In the middle of his sermon the preacher noticed a gentleman snoring away on the front row. He motioned to a small boy sitting in the same pew to awaken him.
"Do it yourself," retorted the urchin. "You put him to sleep—you awake him." While this story may be apocryphal, the truth it illustrates haunts every pastor. Does sermon time in your church provide an opportunity for the kids to read the papers they got in Sabbath school and the adults to catch up on the sleep they missed last week? Is it even realistic to expect everyone to stay awake during your sermon?
As you approach the pulpit you already know who are the alert ones and who are the somnolent ones. "They probably had an extra-busy week." "The baby kept them up all last night." "You can't reach all levels in one sermon." "As long as I present the message, I have done my best."
No! No! No! That will not do. Don't make excuses. You can keep everyone awake, unless some of the congregation have been bitten by tsetse flies.
I had never been more frightened in my life. The patient behind me in the ambulance I was driving was in imminent danger of an untimely death. I and my attendant were transporting this man, who was on oxygen, from a hospital just outside Riverside, California, to a hospital in Los Angeles.
On the way I came across some freeway construction and became lost. As we rode the night streets I frantically scanned my map. We had started with full oxygen tanks, but now this diversion was rapidly depleting the supply. As they emptied, my attendant switched to a portable tank that had less than 30 minute's supply. What was I to do? I still had a considerable distance to travel. What would be the repercussions if that patient died? Beads of sweat danced upon my brow.
Suppose you were to tell that story during a sermon—how many people would be sleeping? With human interest stories such as this, everyone—even the kids—wants to know what happened.
If you tell a story that illustrates a consuming human need, people cannot stay asleep—especially if the story comes from your own experience. This does not mean that a sermon should be filled with stories and illustrations. Though they entertain for a while, they soon develop their own brand of boredom, for they have nothing of substance. They are like the whipped cream on top of pie. The whipped cream adds to the whole dessert but becomes distasteful if it stands alone.
Relevant illustrations hold the attention, especially when they touch a felt need. The importance of speaking to felt needs was vividly etched on my memory one Sabbath. I sat in a youth Sabbath school class and listened to the teacher drone on and on. The kids were either engaged in their own private conversations or seemed to be barely conscious.
Suddenly conversations ceased, heads snapped up, and drooping eyelids widened. The teacher had asked why kids don't like certain other kids. One teenager responded by saying why he thought Geoff, who was not present, was weird. Everyone started pitching in, adding their reasons to those of the first speaker. This lasted for three minutes, when the teacher, fearing he was losing control, decided to quit this relevant stuff. When he resumed his monologue on agape love, the private conversations picked up where they had left off, and heads nodded and eyelids once again lowered.
I notice that whenever the preacher tells about something that has happened to him or to his family, something seems to happen to his congregation. Enthusiasm begins to ripple across the audience as their curiosity is aroused and their interest piqued. If the preacher carefully ties the story into his sermon, he maintains his audience's interest; if he doesn't, the ripple soon passes, and a somnolent calm again descends on the congregation.
Illustrations are the windows that let in the light. Just as no one likes a house without windows, so all sermons constantly need light. This need not eliminate good biblical exposition; we hear too little of that already. But if the people are mostly asleep, the preacher's great study has benefited them nothing. Just as a building is incomplete without the windows, so a sermon is incomplete without a number of relevant illustrations, including some good personal ones.
If you use illustrations and place them at regular intervals, you will guarantee that people will also hear the rest of what you are saying. Without the illustrations they will soon forget the sermon; with the illustrations the sermon will live forever. Scripture says of Jesus that "he did not say anything to them without using a parable" (Matt. 13:34, NIV). And Ellen White says of His effective use of life illustrations: "By using a variety of illustrations, He not only presented truth in its different phases, but appealed to the different hearers. Their interest was aroused by figures drawn from the surroundings of their daily life" (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 21).
I can always sense when an audience is going to sleep on me. When that happens I try to slip in a story or personal experience, and the transformation is almost miraculous.
Oh, yes, what happened to that patient? I breathed a silent prayer to my Lord for help. We were not supposed to use red lights and siren outside our designated area. But this was now an emergency. I felt justified in turning on my flashing red lights. Now with an occasional touch of the siren I sped along at twice my former speed. We arrived at the hospital with less than five minutes of oxygen in that tank.
Keep their interest, and they will be with you to the end.—J.D.N.