my summary before the altar call. Most times I save the best for last, the one that the most kleenex will be required for. :) I don't see that as manipulation by the way, but just good ol' fashioned Holy Spirit ordained forethought. There are exceptions where it's most effective to put your best illustration for the message right up front -- be prayerful about where it should go.
I do not say this in a critical or prideful spirit, but I do believe that being a person who can use personal illustrations almost exclusively and not ever run out, you do have to be very open to the supernatural working power of God and partake in it. To share firsthand how God is moving today, you have to be actually involved in the process of how God is working on an ongoing basis. If I'm going to share first-hand stories about bodies healed, families changed, divorces canceled, drug addicts delivered, and people coming to Jesus all the time and their transformational stories then guess what, I HAVE TO BE INVOLVED PERSONALLY IN ALL OF THAT. So, now you know one reason I'm really passionate about illustrations -- I'm deeply invested in them.
I don't just share victories and miracles, I also share transparently from my heart about pain, times when I've personally been broken and needed healing. I share my hurts, and my struggles. This always helps my listeners to almost immediately identify with me in some way and feel that they are listening to a good friend. Although many times I'm speaking to people I don't know, the audience begins to feel like they are a part of my life. So their hearts open up and they not only receive my story, they then open up to everything else I have to say in the message and respond to whatever Jesus is wanting them to receive through the message.
To illustrate (can't resist an illustration in a blog post about illustrations!) I recently went to lunch with a dear lady who has been at Celebration for about five months. We have never sat down and had personal time together -- this was a first for us. She invited me to lunch and I was eager to get to know her better. When our meals came to the table, she didn't touch hers for probably the first 30 minutes or so while I completely ate mine. I just listened to her fill me in on who she is, where she's come from and what she's all about. After she talked for about half an hour she said, "Well, I've been talking non-stop for all this time PD, and I really do want to have you share in this conversation and get to know you more... but I must say that part of the reason I just went off talking about myself for all this time is that I feel like I already deeply know you! Just from your preaching style and the things you share with the congregation so transparently I feel that I already know you as a close friend."
I said, "I'm so glad to hear that! Mission accomplished!"
The main mission when preaching is to bring people to Jesus. It's also to help believers understand truths from the Word in a greater way and be inspired to live them, and to give opportunity for transformation to take place at the altar. I've found that people readily receive anything much better from a voice they feel they know and trust. Giving personal illustration versus random ones really sets the stage for that. Sharing how the Word has been made real in YOUR LIFE is the most powerful thing you can do.
Although I realize most people reading this will not exclusively use personal first hand illustrations and will borrow some from elsewhere, I'd just like to use this blog post to encourage you to try using some you have actually lived. See if there's not a much greater passion or authority in your preaching - sharing things from your experience. Although we mustn't simply live by experience (truth always comes first) the fact is that experience is very hard to argue with.