You can argue that there is nothing more important in preaching than application. Any sermon without application isn’t. Sermons without application just make noise.
Ask the greats. C. H. Spurgeon claimed, “Where application begins, there the sermon begins.” John Broadus wrote “The application in a sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion, or a subordinate part of it, but the main thing to be done.”1 Just as John’s gospel is written for the purpose of belief and life (John 20.31), so should preaching the gospel. It’s where God’s word hits home.
The subject of application covers wide territory. Its about relevancy, overcoming boredom, making persuasive connections, the use of illustrations, and preaching’s impact on behavior and attitude.
The Application Spectrum
Applications can vary as to where and how they appear in a sermon, and how direct or indirect they are. Here are four different kinds:
Extended Conclusion Applications
Puritan preachers perfected a sermon style which began with exposition and ended with application. Of course, New Testament epistles are like this. Often such application is very direct (e.g. “this doctrine now means …).
Here a sermon resembles “beads” threaded together, each of which takes the form of explanation, illustration, and application. So there may be several applications at different points through the process of exposition.
Preachers can sometimes pepper the whole sermon with ‘hooks’ to keep high levels of interest and application. These may be no more than a passing reference to some contemporary event, or to a familiar image. Every few sentences about Scripture are accompanied by hooks into listeners’ experiences.
Here application occurs through a story, perhaps a retelling of a Bible story, which has its own power to influence listeners. This is likely to be indirect since it involves hearers in “making it their own story.”
The Key Questions
Whichever form application takes there are two important questions lodged at its heart. They are: SW? YBH?
SW is the “so what?” of preaching. Older well behaved saints don’t ask this often. They can endure much. But those not yet committed, especially younger people, particularly ask at the end of 25 minutes — “I gave you my time. So what?” Fosdick said memorably. “Not many people, except for the preacher, come to church desperately anxious to know what happened to the Jebusites.” Unapplied sermons which stick 95% in the Bible world will get shrugs. Actually, over-applied sermons which are 95% in the contemporary world risk getting a shrug from God which is worse.
For effective preaching the SW should start from the moment the Bible is opened. Nothing is more applied than a two-edged sword (Heb 4:12). As I read God’s word I should ask: “Who is He, and what does He want me to be and to do? What matters for me today?”
Haddon Robinson tells about a disastrous sermon he once preached on John 14. He did his homework, but he says: “5 minutes into the sermon, I knew I was in trouble. At the 10 minute mark people were falling asleep. One man sitting near the front began to snore. Worse he didn’t disturb anyone! No one was listening. Even today, whenever I talk about that morning, I still get an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
What went wrong? He says that he spent the whole sermon wrestling with tough theological issues. It was all valid, but it didn’t speak to the life questions of his audience.2 So What?
Good application needs a balance between what preachers do in the study in exegesis — the leading out of the text — and how they design their sermon — leading to the listeners.
YBH? is “Yes, But how?” A sermon may have great passion, but sometimes people are left wondering how on earth they could work it out practically. Some of our churches appear to cope better with the first call to repentance and faith (by giving an invitation) than in subsequent applications to life-long discipleship, worship, and lifestyle issues. Bryan Chapell says: “Even experts give rare thought to how people can do what God requires. It is so much easier to say what to do than to enable the doing.”3 The Holy Spirit is the great applier of God’s word but he needs consecrated preachers who know and love their hearers in order to sharpen His specific challenges.
On the way to answering these two major questions you need to answer another three:
WHAT Does God Actually Require Now?
Preachers should be clear about Specifics. Concrete, practical, life related aims should be clear. The sermon subject may focus on who God is, who we are, and all points in between, but it should never be left vague and forgettable.
WHERE Does God Require It of Me?
“Location, location, location” is not just a house buyer’s watch word. Which of many contemporary situations really matter here? Is this for home, place of work, or church? Too often preachers opt for church application when listeners are longing for applications in their work, lives, and relationships. What a tragedy, for example, when every reference by a preacher is dominated by a million dollar church refurbishment project.
WHY Must I Do It?
The work of the Holy Spirit is key to being moved by God’s agenda rather than by a preacher’s. The more a preacher uses guilt or anger or church ambitions for making applications, the less God can make His applications.
The Secular Context
These questions are always necessary but never more so than in dealing with secular culture. “Culture” is one of those buzz words in recent Christian writing. Culture refers to the “ideas, customs, skills of a given people in a given period of time.” Our Lord’s incarnation meant that the gospel is enfleshed in culture. This does not mean accommodated to it, or compromised by it, but, at best, standing over against it — relating, critiquing, and transforming. Ever since the Kingdom of God Christians know that they live for something different.
In contrast, secular culture is short hand for living without reference to God As Western society has become increasingly secular, so the proportion of people living without belief in the biblical God has grown.
