Illustrations are an essential part of effective preaching and teaching. Jesus used them all the time. However, sometimes they aren’t received in the way we expect. What do we do in those circumstances?

This happened to me recently. I was preaching for the Thames Valley churches of Christ and using one of my “keynote” illustrations (more on the significance of “keynote” illustrations in next week’s teaching tips episode).  The story is about my encounter with an epileptic. Here are the links to the sermon (website, YouTube, podcast).  

Without spoiling the story, there is a twist which usually evokes great surprise and laughter. And I got those this time, but something extra I’d never experienced before. Which was an attitude of sympathy towards someone in the story who the congregation viewed in some sense as a victim, where I had always perceived him to be a perpetrator. This reaction temporarily threw me off balance. I’m experienced enough as a speaker to not let my surprise show, but I was distracted for a moment before pressing on with the conclusion of the story and the application.

The experience was a helpful reminder that I cannot expect to tell the same story to two different groups and expect an identical reaction. Each congregation has its own collective experience, culture and, sometimes, a different blend of values. I reflected afterwards that on most occasions I have used the illustration it’s been to groups of younger Christians and younger people than the group to which I spoke recently. This might have accounted for the difference in reaction. The Thames Valley congregation have recently been receiving many messages and training in caring for the poor and needy. This, I think, also affected their view of the perpetrator as victim.

It’s not to say that any one particular reaction is right or wrong, but speakers must be prepared for the possibility of an unexpected reaction.

Jesus certainly did not always get the reaction he hoped for (see Mark 6.1-7 – not strictly a response to an illustration, but certainly not the hoped-for response to his teaching).  He was flexible enough to respond in a godly manner whatever his audience response might be. When they asked questions as a result of his parables he used their confusion to clarify the point (Matt 13.10, 36). 

Here are three tips to help us with such an eventuality:

  1. Consider THIS audience. In other words, don’t just assume that this group will be the same as every other group, or every other time you have used this particular illustration. Consider the overall culture of the group, and any recent experiences which might colour their view of your illustration. Then decide if this is the right illustration for this group at this time.
  2. Pause.  When things go in a different direction to that which you expected, take a moment to pause and consider whether you need to address the reaction, adjust the next part of your presentation, or simply press on. Most congregations will not notice a short pause. They will assume it is part of your presentation.  Pray in that moment and then decide whether to enquire about the reaction (sometimes interaction can be creatively helpful to your point), or continue with the lesson as planned.
  3. Reflect. When the unexpected happens, take some time afterwards to think through why that might have been, and what the lessons are for your use of this illustration in the future.

In my case, the illustration still worked to make my point, but when I come to use it again I will think more carefully about whether it is the right illustration, and how to use it, than I did on this occasion.

Have you have had this experience of an illustration provoking a response you did not expect? What happened? And what did you do? What lessons did you take from the experience?

Please add your comments on this week’s topic. We learn best when we learn in community. 

Thank you for listening to this recording. You can find more teaching tips here and on the YouTube teaching tips playlist

Do you have a question about teaching the Bible? Is it theological, technical, practical? Send me your questions or suggestions. Here’s the email:

If you’d like a copy of my free eBook on spiritual disciplines, “How God grows His people”, sign up at my website:

Thanks again for listening. Have a terrific Tuesday, and a wonderful week.

God bless,