WHY USE ILLUSTRATIONS?
They Open Windows. Charles Spurgeon was fond of referring to illustrations with the metaphor of a window. He said in his book Lectures to My Students:
Our Saviour, who is the light of the world, took care to fill his speech with similitudes, so that the common people heard him gladly: his example stamps with high authority the practice of illuminating heavenly instruction with comparisons and similes. To every preacher of righteousness as well as to Noah, wisdom gives the command, “A window shalt thou make in the ark.” You may build up laborious definitions and explanations and yet leave your hearers in the dark as to your meaning; but a thoroughly suitable metaphor will wonderfully clear the sense.
If our challenge in preaching centers on our ability to help people see, then the use of a window will greatly aid us. We can be faithful and clear in unpacking the history, theological themes, and propositions of the text and still have many who don’t quite “get it.” Like a window in an unfamiliar room the right illustration lets in some natural light to help them see.
They Let in Fresh Air. Our church recently purchased a building that was more than one hundred years old. Many of the rooms in this old church building had not been used in decades. As you might imagine, there was a lot of stale air. How do you solve this problem? You open some windows. You turn on some fans. You get the air moving around. This works in preaching too. As you are laboring to make a point, particularly weighty points, an illustration can help move the air around a bit.
They Decorate Life with Doctrine. As preachers and teachers we have only a limited amount of time with our hearers. I wish I could preach an hour a day to everyone, but this is impossible. What I can do, however, is pack some doctrine in their backpacks, briefcases, or on their dashboards. I regularly walk through our kitchen and watch my wife cook so that I can find illustrations among her tools. I talk with people in our church about their work to look for ways to use illustrations that fit. I read the news quite often to glean illustrations rather than information. Why? Quite simply, if I can adorn a countertop, a work bench, a desk, a weight room, or a part of our city with a doctrinal truth, then I have sent doctrine with them.
Don’t use too many illustrations. If you load too many illustrations into your sermon, it will be unbalanced. The sermon will become about the illustrations rather than the text. Think of illustrations like a spice or a seasoning; most people don’t like to feast on four or five heads of garlic for dinner. However, diced-up, strategically deployed garlic greatly enhances our meals.
Don’t use illustrations that fail to help your point. Remember who serves whom. The text is the master and the illustration is the servant. If you get these mixed up, illustrations will actually harm rather than help your preaching and teaching.
Don’t get more excited about your illustration than your point. Be careful here. You don’t want to get dramatic, loud, and excited about a trip to a football game only to come back down to your monotone self and unpack justification by faith alone. Remember, your hearers will get passionate about what you are passionate about. Let the illustrations serve this end.
Excerpt from Erik Raymond at Ligonier