A good analogy is like bumping into a friend in a far off land: the unfamiliar is subsumed by the familiar.
Not everyone needs an analogy to get your message, but few will be put off by it. For some students, however, a good analogy unlocks their minds. This is especially true for imaginative/reflective students (see my learning styles post).
Sometimes you may want to use an analogy because the point you want to make is complex. In other words, you need an analogy to make the point palatable. When you can’t pour it in neat it’s time for a good mixer.
Some teachers find coming up with clever analogies as easy as cutting butter, but if you need a little help before Sunday strikes here are a few tips beginning with sources:
Analogies from personal experience are like chocolate chips in ice cream: the right amount is delicious, too many and you wish you had chosen plain vanilla. Personal stories are the easiest to come by, but, if you’re not careful, Sunday school can turn into a teacher’s autobiography.
The second easiest to find are celebrity analogies. What preacher hasn’t used a story drawn from a biography to get at the meaning of a text? Careful though, some stories are plain untrue. A well used story about a British prime minister’s mother dying in the snow is just, well, fiction (here it is listed as a sermon illustration and here it is on encyclopedia britannica). If you use a celebrity story don’t join the ranks of the gossip.
Some of the best analogies are imaginary. You can go to town on this one; no one can falsify your analogy. However, imaginative analogies only work well if they are easily imagined by your hearers. Surrealism is great in a late night visit to an art gallery, but not so good at 9am on a Sunday morning in a classroom. Use concrete, common and creative pictures to draw out a point.
Using an object from everyday experience as an analogy works because no one has to do any work to get at what you are trying to say.
The only thing that goes wrong with an object analogy is the presence of any obvious disanalogy. The trinity is not like an egg because that would make three Gods or three parts of God. Nor is the trinity like water, steam and ice since God is one God in three persons not one God in three different forms. A three leaf clover is no good either. Using objects for analogies should have no obvious disanalogies. No analogy is perfect, but the best ones avoid highlighting heresy or are so weird nobody notices the mistake.
Sin is like pac man: it is never satisfied with a little; it wants to gobble up everything.
Analogies feature strongly within scripture. The garden of Eden is like the land of Canaan, there are many “types” of Christ, and events in the New Testament are prefigured by events in the Old. The caution for intertestamental analogy is: don’t try to make a type where none is intended. Analogy ruled large in early interpretation and led to bizarre allegory that included stretching parables to represent all sorts of things unintended by their author.
A disanalogy: Analogies are not like chocolate chips in ice cream: you can’t just throw them in and expect good results. You have to place them, arranging them for maximum effect, more like cherries on the cake. Analogies can be used to perform many tasks in teaching. Here are a few:
At the beginning of a lesson an analogy helps draw the class into the topic. It can help make the lesson connect to the rest of life by showing how the lesson will answer a real life situation.
For example, when introducing Genesis, you could describe the life of a migrant who, after a long journey, arrives in a foreign land knowing no one least of all themselves. He doesn’t know who he is or where he belongs. Similarly the children of Israel feel this way at Sinai. Moses delivers the book of Genesis (along with Leviticus and Numbers) to tell them who they are and who their God is. The story of their origin is intended to give them an identity when they feel as if they have none.
Some points in the text have the most impact when accompanied with a side of analogue. For example, the impact of an eagle waiting to soar (Isaiah 40:31) can be enhanced by comparing it with a surfer waiting for a big wave.
When you go wide angle for a shot you allow your class to connect a part to the whole. For example, when Jonah stands aloof from Nineveh filled with anger that God would have mercy on them he is like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son.
Analogy can help a person realize something about themselves that needs to change. For example, some people are wearing spiritual baseball caps: there is always something preventing them from looking up.
An element of surprise aids the impact of an analogy. Don’t build up to it; just use it. Sunday School should be like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.