You know the experience. It’s late Friday or Saturday afternoon, and you still haven’t found a decent illustration, let alone a perfect one, for two of your main points. You’ve searched the web, you’ve looked through illustration books and websites, you’ve asked your staff and you’ve searched through your mental file cabinet only to come up with two illustrations that “kind of fit” your point.
It’s frustrating. You know that the point of an illustration is to provide “a window to the soul” so that the people listening to you can better understand what you’re saying and how they can apply it—but the best you can come up with is something that, if you’re generous, leaves an opaque film on the window.
So what should you do when you’re stuck and can’t find a great illustration? Well, believe it or not, help is never far away. And the technique you’re about to learn will actually help you find the perfect illustration every time, and not just a “kind of fit” illustration.
I. The Genesis and Genius of Illustrating From the Present
Before I share with you one of my favorite illustration techniques, I need to give homage to the person from whom I learned this technique: Don Sunukjian—who, at the time I heard him teach this in 1988, was at Dallas Theological Seminary (now at Biola).
I was a seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Don was a guest lecturer for a preaching conference at TEDS. Even though it was 25 years ago, I can still remember Don sharing this technique and the illustration he used—which is why I think this technique is so powerful. How many illustrations do you remember 25 years later?
The passage he was looking at was Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children,” and the illustration he gave went something like this.
“What does this mean? Well, it’s like when a father, let’s call him Joe, is out in the backyard and he’s playing with his 3-year-old daughter, Kaylie. They’re having a great time, and in the midst of playing, Joe takes little Kaylie and throws her up in the air. She giggles a little, but there’s a little look of fear in her eyes. Not to be deterred, Joe throws her up again, but this time, just a little bit higher. However, this time little Kaylie isn’t so quiet. She says, ‘No daddy. No daddy. I scared.’
But Joe doesn’t listen. After all, they’re just playing. So he throws her up again, this time even higher. And once again, little Kaylie cries out, ‘No daddy. No daddy. I scared. I scared.’ ‘Oh, come on, Kaylie, there’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re just playing. I won’t let you get hurt.’ So once again, Joe throws little Kaylie up in the air. And once again, with tears now streaming down her face, little Kaylie cries out, ‘No daddy … No daddy … I scared … I scared.’”
Now, obviously, a written text can’t convey the emotion of Kaylie’s words, but I can tell you that when Don was done with that illustration, he not only had all of us, the room was silent.
He then dropped the following bomb, “That entire story was made up. It’s what I call illustrating from the present.”
II. Realize the Incredible Power of Illustrating From the Present
The beauty and power of illustrating from the present is that it gives you the power to create a scenario that PERFECTLY fits the passage or point you’re trying to make. No longer will you be forced to try to make an illustration fit a point. Nor will you have to keep playing the simile game (“It’s kind of like … ,“ when you know it really isn’t).
Moreover, when you’re illustrating from the present, you’re using an illustration that, to be honest, is really relevant to your people and the lives they lead (i.e., most of your people aren’t famous politicians or athletes or celebrities or pastors or Fortune 500 executives).
When you’re illustrating from the present, you’re deliberately designing scenarios that not only fit the point you’re trying to make, but the people to whom you’re speaking. If you have a lot of single adults in your congregation, you can create a scenario using single adults. If you’re talking to a younger congregation with a lot of college students, you can create a scenario between two college students. If your congregation is made up of a lot of empty nesters, you can create a scenario with two empty nesters.
In other words, the power of illustrating from the present is that it’s a quick technique (i.e., there’s no need to consult a book or website) that allows you to create a scenario that perfectly fits the text, the point you’re trying to make and the people to whom you’re speaking. As a preacher, what more could you ask for?