Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sermon illustrations

One of the hardest things about preaching in another culture can be sermon illustrations. I'm probably more aware of this than many because I've seen more than one brother from the States use an example from everyday life (in the States) that falls flat in the Caribbean because they're not familiar with it. Wolves attacking a flock is foreign here--there have never been any wolves and flocks of sheep are uncommon. To be sure we have sheep (not wool sheep, but hair sheep) and goats, but they are generally tied out singly, or with a baby. In fact, the goat or sheep is more often the problem when they get loose and get into a garden.

Jesus used lots of illustrations when He preached--the parables are simply longer illustrations. As the master teacher, He knew people don't remember what they don't understand, so He used examples and illustrations to help them understand. Our audience today is no different. Think back to when someone gave you directions to get somewhere. Most people will give you landmarks along the way, especially if street signs are unavailable. If you're familiar with the area, the landmarks are easy to remember and help confirm you're on the right road (or not). But if you're not familiar with the area you will most likely forget many or all of the landmarks--you don't "understand" them, so you forget them. Rom. 6:1-5 uses the figure of death, burial, and resurrection to help us see the relationship of repentance, baptism, and salvation. In repentance we put to death the old man of sin, who must then be buried in baptism, and we are then raised to walk in newness of life.

Illustrations have gotten a bad name because some preachers misuse them. We've all heard preachers who tell so many stories, jokes, etc. that you forget the point of the sermon and that is certainly wrong. The Word of God is to be the source of authority, not man's books, poems, etc. But there is a real need for illustrations, especially when it comes to application of God's Word to my life. Sermons dealing with marital relations, raising children, relations with co-workers, become real when real life illustrations are used. People who don't want to see a principle can hardly help from seeing it when a good illustration is used.

I find telling the Bible stories works for me. I try to either quote or read key phrases from the text, but will also use the language people today would use sometimes. Do some preachers "jazz it up" too much? No doubt; and others play fast and loose with the text, which is also dangerous. Working in St. Croix I realized that in the Old Testament we would read the account, then I would retell it so people understood it, which amounted to a double reading. I finally decided to just tell the story, letting them read it at home before we studied. Like everything else telling the story well takes practice--it can't be too long, but you can't leave out too much of the detail either. I think some of the Bible stories are funny--the man born blind of John 9, for example, but the point of illustrations should not be get people laughing.

Now going back to my opening point--make sure your illustrations are understood by your audience. I once heard a preacher say, "Sister ______ was the only one in the ladies class that understood my barnyard illustrations." I immediately thought that if only one person in the class understood those illustrations he obviously needed other illustrations. You might be amazed at the impact local illustrations have--some years ago I was preaching in Mexico and while at a meal something was said about unexpected company coming for a meal, so "I just added more water to the beans". In the South someone might say "I put another bean in the pot" or "I peeled another potato". Later that week I preached about Jesus feeding the 5,000 and made the point that this was not "just adding more water to the beans". From the comments afterward it was obvious they understood the point--after feeding 10,000-20,000 people Jesus had more left over than what He started with. And isn't that the whole point?


No comments: