FINDING, FILING AND USING ILLUSTRATIONS
As I listen to a powerful speaker, I often ask myself, "Why is everyone hanging on his every word?" Many qualities and techniques set apart top speakers, but one stands out to me � their consistent use of quality illustrations. Top notch illustrations can clarify a difficult point, convince of truth, and motivate to action. As H. Grady Davis put it, "Illustrations are the glitter and sparkle that make people want to listen to our message." (Design For Preaching, p. 53)
Just think of all the vivid illustrations Jesus used. The absurd: a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle. The vivid: Pharisees compared to whitewashed tombs. The emotional: a gracious, loving inheritance. Jesus could have simply stated the bottom line of each truth: "It�s hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom." "Don�t be a hypocrite." "God loves sinners." Instead, he made wild comparisons and told unforgettable stories that delighted (or enraged!) His listeners and drove truth into their hearts. We would be wise to follow in His steps.
So where can we find good illustrations? In general, don�t just look for illustrations for next week�s message. Consistently gather illustrations for a lifetime of messages. Become a scavenger for wisdom, seeking God for insight on finances, personal spiritual growth, health, relationships, professional growth, etc. As He grows you in these areas, record the illustrations you find and the way God is changing your life. For the rest of your life, you can draw from this wealth to teach others>. "Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer;�" >(Prov. 30:24,25) Are you storing up illustrations for the future?
Sources For Illustrations
- Your spiritual life>. Students want to know how you struggle with the truths you teach. Your failures encourage them to keep going in spite of theirs. Your victories show them the Christian life is livable. I remember very little of my Sunday School classes growing up. But I vividly remember one of my teachers telling us how he attempted to live out his faith in the workplace. Before teaching a lesson, ask God to reveal to you how you are growing in that area. Let your students into your life!
- Those interesting circumstances you encounter. Where does master communicator Ken Davis get his illustrations? "�the resource of everyday life. As communicators dedicated to excellence, we must train ourselves to see and absorb these experiences rather than letting them pass us by." (How To Speak To Youth, p. 52) Sometimes using borrowed illustrations is like serving warmed over food. But you encounter interesting circumstances every week. Pray for eyes to see how these can become illustrations! Here�s one from my life. What do you think it could illustrate?
Always carry 4x6 cards in your scheduler or in your pocket. I can whip them out when reading the news, watching TV, or any time an illustration pops into my head. A few days ago, a couple of illustrations came to me as I prepared breakfast for my three-year-old twins. I spotted my scheduler within range, whipped out my cards, and captured both illustrations between second helpings of cereal. (Unfortunately, one twin promptly threw up on one of my cards. I never said it wasn�t a battle!)
- Books , magazines, and newspapers. Newspapers contain recent studies, tragic stories, heroic stories. Just tear out the article, write down its source, designate a topic, and place it in your note card file. As I read books, I underline illustrations, flip to a blank page in the back and write, for example "Forgiveness, p. 38," "Missions, p. 52". Some books end up with scores of illustrations noted in the back. I keep them stacked in one place until I can write up the illustrations and put them in my file.
Hint: Don�t think of this recording time as drudgery. I�m so eager to get to the next book that I often hate taking the time to record the illustrations. But we remember so little of what we read. I�ve come to see my time recording illustrations as time reviewing what God has taught me through the book.
When I had a secretary, I just give her the books and newpaper scraps, letting her do the typing and filing. But alas, now I�m on my own.
- Sermons>. I often come home from church with a couple of illustrations scribbled on my bulletin. If your church has a good tape lending library, listen to tapes when you are doing other things. If you have a 20 minute commute to work, bring a tape and a little recorder (I use the small dictaphone recorder) so that you can save the illustration without having to write. Keep a recorder in the kitchen while you prepare and clean up from meals. You can catch top speakers on Christian radio and find some great material. (The dictaphone also helps me record random thoughts on messages when I travel alone.) I can type pretty well, so I use a dictaphone to type the illustrations whenever a convenient time comes around.
- Ministry journals, magazines, and newsletters. Billy Beacham gets a youth newsletter that gives useful illustrations. He and his wife read material at night and circle illustrations that his secretary later records into his database.
- Illustration and Quote Books. I don�t regularly consult these books. But some are great on certain topics.
- The Internet. I access a database called the "Electric Library" (Go electriclibrary from Compuserve, http://www2.elibrary.com if browsing the Web. Five dollars per month if you pay yearly) to give me access to hundreds of magazines, newspapers, etc. I can look up Tom Cruise, Forgiveness, or thousands of other topics. Then I can download and cut and paste to my document, or put the information in my illustration database.
CHOOSING ILLUSTRATIONS THAT WORK
The difference between a decent illustration and just the right illustration is the difference between "lightning and a lightning bug." What are the qualities of great illustrations?
1. Accomplishes your purpose. If you are trying to clarify a truth, will your youth mentally respond to this illustration: "OK, now I see!" If my purpose is to motivate, does this illustration produce. If not, fire it.
2. Interesting. What makes an illustration interesting? "Temptation works on us much in the same way that a Venus Fly Trap lures an insect." Sure, it demonstrates how temptation works, but it flunks the interest value test. Every 5th grader knows about the plant. Interest value can come through:
- New information. "Girls swoon over Tom Cruise, but who would have thought he struggled with dyslexia as a child."
