Narrowing the Search for a Great Sermon Illustration

July 18th, 2011

In the old days (meaning when I was a parish minister), publishers produced books such as 5000 Best Sermon Illustrations, or Stories for Sunday, and we would plow through volumes of mostly irrelevant, sentimental, and usually dated ditties culled from Reader’s Digest and well-known sermons for a gem, often wasting untold amounts of precious time. Nowadays, the Internet stands in, and the preacher’s wrist is worn out clicking on link after link – sermon helps, newspaper websites, blogs.

When illustration-searching seems to be going nowhere, it might be due to one, very simple problem: the need to narrow your search. We all know that the key to good browsing is to know what we’re looking for in the most specific terms possible.

In our book, Claiming Theology in the Pulpit, Burton Cooper and I identify several needed “theological moments” that should go into sermon preparation, and one of them needs to occur before going in search of illustrations. This “theological moment” can be tremendously helpful for narrowing one’s search for the right illustration. Here’s a little process to try.

1. Identify what, in particular, you are trying to illustrate or illumine with an image, picture, story, etc. Write it down.

2. Now stop. Don’t start searching yet! Have a “theological moment.” Ask yourself what broad theological category you are illustrating (sin, faith, the human condition, evil, church, hope, God, salvation, eschatology, grace, etc.).

3. Without over-ruling the theological emphases in the biblical text, remind yourself what you, within your operative theology (liberationist, evangelical, process-relational, existentialist, feminist, etc.) want to communicate on an ongoing basis about this theological category. For instance, if the broad category is sin, remember that sin looks different for a liberation theologian (Segundo, for instance) and an existentialist (Tillich, for instance). Right? For the liberationist, sin is the oppressive misuse of power, for the existentialist, sin is any idolatrous attempt to secure oneself against one finitude. If your category is a bit more specific – forgiveness, for instance, remind yourself of any issues attached to the idea of forgiveness that you don’t want to forget from within your theological perspective. A feminist-liberationist, for instance, will want to remember the close relationship between forgiveness and justice.

4. Now, return to the task of finding an illustration. Hopefully, this little exercise will considerably narrow your search. If you’re an existentialist, you now know that you’re looking for an illustration for sin that is a picture of self-securing idolatry. If you’re a liberationist, you’re now searching for a picture of oppressive power. If forgiveness is your target idea, and you’re a feminist-liberationist, you’ll go in search of a story where the restoration of justice and right relationship precedes or accompanies forgiveness.

This simple practice, applied consistently, can considerably narrow your search for illustrations, assure theological consistency, and save you precious time in sermon preparation. Try it.


John S. McClure is the Charles G. Finney Professor of Homiletics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and author of numerous books including the upcoming Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention.

The Ministry Matters Library offers a sermon illustrator database (FREE during the Beta period), which you can search by topic (alphabetically in the righthand sidebar) or more deeply with a keyword (using the pop-out SEARCH tab on the far left).

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