Five Key Sources for Sermon Illustrations and Why They are Important

Sam Rainer

November 26, 2017


Preaching is a grind I welcome every week. Expositing God’s Word is one of the toughest but most rewarding aspects of being a pastor. You can’t treat preaching like a sprint, rushing to get a response on Sundays. It’s more like a marathon, a paced lope in which long strides are made over time.

Illustrations are not the most important part of a sermon. The meat is the exposition of the text—always. The illustrations add spice and flavor. Nobody wants to eat just spices for dinner. But then, meat without flavoring is bland. In most cases, sermons need a little flavor.

Illustrations also help the listener to understand your points, especially the more abstract or theological ones. You know those technical manuals that “help” you put together cheap furniture? That’s your sermon without any illustrations. They may get the job done, but nobody will enjoy them.

Where do I get my sermon illustrations? I have five key sources.

  1. Real life. About half of my sermons begin with a personal illustration, preferably a recent one. It’s good for your guests and new members to hear a little about who you are and what’s happening in your life. Additionally, your members are more likely to relate to you if you open up about your own life.
  2. History. I utilize historical examples in about every other sermon, typically in the middle of my sermon. These illustrations help teach church history, historical theology, and local history. More importantly, history can connect generations. An example from the 1960s can unite Boomers and Gen Z. An example from the 1940s can connect Millennials and Builders. I intentionally pull from different eras of history in order to relate to different generations. An additional benefit is that I learn historical details I did not know from my research.
  3. Current News. Everyone is watching it, so you have to go there. Otherwise, you’ll appear out-of-touch and detached. I’ll often address major occurrences from the prior week. But be careful here—not every news story is worthy of sermon time. In our era of 24/7 sensational news, it can be hard to discern the true newsworthy events from selections made by media conglomerates who sell news. Everything is BREAKING NEWS according to them.
  4. Pop culture: Don’t dismiss this one. While the latest fad, gadget, or hit music may not appeal to you, they do apply to the younger generations. It’s popular in the culture for a reason. I’m not advocating you take on every one of latest fashions. I certainly don’t. However, I want remain knowledgeable about the current culture. If I can’t talk their language, then why would they listen to me? If you can’t, why would they listen to you?
  5. Biblical examples: Often the best illustrations are found in the Bible. For example, I preached Galatians 5 on Sunday, but my ending sermon illustration was the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Biblical illustrations help your listeners connect the dots between stories in the Bible, between the Old Testament and the New Testament, between the law and the gospel, between the many different genres of Scripture.

What about jokes? I rarely tell them, but on occasion, I’ll use one if I know I can land it well. Even then, they often fall flat. In reality, few pastors can pull off comedic relief in sermons. I don’t recommend anyone ending with a joke. I’ve never heard a sermon in which it worked.

It’s one thing to tell people truth. It’s another thing to illustrate it for them. The truth is most important, but helping people connect to the truth is also necessary.


13 comments on “Five Key Sources for Sermon Illustrations and Why They are Important”

  1. Pat and Billy Batdorff says:

    Pastor Sam, now we know some of the reasons all your sermons are so great!!! WOW! Thank you for all the time you put into your sermons as we get so much out of them. Can’t wait for next Sunday and it is still this Sunday!! :o) Stay close to our Lord and keep the BOOK opened!
    Oh, Billy and I were just discussing the sermon this morning. “You can fall away fast and to grow it takes time.”

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Thank you! You guys are always such an encouragement!

  2. Mark says:

    Thanks, Sam! I really struggle with Pastors who see Illustrations as “evil”, or not being “true to the Word”. Your illustrations about illustrations (meat and spices / building furniture) are great mental visuals for the importance and proper place for them in one’s message. Appreciate this post, which I’m sure will serve as a healthy launching point for some conversations.

  3. Nate says:

    Are there websites you regularly go to for illustrations or anecdotes?
    Preaching Today. Len Sweet’s site. Anything else?

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      I craft my illustrations from scratch, so I don’t utilize such sites. I’m sure they can be helpful tools, though. Just don’t over rely on them.

  4. Ellie Davis says:

    Thank you for pointing out that involving the news in the sermon is important. My family is very religious and we want to find an online sermon that we can listen to. I’ll have to do some research and find the best online sermons for my family.

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