Illustrations are everywhere. The best illustrations are the simplest and the most common. People will light up quicker if you tell them about a traffic cop that stopped you on the way to church than if you tell them what Napoleon did somewhere.
They want to know, are you living life right now? Are you sharing your life with them? With common illustrations that are all around. I'm not talking about silly, stupid things, but illustrations abound. How do you know and how do you get those illustrations?
You keep a file, and I [Adrian Rogers] have an enormous file at home, but that's not the best way to get an illustration for an immediate sermon. Illustrations come when you know ahead of time what you want to preach.
When you know ahead of time what you want to preach, and you have that in your mind, then having that in your mind, as Kirk said, is like having a wire stretched across a stream. As the water flows down that stream, there are little bits of grass in the water, but they're going down the stream. If you have that wire submerged in that stream, before long, there’ll be a wad of grass on that wire. Because, that wire will catch what ordinarily would have gone down the stream.
That's the way illustrations are. I'll be anywhere, listening. First thing, I'll reach in here, and find a napkin, any scrap of paper, and I'll write something down and jam it back in my pocket, because I'll think, "Man, I can use that Sunday." That fits, but it would not fit, it would go right on downstream if I did not know ahead of time what I'm going to preach.
I keep brown, expandable folders. You know, these brown folders that have little accordion sides on them? I've got closets full of those things, maybe I'll write on the outside [of the folder] a subject. I'm doing one right now on persecution – “how do you react to persecution.” Anything I read about that, I drop it in there. It's not just simply what I'm going to preach next Sunday, but what I may be preaching, and maybe I'll never preach it.
I've got a file I looked at the other day called “Lions on the Loose.” It gives the text, “there's a lion in the streets.” I had a sermon idea, I think that was forty-some years ago... I'm serious, I've still got that folder, and I'm still dropping things in it.
You just put things in there so that you're gathering material, and putting it in there as you go. Also, I have a philosophy of read and rip, where I will read magazines, newspapers, I rip it out and put on the top where I think it needs to be filed. I've got a pasteboard box behind my desk, and I just throw it in there. Every so often, I'll have somebody come in and file that material for me. I have a filing system. I may never retrieve it, but it's so satisfying to be on a subject, and go to your cart and think, "Oh man, I would have forgotten all about that. There it is. I can put my fingertips on it.”
This question and answer came from a Doctoral Colloquium session with Adrian Rogers and several Doctoral Preaching candidates in 1997.