- Relevant. "According to this authoritative report, here are three steps to closer family relationships:�" Touch on youth�s greatest felt needs, and you�ve got a winner.
- Surprising. "Five of the worlds greatest financiers met that day. Within twenty years they had all committed suicide."
- Shocking. "Who would have ever thought that this model citizen would have become a notorious gangster?"
- Concrete. Get as specific as possible. Choose real events over hypothetical. Use names and places. "Riches don�t buy happiness." Kids believe it for exactly one hour a week, so that they can nod in approval during your Bible Study. But paint a vivid verbal picture of that wealthy actress who took her own life, that Fortune 500 CEO who suffers from depression, or the famous rock star who voices her disillusionment with life, and you�re onto something.
- Oriented to Youth>. Do some research into the main interests, heroes, needs of youth. Illustrations of great interest to you may have no interest to your youth.
- Oriented to your youth>. Your above research into youth interests and heroes may only partially apply to your youth. Spend time getting to know their interests. Do surveys asking, "What are your favorite music groups?" "Your favorite athletes?" "Your areas of interest" (sports, fishing, cars, clothes, stock care racing, etc.) "Favorite TV shows," "Most Coveted Careers." Jesus pulled illustrations from the world of the people He ministered to. The more you understand the world of your students, the better you can illustrate truth from that world. Frankly ask your youth occasionally>, "what types of illustrations do I use that you like best, like least?"
ILLUSTRATING WITH BIOGRAPHY
I love people illustrations. And when I glance at the magazines in the grocery store check out line, I realize I�m not alone. Think: People Magazine. Students are fascinated with how movie stars live, how Schwarzenegger works out, how models diet. Put this fascination to work for you as you teach.
Contemporary> � Josh McDowell read a biography of Basketball superstar "Magic" Johnson with his own teenage children, to show them the result of a life with no sexual standards. Mention certain movie stars, sports heroes, and musicians, and you�ve grabbed their attention. If you have time to familiarize yourself with all the trendy teen idols, fine. But I try to stick with figures that have proven themselves over the years and are known equally by youth and adults. This way, I can get more mileage out of my illustrations. Examples: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Pat Riley. All are respected for success in some field. Their lives have much to say to us. Youth love to hear how Spielberg didn�t fit in as a Middle Schooler, and finally found the photography club as his "leper colony" in high school. You can find examples of wisdom, foolishness, reaping what you sow, relationships (good and bad) and a multitude of other topics. The less familiar the person, the more introducing the illustration will require. Occasionally ask your youth who their heroes are. Find some whose names will probably last, and read up on them.
Historic> � Although most youth don�t snatch up magazines with pictures of Lincoln or Churchhill, they are interested in what character qualities made these guys leave their mark on the world. Most youth would like to be successful. Guys like Benjamin Franklin, Edison, and others can illustrate many biblical principles at work, whether or not they were Christians.
Great Christians � "Hudson Taylor? Wasn�t that Elizabeth Taylor�s first husband?" While not having the name recognition of Michael Jordan, our youth desperately need to be introduced to Hudson Taylor, Corrie Ten Boom, Jim Elliott, and a host of other great Christians who gave their lives for God and people. The less familiar the name, the more introduction will be needed.
ORGANIZING YOUR ILLUSTRATIONS
You can gather thousands of great illustrations. But without a storage and retrieval system, you�ll never find them when you need them. I store mine in three places:
Letter Size File Folders
This is the filing system I use for my actual messages. These files are also divided topically. If you tend to teach books of the Bible and single texts, you will also want to have a section divided according to books of the Bible. If an article is too large for my index card system, I simply drop it in a folder behind my message folder. These folders also contain further research or extensive ideas on a topic.
If you type well, or have a secretary, there are advantages to setting up a database. One advantage is that I can access illustrations more effectively. "What topic did I file that Billy Graham illustration under?" In my database, I simply go "Find" and "Billy Graham" to find all my illustrations about him. I can also give several titles to illustrations that may illustrate several truths. One illustration may illustrate "God�s Will" as easily as "Dating". I simply put both topics at the top, and can access the illustration through either topic.
Another advantage is that I can take illustrations that I get via the Internet (magazines, newspapers, the Electric Library, etc.) and copy and paste them into my database (saving recopy or typing time.) Then, if you prepare messages on your computer, you can copy from your database and paste onto your message. It�s better than having to work for a living.
Over time, your wealth of illustrations will become a repository of wisdom that you will constantly draw from, not only for your teaching, but for conversations with your children as you pass on to them what God has taught you through the years. Happy filing!
5x7 Note Card File
The 5x7 cards hold more data than the 3x5 cards. You can start with a couple of shoe boxes and get more professional over time. Use dividers, each labeled with a different topic. Don�t limit yourself to youth related topics. In ten years you may teach a young couple�s Sunday School class and need illustrations on child rearing. Think of your card file as a repository of wisdom. Start with these divisions:
Assurance of Salvation
Balancing Your Life
Call to Ministry
Cults and Religions
Evidence For Christianity
Greatness of the Christian Life
Love of God
Paul (Life of)
Questions Teens Ask
Roles of Men and Women
Science and the Bible
Time (Making the Most of)
Tongue (How to Control)
Tongues (Charismatic Gifts)
Will of God
Wisdom and Knowledge