2. Illustrations should be unexpected.
If students can see exactly how your message is going to end because your story or illustration is so obvious, they’ll start to check out. It will feel cliche and tired.
You want them to inaudibly wonder where the heck you’re going with this thing you’re talking about. Then, when you make your point, things will become clear to them alarmingly suddenly.
It might seem like comparing Spiritual Endurance to training for a marathon is a simple and effective tool, but unless you’ve got some compelling marathon experience, the illustration won’t be different from something they’ve heard before.
One of the best illustrations I ever heard was a guy detailing how much he hates going to the dentist. He did it because despite the fact that it was unpleasant, he knew it was best for him. And if he could endure the dentist’s chair for 45 minutes, he could sit down and read the Bible even if he didn’t feel like it at the time.
It was a winning illustration because students already knew what a trip to the dentist was like, they were drawn in to his dental horror story without yet knowing where it was going, and when it was connected, it suddenly made a bunch of sense.
3. Illustrations should NOT glorify poor behavior or choices.
A lot of illustrations take the form of a hilarious story, and a lot of hilarious stories come from poor choices that we don’t want students to emulate.
A youth pastor told a story about the time he ran from the cops after TP-ing a neighbor’s house. I don’t remember what the illustration was supposed to be, and neither did most of the students. They just remembered laughing at the funny story about vandalism and resisting arrest.
Step back from your illustration for a minute and ask yourself, “If all they remembered was my story and not its relation to Scripture, would we be in trouble?”
In the case of the fugitive youth pastor, yes.
In the case of the mustard seed, no harm done.
A similar idea applies to stories that feature athletes or celebrities. Be careful not to tacitly endorse something you wouldn’t want to.
4. Illustrations should be visible, or better yet, tangible.
Show students that mustard seed. Even better, give them a mustard seed. If your students have something they can hang on to, your illustration will be that much stickier.
I recognize that this is not always possible. In the case of a truly compelling story, you might not need anything else. But if your illustration is about something that is otherwise mundane, consider spicing it up with a great visual or handout.
5. Illustrations shouldn’t be fully explained.
You want to give your students something to chew on, not something you’ve already chewed up for them. Look at the illustrations of Jesus in the Bible. Some of them are vague enough that theologians are still debating their meaning today.
This is actually a very good thing. An illustration that leaves us thinking is more impactful than one we totally understand but immediately forget.