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Thinking Inside the Box

Here’s a tool I’ve used for many years to help me come up with creative ideas for livening up a lesson, spicing up a sermon, or tricking out a talk. I’ve taken the time to explain each of the categories a bit.

The Big Idea

Once your passage or topic is identified the “Big Idea” is simply the one point you want listeners or learners to walk away with. Example – Zacheus – the big idea might be “an encounter with Jesus changes everything about your life.” Sexual Purity – the big idea might be “our choice to live lives of holiness is not primarily about avoiding consequences, but about honoring God with our lives.”

Key Scripture and Related Scripture

I want to make sure that God’s word stays central to my teaching whether I am speaking topically or textually. The key Scripture is the biblical anchor for the lesson or talk, and related scriptures shed light or further illustrate the point being made in the key Scripture and the big idea I am attempting to communicate.

Most of the categories around the edge of the grid are fairly straight forward, but let me say a sentence or two about each.


Either invite students to prepare a short skit to illustrate your point, or consider using a tool like Zondervan’s Spontaneous Melodramas as a way of doing an instant skit that requires no preparation.

Current Event

Use something local that everyone will be familiar with or go to the national news cycle to see what’s happening across the country, or around the world. You’ll be astounded at how many news stories play into a topic that you are teaching.


Think about a creative space that you might be able to use to enhance the teaching that you’re doing – Example – if you are teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, take your students outside to a hillside where you can replicate the environment in which Jesus did his teaching. Think about locations like a cemetery, a vineyard, a prison, a junkyard, just to mention a few.


Perhaps something by a Christian artist reinforces the point you are making, or something from the Top 40 can set up the teaching that will follow. Consider having quiet music available for meditative moments or to play in the background during group discussion or reflective moments. It’s often nice to flash up the lyrics if the song is unfamiliar.

Video Clip

YouTube is bursting with great ideas that you can use. Think about some of the great moments from the Olympics that we saw a recently that created amazing teachable moments. Develop a bit of an electronic library of great video clips that have potential to strengthen teaching points for future topics you plan to cover.


This would include things like pictures from magazines, photos you’ve taken, charts and graphs, infographics and other visual cues that will reinforce your teaching. It might also include object lessons.  Example – when teaching a lesson on friendship, I reproduced 10 pictures of teenagers that I found online, and asked my students to identify the three they thought they could be friends with, and the three they were sure they couldn’t. It was a great way to get the discussion started.


Just Google search quotes on “your topic” and you will be amazed at what comes up. There are websites fully committed to cataloging quotes on hundreds of topics. Consider rolling some of these quotes on a pre-talk screen just to get your students thinking about the topic that’s coming up.

Personal Illustrations

Your life is full of incredible experiences that you can tell as first-person stories and use to illustrate a point you are making in your talk or lesson. I actually have a list of about 50 or more experiences I’ve had in my life that make for a good story – some humorous, some poignant that I can draw on when I need a personal illustration. It’s easier to have a list to go to than to try to think of something in the moment.


Referencing a well-known book – Example – Pilgrim’s Progress, Screwtape Letters, or Alice in Wonderland can work well to illustrate a point. Think as well about some of the great children’s books that are out there – The Velveteen Rabbit, Love You Forever, Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, etc. these stories bring back great memories of childhood, and often illustrate points very well.


Getting kids up and moving to help them participate in learning the point of your message is a great way to add action to the learning experience.


Biblical narratives can often illustrate topical messages or lessons – example the story of Joseph to illustrate a lesson on moral purity. But there are also stories in history, sport, and fiction that can serve well as a way to underline or reinforce the point you’re making.

Experiential Learning

The use of projects that involve creating an experience for students can be a powerful way to underline the lesson you are teaching. Example – teaching kids to care for creation could be beautifully reinforced by sending them out in groups with garbage bags to pick up trash for 20 minutes and then have them come back and debrief their experience.

The point of this tool is simply to force us to think beyond just standing up and being a talking head. A little creativity goes a long way to bring life to our teaching and speaking, and makes the important points we’re trying to communicate so much easier for students to remember.

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