The snow was beginning to melt. It took on a grey tint, forming into puddles at the edge of the road. I watched other students trying to jump and dodge as they filed toward the chapel building. But no one could avoid the slushy mess. When they reached the front door, students stomped their feet. One by one, they kicked their dirty boots against a doormat that bore the school’s name: Grace.
This, I thought, describes Christian faith. The inevitable messes of everyday life require us to trample on God’s grace.
Later that month, I shared the mental image in a chapel message. “I’ll never forget that illustration,” a classmate told me afterwards. Ever since, I’ve been an advocate for the use of visual aids. Every speaker should use effective illustrations. My library of examples is expansive and eclectic, but not all of them are effective.

  • Riding a bike around the sanctuary, protective gear covering every inch of my body.
  • Climbing a 12-foot ladder and preaching on leadership from an elevated platform.
  • Singing my first, original rock song, “Thunder,” while playing air drums.
  • Roasting a half pound of green coffee beans while talking about Paul’s conversion.
  • Eating a can of Cajun flavored sardines while discussing soul cravings.
  • Chasing a pregnant woman around the room while wearing a dragon mask.

Generally, the most effective visual aids live up to their name: they provide aid. They help the speaker to retain attention. They help the listener to stay focused. They help the sermon to remain sticky. Contrarily, ineffective illustrations confuse, distract, or quickly fade from memory.
More specifically, effective illustrations observe a few key rules.

Stay simple

Elaborate illustrations run into several problems. They take too much time to plan or explain. They consume too many resources to set up. They pull attention from the message to the visual aid itself. A notorious example concerns the pastor who had his stage redesigned and reinforced so he could park an Army tank behind him while preaching about spiritual warfare. “How much did that cost?” I wondered. “And is anyone manning the gun?”

Avoid gimmicks

The gimmick is the illustration designed to create shock or draw a laugh. It does not reinforce a big idea from the teaching but simply breaks the monotony. This could be a cat poster, gaudy prop, or random story. I tend to break out in song—either a butchered version of a pop song or remixed version of a Sunday School tune (see Ruth Sings “Gleaning on the Edge of Boaz’s Farm”)—or drag out a gag for too many weeks (see Ask Wise Guy about Friends).

Test it

A good illustration requires practice. You may need to handle props, work out timing issues, recruit helpers, coordinate with an AV crew, or ensure people from the back row can perceive the visual aid. One illustration I wish I had tested in advance was an experiment in physics: centrifugal force, to be precise. I wanted to envision the outward expanse of the early church from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). I tied a bucket to a long rope. I held it close to my head and began rotating it. As it picked up speed, I loosened the string, sending the orbit wider and wider. I have never seen so many people simultaneously bow (i.e., duck) their heads in a service! Surely, they were praying I would stop.

Relate broadly

Use illustrations from everyday life and every life stage. Visual aids should incorporate images from childhood (e.g., Barbie doll) to our latter years (e.g., a 7-day pill box). A familiar prop (e.g., a vacuum cleaner) will stick better than an obscure one (e.g., dog varnisher). Your selection of visual aids should consider the interests of either gender. Moreover, vary the types of illustration you incorporate into your teaching: props, stories, movie clips, song lyrics, skits, graphics, and live demonstrations. If you limit yourself to movie clips (especially superhero films) or sports analogies, your listeners will begin to groan.

Take suggestions

Ask other teachers to share their illustrations. Draw from podcasts, books, and other resources (and give credit where it is due!) Ask your listeners for suggestions and feedback. For a season I hosted a monthly “preaching team” meeting idea at my house. I provided the passages of Scripture and main points in advance but asked for team members to dream up effective visuals for me. The collective effort expanded my ability to think creatively.

Keep focused

Remember the illustration is not the big idea. The illustration supports your main point. When it overshadows the big idea, it robs the message of its effectiveness. Illustrations are best as reference points. They visually reinforce what you verbally repeat. Every main idea should be repeated. Every main idea should be repeated.
Those who teach biblical truth follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the Master Teacher. He modeled the effective use of visual aids. His lessons incorporated common images: seeds and trees, birds and banquets, prodigals and vineyards, bread and cup. His visual aids reinforced his key ideas, making them stick in our minds two millennia after he first spoke them. He recognized that effective teachers not only grab our ears, but they captivate all our senses.
And long after the sermon has ended and the snow has melted, effective illustrations help us hear the echo of boots. They stamp out a reminder of God’s grace—the heartbeat of every biblical message.