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Charles Swindoll: Illustrating So People Will Listen

An illustration uses something familiar to the audience as a means of explaining something unfamiliar. But an illustration is more than mere analogy or metaphor; an illustration has two, equally important objectives. The first is clarity. A good illustration clarifies what seems mysterious or obscure to the listener.

I recently received an e-mail from the mother of an eleven-year-old boy…via Facebook. (Yes, I’m on Facebook. I have no idea what that means or even how Facebook works. Fortunately, I have a great staff that sorts through the messages and puts them in a form I can deal with.) Anyway, he said, “I like listening to Pastor Church because he’s fun to listen to and I understand him.”

That preteen doesn’t know my name, but he gave me the greatest compliment I could have received from a kid his age. My message was clear to him, most likely because I used the right illustrations. When teenagers approach me after a service to talk about the message they just heard, I usually ask, “Did it make sense?” Almost without exception, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah. I liked the story about…” They remember the illustration and (thankfully) they see how it connects to a biblical truth. The illustrations brought clarity.The second objective of illustration is motivation. A good illustration not only helps to clarify the mysterious or obscure, it also helps the listener appreciate the relevance of a particular point.Warren Wiersbe wrote this about the Lord’s use of parables, a particularly effective kind of illustration: A parable starts off as a picture that is familiar to listeners. But as you carefully consider the picture, it becomes a mirror in which you see yourself, and many people do not like to see themselves. This explains why some of our Lord’s listeners became angry when they heard His parables, and even tried to kill Him. But if we see ourselves as needy sinners and ask for help, then the mirror becomes a window through which we see God and His grace.Similarly, an illustration starts out like a picture, bringing clarity to a truth. It allows the listener to “see” what’s being said. Then an illustration turns into a mirror, allowing the listener to gain “insight” into how this new truth affects him or her. Finally, the illustration becomes a window, and therefore provides “vision,” transforming the new truth into mental images that prompt the listener to envision the world.In a practical sense, an illustration paints a picture in the imagination using the listener’s own experiences. Never forget, however, you’re creating this work of art in the listener’s mind, so you’re not limited to colors and shapes. You can also paint with sound, flavor, aroma, texture, and even emotion. In fact, the more senses you can involve in creating an illustration, the more powerfully clear you can make your point and—most importantly—demonstrate the relevance of this new truth.This Sunday, I’m preaching on Mark 9:38-50, which describes the reaction of Jesus’ disciples when they encounter someone outside their circle conducting ministry in Jesus’ name. The Lord’s warnings carry grave implications for all who call themselves followers. I want to apply one of those warnings to the specific problem of jealousy.

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Charles R. Swindoll is the founder and senior pastor–teacher of Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas. But Chuck's listening audience extends far beyond a local church body, as Insight for Living airs on major Christian radio markets around the world. Chuck's extensive writing ministry has also served the body of Christ worldwide, and his leadership as president and chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary has helped prepare and equip a new generation of men and women for ministry. Chuck and his wife, Cynthia, his partner in life and ministry, have four grown children, ten grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.