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How Do You File Sermon Illustrations?

Often in blogs like this, we stress fidelity to the biblical text, and how to get to the essence of a text.  But in reality, that is only 50% (at most) of the work of the sermon. 

One huge element is the “illumination and application” of the text to our lives today.  That is often (although not always done through sermon illustrations). 

I am aware of those who eschew all sermon books and resources, and there are pretty good reasons for doing so.  They are often hackneyed, trite and over-used. 

The best illustrations are, of course, home-made.  As you prepare a sermon, it is excellent if there is an current illustration from your life or church life (appropriately told) that can help the text come alive to the hearer.

But there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to capture the best of your experiences, or reading, in some format so that it can be recaptured when you need it.  Unfortunately, life doesn’t happen just in accordance with our preaching plan.

Through the years I have tried several methods: 

  • 3×5 cards with one illustration per card and then kept in a file drawer alphabetized by topic.
  • Clippings thrown in topically arranged file folders.
  • Taking illustrations of similar topics and photocopying them together onto a 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper & then placing it in those topically arranged file folders.  (If I told you I have five 4 and 5-drawer file cabinets full of folders with articles & illustrations in my garage, I suspect you would not be surprised).
  • Notebooks of sermon ills, photocopied & inserted into notebook, arranged  by topic.
  • Microsoft Access, using the Kerux template created by David Holwick.  It is indeed an incredible resource. But currently, the data file alone is right at 1 GB of space. It is so unwieldy as to be less and less useful.
  • Creating my own e-book of Sermon Illustrations within Libronix. (Libronix also allows you to put in the text of your sermons & search them both topically as well as for specific words/phrases.

In the July-August issue of Preaching journal, Jere Phillips (the professor of Practical Theology at Mid-American Baptist Seminary in Memphis TN) gives a fairly simple and useful method.  All it takes is Microsoft Excel, which is a part of Office (or really you could use ANY spreadsheet application). 

You create a series of columns (I have simply put into my copy below the example they give in the article.)

image

 

Here is how Phillips describes the recording process:

When you find a good illustration, determine which topic it describes. Type the topic into a cell in the first column of an Excel worksheet. Excel allows selected sets of cells to be alphabetized. Being able to sort illustrations by topics in alphabetical order puts all your material into easily accessible order. 

Into the cell of the second column, type the name of the speaker. Record the source of the illustration with bibliographical information in the third cell. The fourth column allows you to note the date you found the illustration so you can cull old illustrations from your database.

The illustration itself goes in the fifth column. It can be typed or copied and pasted from another location, Web site, e-mail or document. (Hint: Paste copied data into the active cell of the formula bar to avoid having information placed in multiple cells.) The illustration can be as large as you need without unduly distorting the appearance of the worksheet. Simply format the cell to “wrap text.” If the height of the row becomes unwieldy, format the row height to “13.”

Hyperlinks provide another option for larger illustrations, scans of magazine articles, sections of books, maps or pictures. Simply save the scan, jpeg picture or other material into a Word document or other file. Right-click on the active cell into which you want to create the hyperlink and click on “hyperlink” in the drop-down menu. This simple box allows you to hyperlink the cell to the document saved elsewhere on your computer. You also can hyperlink directly to a Web page that has a story, statistic, quotation or other illustration. Of course, you risk the good chance that the provider may change the Web site, and you’ll lose your content.

Put the date and place you use the illustration into the sixth cell. You may want to use the illustration again—but not at the same church. People may forget your sermons, but they will remember good illustrations. Finally, if you want to associate this illustration with a particular biblical text, type the textual reference into the seventh column.

As you add rows of illustrations, you can find illustrations by alphabetized topic or by searching for specific words within an illustration. Using the edit function of Excel, click on “find” and simply type the key word for which you are hunting.

You can view the entire illustration by clicking on the active cell. The formula bar will open a box with the whole text available for viewing, editing or copying and pasting into a Word document containing your sermon outline.

Phillips gives much additional helpful information on sermon illustrations.  Check it out here.

Illustrations, Preaching Journal

3 Comments to “How Do You File Sermon Illustrations?”

  1. I've talked with lots of guys about how they do illustrations. No system has worked for me — at least it hasn't the first 30 years of preaching — and most guys admit they don't work for them either. Occasionally I'll throw an illustration in my Bible or file it but then I forget I have it until months later. I love to read and follow the news and I follow the ebbs and flows of life … mine and others. The illustrations flow. I leave the "filing tricks" to others.

  2. Thanks for the tip. I just memorize everything. HA HA HA. Actually, I have been trying to use programs that utilize tagging systems (Evernote). Someone was telling me about a program called Paper Tiger or something like that the other day, my first reaction was "oh, great, another program" I haven't had a second reaction yet.

    I am currently undergoing a preaching style change (very scary and exciting) which is forcing me to do a lot of things different with prep. One day, I will buy the Logos PBB builder (one day it will come to the Mac) and give it a try…along with a lot of other projects. Thanks again for the tip, Cal.

    all about Christ,
    David

  3. Don: Thanks for chiming in. I agree. Finding a useable system is hard. Even the best system has to be purged. Most illustrations have a short shelf-life.

    David-you can memorize everything because you are young and there is less cluttering up your brain! (That's a joke, my friend). Tell me more about your change in preaching style. That intrigues me.

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