How do you collect and organise sermon illustrations?

I don’t, is the quick and simply answer! Furthermore, I wouldn’t advise anyone else to either.  The question was put to pastors on twitter and I presume arises out of a culture where pastors and preachers are encouraged to go searching for potential little stories and quotes that they can easily select from in order to spice up their sermons. I’ve heard of preachers who in the past kept card indexes and I presume that as things went digital, they upgraded to databases and spreadsheets. It also used to be possible to buy books of quotes to use in your talks -and even talk outlines themselves.  Now, you can search online.

Now, from time to time, something will happen in our lives and my wife will comment “I expect that will end up in one of your sermons one day.” And I guess there can be an assumption that pastors and preachers are always on the look out for material. However, I don’t think that the approach of keeping a database of resources you’ve gathered is really helpful.

There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, if we are always on the look out for material to collect, then we risk becoming magpies instead of learning to enjoy life – including events and occasions, theatre shows and cinema trips as well as lots of reading – for itself.

Secondly, there is a danger that the material we collect ends up having a stale, second hand feel to it.  People grow tired of stories, obviously from the 1950s about “little Johnny” and they will also lose trust in the pastor who claims that “this is definitely a true story” when it obviously isn’t.  Instead of illustrating and helping your point, it will obscure and hinder it.

Thirdly, especially when it comes to quotes, I think we can fall back into an era when the quote was used to add authority because it came from a notable and respected person.  The reality is that most of your congregation haven’t heard of that American conference speaker from the 1930s and even if they have, they are not going to give additional weight to his words.

So what do I do when it comes to illustrations? Well, first of all, I ask the vital question “does this point actually need illustrating?”  Half the time, it doesn’t. The point is obvious and needs no further explanation.  We risk adding in a story or a joke in order to come across well, to be seen as funny or a good story teller. 

Secondly, an illustration may be better replaced by an example.  That way, we move from explaining what God’s Word says to applying it.  It’s better to give your time to a case study, better still to personal testimony than to go to your database of funny stories and poignant quotes.

Thirdly, as I’m preparing, I may well be reminded of a particular event or situation I’ve recently found myself in.  I don’t need to search a database for third hand quotes or illustrations from my distant past because I find that life is throwing up all kinds of examples all the time.  The benefit is that they are fresh, personal and often of immediate relevance to the congregation.

The result should be that the illustrations serve the sermon, rather than the other way round.

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