“He’s fun to listen to, but very hard to follow.”

A friend and I were speaking about a preacher we had both listened to. It was a legitimate critique, I agreed. At the same time, I’m afraid it could be describing me too.

For many preachers, public speaking comes naturally. They are gifted rhetoricians with story-telling skills. Much like an athlete lives for the next opportunity to perform a strong crossover or to deliver an open-field tackle, gifted speakers thrive on the opportunity to draw the attention of a crowd down to a whisper then roar with the crescendo of well-crafted verbiage. All the while, he is interacting with the audience as with a sparring partner–sensing their emotion, drawing them into a position to be persuaded.

The gift of public speaking is incredibly valuable to ministry. In fact, it is listed by Paul as a qualification for a pastor. However, it can be a double-edged sword. For some talented speakers, the ability to speak impromptu creates a temptation to avoid serious sermon preparation. They know they can fake their way through a sermon without most people noticing.

Yet other naturally talented speakers find another temptation: they try to do too much. They are like the point guard who feels the need to dribble between his legs every time he brings the ball down and the pass behind his back on every possession. It’s simply too much and too risky. Special moves should be reserved for the right times.

The same is true with using illustrations, stories, analogies, and metaphors. The preacher my friend and I were speaking about has a lot of natural talent. He is a very gifted storyteller. Yet, I have noticed (and I am guilty of the same thing) that he uses his “special moves” too often. For instance, He may tell a powerful story for ten minutes of his sermon only to illustrate a part of the sermon’s historical background. That might be ok if the background was the main point of the sermon –but its not. It’s just background.

The sad thing is, he tells such great stories leading up to the main point of his sermons that he usually runs out of time and emotional capital before getting to the main point.

It caused me to think about the way I often do the same thing in my preaching. So, here are a few new rules of thumb I am going to try for my sermons.

  • Don’t force an illustration into a sermon merely because it is powerful.
  • Weight my illustrations based upon the importance what I am illustrating: Longer, more powerful illustrations should accompany my main points. Supporting material should have limited illustrations.
  • Limit the total number of illustrations per sermon so they remain special and not just one of many that start to blur together.
  • Never let the illustration outshine the point.

With careful planning, illustrations can be a powerful tool for communicating so that not only are sermons interesting –but also effective.