I was filling in for a pastor who was on vacation. I was prepared, prayed up, and ready to preach. That is, until the youth pastor stepped up to give the children's sermon.

What happened next changed my preaching forever.

The youth pastor read the Scripture and then pulled out "the brown paper sack." I leaned forward, wondering what he had in the bag. Looking at the audience, I noticed all the adults were caught up into his message, too, some on the edge of their seats trying to get a good look.

When it was my turn, I put on my preacher voice and preached just as hard and fast as I could. The usual handshakes followed, along with "Good sermon today, Preacher," but I knew those comments were better directed at the youth pastor. He had captured their attention, and it was his message they took home.

It was then I decided to make the "brown paper sack" a regular part of my preaching. People remember the point when it's represented by a prop.

My sons' toy boxes and closets have been the source for many of them.

One Sunday I was preaching on obedience. My visual that day was a remote controlled car. It was a big one that would flip and do wheelies and spin. But while I was running the car around the back of the sanctuary, it ran into the leg of the trustee chairman.

My older ladies were not happy that I had brought the car into the auditorium, but the kids loved it. I think the trustee did too—after the scars healed.

People remember visual illustrations. They remember the misfires even longer.

Memorable mishaps
Last year I preached a sermon on grace and works. For the visual I tried to recreate the popular bridge illustration. Using two-by-fours I built two "bridges," one long and one short.

The long bridge of grace extended all the way to the gift of God, a wooden crate covered in brown butcher paper. The bridge of works fell short. So did I.

I walked across the grace bridge successfully, but on the works bridge, I lost my balance and slipped off. As I went down, my illustration pushed a pew into the piano and broke. A gasp was heard all over the auditorium, and everyone was on their feet. I bounced right up and continued preaching. People still mention that message and how the illustration made a lasting impression.

So did this one: I was preaching about prayer. My text was from Revelation, the passage where the prayers of the saints ascend as incense.

As I went down, my illustration pushed a pew into the piano and broke. A gasp was heard all over the auditorium, and everyone was on their feet.

At the appropriate time I lit several sticks of incense. One of the ladies sitting up front jumped up, ran to the back, and in a moment was puffing on her inhaler. I had caused an asthma attack.

People remember that one, too. But even occasional misfires have proven these illustrations to be powerful tools in communicating the gospel.

At times they really work
One of my early visuals was too big for the brown bag. Preaching on the testing of Abraham, I built an altar at the front of the sanctuary. I hoped my congregation would be moved by seeing something similar to where Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac.

What I didn't expect was how moved I was as I carried in cinder blocks for the stones and laid limbs on top where the sacrifice would have been burned.

As the father of sons, I began to understand what Abraham was feeling, and maybe what Jesus' Father felt, too.

Perhaps that is the beauty of visual illustrations. They capture everyone's imagination, starting with the preacher.

David B. Smith
Cincinnati, Ohio