Preach the Word! — Chapter 28

How to Present Attention-Getting Illustrations

This article is part of a series of articles on how to preach written by Jess Hall, Jr. and originally published in The Firm Foundation.

In addition to careful selection and pains-taking preparation, attention-getting illustrations must be effectively presented. Failure to follow proven principles of presentation causes illustrations to detract from the truth, rather than illuminate it.

An attention-getting illustration is usually brief. The longer the illustration, the more difficult it is to present it well and maintain the hearers’ attention. The result may be that the illustration, intended to attract and enlighten the hearers, will lose them. When a brief illustration fails, the preacher may recover with another illustration, or make the point in another way. When a long illustration fails, the preacher is stuck and the sermon fails. Because lengthy illustrations gobble up time, which is the preacher’s most precious commodity, the preacher must be certain that it is worth the investment.

An attention-getting illustration is credited to its source. Remember, however, that the sermon is not a written presentation where credit can be given in a footnote. Credit should be brief, no more than is necessary to acknowledge the source. Footnote materials in a sermon are no more interesting than reading footnote materials in a book.

An attention-getting Illustration fits naturally into the sermon material. It is an integral part of the sermon’s flow from introduction to conclusion; it is not an interruption. Introductions to illustrations are illustration killers. “A few years ago while I was travelling in Texas, I preached in a small west Texas town where I met John Doe, who is a second cousin to Don Joe. He is married to Joe Don’s sister who is known to many of you. While eating a meal in their home, John’s uncle, who was visiting from Oklahoma told me about an old Indian chief who. . . .” You get the idea. Not only does such babble waste time, worse yet, it detracts from the point being made. It forces the hearers’ minds both to wander and to wonder.

An attention-getting illustration is specific, not general. It is a rifle, not a shotgun; it is a laser beam, not a fluorescent light. Honing an illustration to a keen edge requires extra thought and preparation time, but it adds authenticity than can be gained in no other manner.

An attention-getting illustration shows rather than tells. Daniel 2:12 records that “the king was angry and very furious.” If the preacher wants his hearers to “see” the king, he will show them the king in words – “The king’s face turned red; he clinched his teeth; he doubled his fist; he pounded the throne.”

An attention-getting illustration appeals to both intellect and emotion. Appeal to emotion alone is like cotton candy – mostly air. Appeal to intellect alone is like seeking sustenance from a tasteless tablet – very unappealing.

An attention-getting illustration is more than just an allusion. A passing mention is ineffective if the hearers don’t know the story. The more details an illustration contains (without violating the rule that an attention-getting illustration is brief), the more it engages the memories and emotions of the hearers.

An attention-getting illustration is about people, not things. While “oil and water don’t mix” is a well-known maxim, it is not as powerful as “trying to blend Rush Limbaugh and Larry King.” Which of your vacation photographs are more interesting – those with only landscapes, or those in which your fellow travellers also appear?

An attention-getting Illustration ends with words that tie it to the point being made. If it does not add to and make the point being illustrated, it dangles sorely – an irritating hangnail on the sermon. Instead of assisting in the transition from the known to the unknown, it is a dam in the sermon’s stream that is impossible for the hearer to circumnavigate.

Well planned and presented illustrations breathe life into a sermon. They do the same for the hearers!

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)