I hold Scripture in higher esteem than anything, but I have at times allowed the personal stories in my messages to overshadow the message’s Scripture content. Our illustrations should be the back-up singers and the Bible should always be the rockstar of our sessions and sermons, but when we devote too much time or energy an illustration and not enough to the passage at hand, we allow the back-up talent to step in front of the real star. To keep our messages centered on the Bible and therefore at optimum strength, here is a series of tests we can run during both preparation and delivery:
The Chicken or the Egg? This test asks which came first; your illustration, or your passage. Did you choose the Scripture passage because it allows you to tell a given story? If so, flip the priority in favor of Scripture. Start with the Bible. Then, let illustration ideas flow from the passage itself. The purpose of the illustration should be to help people grasp Scripture’s message and understand how it applies in today’s context. To choose a Scripture passage because it is convenient to a story is to make Scripture secondary and incidental. The illustration or story that goes with your message’s passage may not be as engaging as the story you wanted to tell, but your message will be stronger because it focuses on the passage God has for your group right now. This also protects you doctrinally as you remove the temptation to alter Scripture interpretation in any way to make it fit your illustration.
The Time Machine Test: As you practice telling the story illustration, imagine the original earthly author (Moses, Matthew, Paul, etc.) sitting in your session and listening to your story. He is up-to-speed on the contextual differences between when he was first inspired to write the Scripture passage and what is going on in our world today. As you tell the story, would the original earthly author object to the way you illustrate it? Would he interrupt your story, or would he give glory to God for the way timeless Scripture has continued to change lives throughout the millennia?
The Peanut Gallery: This test is good practice in general for all varieties of Bible teachers and leaders. Ask for feedback from other Bible teachers. I once did this in real-time. As a passionate father, I knew that God was calling me to tell a story about my children during a sermon and I also knew that my inner dad might take over and cause me to spend too much time on the story. So, I asked our Student Editor Drew Dixon to signal me from the front row with a subtle hand gesture that signaled “Wrap it up, Campbell.” Sure enough, he had to signal me and bring my attention back to the time constraints at hand! Surround yourself with people whom you respect and can trust to speak candidly and respectfully with you about your teaching.
We developed a series of training videos for “The Expository Sessions” verse-by-verse teaching through Ruth – available completely for free right here. These training videos explore the concept of teaching illustrations at a deeper level. We looked at various approaches to illustration and talked about how to keep our illustrations in check. Give them a try and spread the word!