Show, Not (Just) Tell

Consider these three levels of delivery for transforming propositional statements into concrete examples.

by Doug Green

It happened to me. I humbly admit it.

It was years ago and an ordinary Sunday. I was in the pulpit, facing the congregation, when I experienced a life-changing incident. In midsentence, I encountered something career shattering. In fact, I’ve never been able to shake the terror. It was a tragic moment.

I realized I was boring.

That’s right! I looked out across the glazed eyes of the congregation. They were thinking about their next trip to the grocery store, the afternoon ballgame –– something other than what I was saying. The room was warm.

I was not smiling.

I was explaining an important theological concept, but nobody was listening. It was vital information, but my declaration of propositional truth wearied them.

Have you ever lost contact with the crowd, knowing your content, albeit essential, was boring?

I assume (a) you just said yes and (b) it probably had something to do with your lack of supporting material. That’s because propositional statements, which are not visual, are boring without concrete examples, which are visible. Memorable sermons are full of concrete examples.

Concrete examples turn invisible propositions into vivid, life-changing visuals. When you speak visually, you turn the hearer’s ears into eyes, and they not only hear you, they see what you are saying. Hence, sermons need the assistance of visuals to keep eternal truths from being dull propositions. The Bible is not a boring book; often, we preachers are.

Good news: You can correct a boring delivery! Take action to make your preaching less lackluster and more engaging by using concrete examples. Consider these three levels of delivery for transforming propositional statements into concrete examples.

Level 1: (Cold) The Explanation

An explanation tells what it means.

Many times we need to explain the things of God. Taking the time to clarify the concept so others can understand the full meaning is imperative. This deductive process is important, but without illustration and application, it can be humdrum.

Level 2: (Warm) The Illustration

An illustration shows how it looks.

Building upon understanding that comes through explanation, the preacher uses stories, analogies, metaphors, anecdotes, and other forms of narrative as tools that show, not tell. A picture is always more interesting than a string of words. The crowd stirs with anticipation when you give a good illustration. It’s not boring.

Level 3: (Hot) The Application

An application models how to do it.

An illustration that models correct action is the most helpful. Not only is it not boring, it is the best way to illustrate the biblical text, giving the audience behavior to emulate. They not only see it, they see how to do it. Illustrations are good; an illustration that applies action is best.

Turning Up the Heat

All three levels are appropriate in effective preaching; however, as the heat rises, so does the effectiveness of the example. Let me give you a case in point.

Propositional truth: “Love is patient.”

(Cold) Explanation: “In 1 Corinthians 13:4–7, Paul lists the qualities of love. The first one is patience. The Greek word for patience is. … Patience is used in other verses in Scripture as. … The full context of this chapter is. … Paul is talking about the subject of love because …”

(Warm) Illustration: “Two seeds fell to the ground. The first was a corn seed. Rather quickly, it sprouted, a stalk grew, and it yielded corn. The other seed was an acorn. Although it took many years, it turned into a large oak tree, providing joy for many, many generations. Patience looks like an acorn, not a kernel of corn. …”

(Hot) Application: “My wife, Brenda, asked me to go shopping with her. I did not want to go, but I did. I thought I’d give her an hour, but three hours later, I grew anxious, frustrated, and impatient. I was mad. I did not want to wait any longer! Just before I was ready to tell her how I felt, the Holy Spirit reminded me how, early in our marriage, she took a full-time job and put me through seminary. He reminded me of the many times I made her wait for me. I asked the Lord to help me love my wife, and He gave me the patience to wait. When we love, we are willing to wait. Love is patient.”

Make the Connection

Consider these tips for using concrete examples.

Strive for shared experience. In the best-case scenario, the example relates to both the speaker and the audience (i.e., it is taken from both of their shared experiences).

The next best option is an example from the lives of one or more members of the audience. If neither of these is a possibility, the example may be taken only from the life of the preacher. Avoid using an example that has nothing to do with the speaker or the audience’s experiences.

Here are some instances of the effective use of shared experience:

Best (from the experience of both): “The rain we received this past week was …”

Good (audience’s experience): “I am told by the salespersons in our church that …”

Satisfactory (preacher’s experience): “When I was in seminary …”

Worst (nobody’s experience): “In 1429 …”

Make it personal. As a general rule, the more personal your example, the more powerful your example.

Get involved in the story, even if it’s not your story. If it’s my story, it’s easy to be engaged because I was there to see it happen. If it’s not my story, I try to personalize it by sharing ways it impacted my life or telling how I experienced the other person’s story. In other words, I am personally engaged either way. The worst thing I can do is make the story a distant tale or remove myself emotionally from its impact. There is always something about every story that matters to my heart, and I should let it be seen.

Boring happens, but God gives you a visual world to reduce the risk it will happen this week. Look around. Tell about it. Show them what you see, and watch the Bible come alive.

You’ll be smiling.