Power of a Good Illustration

Title: Power of a Good Illustration
Category: Preaching
Subject: Illustrations

Power of a Good Illustration

We were working on a program our youth group had been asked by our Director of Missions (Superintendent of Missions in those days) M. C. Waldrup to give at some function of the Riverside Baptist Association in a strong rural church a few miles from my home town of Sledge, Mississippi. We knew there would be people there from churches all over Quitman, Tunica, and Coahoma Counties.

It’s funny how certain things stick in one’s memory. It is especially funny when you mention my memory. I can get out of my desk chair at my home computer and go to the inside utility room for a drill (wrench, screw driver, detergent, something from the freezer - it doesn’t matter) and as soon as I step through the utility room door I forget why I was there. It has happened over and over. I have wondered if it would help if I took the door off, but then I would have to explain that.

I do remember certain things: a poem I was required to memorize in high school, Scripture I memorized for the Memory Work Drills, what my father taught me about cars and tractors, my most embarrassing moments. Come to think of it, there are times when my siblings remind me of things I wanted to forget. I remember the poem, The Bar, which I copied from the wall of Camp 4 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. I remember tractors, turn rows, cotton crops, and gardens from our farm in the Mississippi Delta.

What I seem to remember best were stories I heard my grandfather tell, certain instructions from my parents, stories veterans told about experiences during WW II. I was surrounded by veterans when I was at Mississippi College and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I never heard a vet boast of his courage or his action on he battlefield, unless it was something humorous or something terrifying. Hollis Bryant gave the Lord credit for saving his life when two mortar rounds fell within three of four feet of his right leg when he was wading through deep mud in Germany. He said, of the mortar rounds that were duds, “That doesn’t happen.” But it did.

What I do often remember are illustrations or stories a pastor used in a sermon. That takes me back to that youth program. For a moment there I had forgotten how I got into all of this about memory failure. I realize I am easily distracted, but I am now back on track. We were working on that program: if you have forgotten what I am talking about, see the first paragraph (I think it’s the first one...). I remember clearly that Bro. Waldrup told us that Bro. Barney Waldrup, pastor of the Tunica Baptist Church, would be preaching as soon as we finished our brief program.

It was Bro. Waldrup’s plan for Bro. Walker to simply step to the pulpit and begin his sermon, without commenting on our program, thanking us, or commenting on the crowd. He said that Bro. Barney Walker had the best interpretation of the twenty third Psalm he had ever heard. The Lord had called me into the ministry when I was thirteen years old and I found stories about preachers of special interest. I wish I could remember what Bro. Walker said about Psalm 23, but I cannot recall anything.

I was pleased a few years later when someone at Mississippi College announced that the guest speaker for a Baptist Student Union (Baptist Collegiate Ministries today) would be Barney Walker, Senior. By that time, his son, Barney Walker, Jr, the chaplain for a major industry owned by a committed Christian, was a powerful preacher. Brother Walker, Sr., at age seventy, stood before a packed room of college students and said, “I am an old man. I thank God I am an old man, because if I wasn’t an old man I would be a dead man.” I wish I could tell you what he preached that day, but I must confess that I have no idea what his text was or what he said about it. What I do remember is an illustration he gave.

He was asked to preach a revival in an area at a time when one might expect to see some tough men come to a revival at night. They didn’t have TV to watch at home, and movies and what passed for restaurants were closed on Sundays. So, these men would come to church where they would stand around outside and smoke and swap stories. Barney Walker was a powerful preacher and a good one. He was also a fearless preacher of the Word.

He must have addressed drinking, gambling, or possibly profanity, because some men in the back were not happy with him. After the service on Tuesday night, a twelve year old boy came back inside and, almost in a whisper, warned Bro. Walker that those men were standing out there under the tree talking about running him out of town on a rail. Brother Walker was of medium height and build, so the men apparently assumed they would have no problem running him out of town - on a rail.

Barney Walker said to the youth, “Son, you go back out there and tell those men that they might carry me out of town, but this old man won’t run.” The boy must have told them because they did not confront him that night. Nor did they say anything after the Wednesday evening service. When the invitation was given Thursday evening a few of those men walked the aisle, professing faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

The church asked Barney Walker to stay another week and revival broke out in that community. I have never forgotten that illustration. In fact, as he was sharing it I felt almost as though he was simply telling that story for me personally.

I might remember illustrations other preachers I heard in my youth, if I could remember those preachers. As a matter of fact, there may well be some people in the Jackson, Mississippi area who could share memories of Barney Walker’s sermons with me today.

I might add that Barney Walker was never recognized for his humor, quotes, or stories as were Vance Havner and C. Roy Angell. Every preacher in the country, it seemed at the time, quoted Vance Havner and told Roy Angell stories. I have often done so myself. Having heard both men in person, and having met Vance Havner at a Pastor’s Conference in Port Arthur, Texas, I have very fond memories of both. But I wonder whether or not I would have such clear memories of them if it had not been for their illustrations and stories.

Dr. V.L. Stanfield, who taught Homiletics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told us that the purpose of an illustration was to shed a little light on the subject. He added that you don’t have to build a house of glass in order to let a little light in: a few well placed windows will be sufficient.

Dr. Johnny L. Sanders