Five Essential Sources for Sermon Illustrations and Why They Are Important

Preaching is a grind I welcome every week. Expositing God’s Word is one of the toughest but most rewarding aspects of being a pastor. You can’t treat preaching like a sprint, rushing to get a response on Sundays. It’s more like a marathon, a paced lope in which long strides are made over time.

Illustrations are not the most important part of a sermon. The meat is the exposition of the text. The illustrations add spice and flavor. Nobody wants to eat just spices for dinner. But then, meat without flavoring is bland. In most cases, sermons need a little flavor.

Illustrations also help the listener to understand your points, especially the more abstract or theological ones. Do you know those technical manuals that “help” you put together cheap furniture? That’s your sermon without any illustrations. They may get the job done, but nobody will enjoy them.

Where do I get my sermon illustrations? I have five primary sources.

Real life. About half of my sermons include a personal illustration, preferably a recent one. It’s good for your guests and new members to hear a little about who you are and what’s happening in your world. Additionally, your members are more likely to relate to you if you open up about your own life.

History. I utilize historical examples in about every other sermon, typically in the middle of my sermon. These illustrations help teach church history, historical theology, and local history. More importantly, history can connect generations. An example from the 1960s can unite Boomers and Gen Z. An example from the 1940s can connect Millennials and Builders. I intentionally pull from different eras of history in order to relate to different generations.

Current News. Everyone is watching it, so you have to go there. Otherwise, you’ll appear out-of-touch and detached. At times, I’ll address significant occurrences from the prior week. But be careful here. Not every news story is worthy of sermon time. In our era of 24/7 sensational news, it can be hard to discern the actual newsworthy events from selections made by media conglomerates that sell news. Everything is BREAKING NEWS, according to them.

Pop culture. Don’t dismiss this one. While the latest fad, gadget, or hit music may not appeal to you, they do apply to the younger generations. It’s popular in the culture for a reason. I’m not advocating you take on every one of the latest fashions. I certainly don’t. However, I want to remain knowledgeable about the current culture. If I can’t speak their language, why would they listen to me? If you can’t, why would they listen to you?

Biblical examples. Often, the best illustrations are found in the Bible. Biblical illustrations help your listeners connect the dots between stories in the Bible, between the Old Testament and the New Testament, between the law and the gospel, and between the many different genres of Scripture.

What about jokes? I tell them, but sparingly. I’ll let you know if I land one. Most often, mine fall flat. In reality, few pastors can pull off comedic relief in sermons. And I don’t recommend anyone ending on a joke. I’ve never heard a sermon in which it worked.

It’s one thing to tell people the truth. It’s another thing to illustrate it for them. The truth is essential, but helping people connect to the truth is also necessary. 

Posted on February 14, 2024

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • Sam, I must respectfully disagree with your statement above referring to “media conglomerates that sell news”. Selling news to their audience is not their business model. Rather, they sell audience to their advertisers, who pay rates based on the size and demographics of the audience. The reason for “news”, if we use the term loosely, as well as all sorts of other media content, is to attract an audience uncritical enough to stick around and watch the commercials! Please let me give you two examples: (1) When there is a 2% chance of rain a week from Thursday, panicked weather forecasters warn us to “stay tuned for important updates”. (2) Taylor Swift. She has long ago exceeded her allotted 15 minutes of fame.

    Yes, I’m cynical, and no, I don’t think much of our lamestream media!

    John W

  • This is a helpful summary of ideas, but I want to suggest you rethink something you said:

    “Illustrations are not the most important part of a sermon. The meat is the exposition of the text. The illustrations add spice and flavor. Nobody wants to eat just spices for dinner. But then, meat without flavoring is bland. In most cases, sermons need a little flavor.”

    I don’t believe that this is actually not true. In a preaching textbook I wrote called “The Incarnation Preacher,” I have an entire chapter called “The incarnation example.” In fact, I have discovered over the years that preaching without them is not preaching at all, but a lecture, no matter how good the content.

    Martin Luther said that we were not to tell people about Jesus in the sermon, we are to reveal to them the presence of the crucified Christ in their midst.

    Sermons do not rely primarily on information and teaching (even though it is also an essential ingredient). Sermons rely on people meeting Christ in the Word. This happens, not primarily in communicating ideas, but in incarnational examples that reveal how God is engaged in the world. Consider this just spice to your peril as sermons reduce quickly to teaching and lectures without them. And choose wisely, as the goal of an “illustration” is not to spice things up, but to reveal that you have actually done the hard work of not just understanding an idea in your head, but revealing it to be true in real life as well. It is easier to lecture with spice than it is to preach in ways that reveal the risen Christ is present and working in the world we live in

    Thanks for posting and risking sharing ideas. This is a friendly challenge to revisit a bit of the foundations in ways I hope is helpful.

  • Personally, I prefer funny true stories to jokes. As Grady Nutt used to say, the fun you notice is a lot more fun that the fun you invent. I do use jokes occasionally, either to make a point or to get people’s attention. Even a dumb joke can serve those purposes! However, I agree that you shouldn’t tell jokes unless you tell them well. Your joke should always get a reaction – either a laugh or a groan! If you get neither, then you’re probably not tell it well.

  • These are good, Sam. And you are right about exegesis being the meat. It is a mistake to focus more on illustrations than the meat of the message. You come off trying to be cute, and that’s not good.

    I pull from all of your same sources. Pop culture illustrations are my weakest. Maybe I need to work on that!

    When pastors share about their real life (and there are aspects of that strategy that need to be carefully considered – another blog post) they become more relatable, enabling them to connect with the congregation. I’ve seen preachers fail because they don’t connect with the people. Your own life is a good source for illustration, within reason. Most of my “jokes” come from self-depricating humor. As far as scripted jokes go, I am dismal at landing those. So I very rarely try. I have found, however, that visual jokes presented on the screen can be effective for me.

    Thanks for this, Sam.