The litmus test concerns the number of 15-32 year-olds in your church. I am interim preacher in a church where at the second service there are 150 high school and college students all sitting near the front. They participate in singing, but their heads go down as soon as a preacher fails to connect. Their body language is ruthless. In general, the younger the people you are trying to relate to, the more secular their outlook. Ironically they may say that they are intensely spiritual too, but frequently this is likely to be a kind of spiritual materialism — a search for a ‘feel-good’ spirituality with a minimum cost.
We sometimes talk about the gap that has opened up. Inside church there is a Christian culture — language, customs, skills, and expectations. Outside Church there is a non-Christian culture driven by other “isms”– materialism, pluralism, relativism — with need for efficiency, competition, and power.
Any talk like this hugely oversimplifies the situation. All of us, both inside and outside churches, have been dragged by an undertow of cultural shifts as Western society moves from modernism to postmodernism. Sometimes, without realizing it, Christian communities actually think and behave under the thrall of contemporary culture rather than of Christian teaching. Ronald Nash in his book An 8 Track Church in a CD World suggests that churches have actually allowed American cultural values such as efficiency, competition, and power to infiltrate and pervert the gospel inside our churches. Inadvertently the gospel has been misapplied as churches become businesses.
In some parts of the Western church the majority of the population are still church-goers and the pressures of secularism are faint. Secular pressures are growing year by year. The more secular, and the more hostile (often), your environment, then the more likely people outside will regard church as boring, irrelevant, and, sadly, the gospel with it. And inside many churches, congregations are greying and shrinking with preachers talking more and more to themselves.
SW? and YBH?
As soon as the sermon has begun to take shape on the word processor screen or piece of paper, preachers should imagine themselves as a listener who is asking SW? and YBH? about this sermon. Imagine the situation of a teenager who is easily bored and thinking about giving up going to church all together. Or a single person in their twenties trying out church again. Or a married couple in their thirties with their own set of needs. Effective preachers always have the gift of empathizing with their listeners and making imaginative links across age, gender, and Experience barriers. Preachers must dare to ask positive SW and YBH questions before their listeners pose negative ones.
There are several other ways in which preachers can become better appliers in a secular culture.
So you want to be a better applier? Ten starters for preachers.
1) Apply scripture to yourself first.
2 Timothy 2:15 tells us to “Do your best to be a worker … who correctly handles the word of God.” First we have to be workers with scripture, and that means effort, sweat, and discipline. Secular questions do not need different answers. They need the same answer heard relevantly. There has been a fevered search for new ways and techniques to connect with Joe and Joanne Secular. Special programs have been devised for Generation X audiences. Many preachers are yearning for mall credibility. But first we need Bible credibility.
The golden rule for preachers is: First, open scripture and listen to God yourself. Pray for the Spirit to breathe again on your understanding and listen to what God says and does. Just you and God’s word. If it doesn’t apply to your head and heart, you’ll have trouble applying it to anyone else’s.
Too quickly we can dive into other people’s outlines, commentaries, funny stories, and powerful anecdotes. Instead, we must give time to listen ourselves. Read the passage out loud to yourself. Get inside its story and its message. There are no quick fixes and no short cuts. You need to love scripture and live in it. The less other secular people are convinced, the more you need to be.
Before last Easter I preached a series on Mark 14. When it came to the intertwined story of the trial of Jesus and denial of Peter (Mark 14:53-72), I had lived with this powerful contrast for several days before I preached it. How Jesus says who He is, and Peter denies who he is — Jesus’ friend. You can picture it. I called my sermon “Two faces.” After I preached it a young father came out with his sons and said with such intensity: “I’ve got it. I don’t want to be a Peter. I want to be a friend of Jesus.”
2) Be serious about culture change.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 reveals how the apostle Paul faced the cross-cultural challenge in his changing world. He identified with various groups, becoming all things to all men. You could interpret part of that today not only in terms of those who are in the church and outside the church, but those who are Boomers (born and raised in the 1940’s to 60’s), Generation X (born 1961-81) and Millennials (born since 1981). John Stott calls preachers to “double listening” — listening to God’s Word and listening to God’s world.
I introduce students in my course on preaching principles to several new words. They include paradigm shifts, modernity, postmodernity, and communication shifts. Paradigms are frameworks, models, patterns by which we see and understand the world. When Columbus discovered the new world the paradigm of flat earth thinking shifted to round earth thinking. The two most recent paradigms are termed modernity and postmodernity. Modernity was birthed by the Renaissance with supremacy given to human reason, and was crowned in the eighteenth century Enlightenment culture. Its patron the philosopher Descartes said: “I think therefore I am.” Modernity meant a rational coherence with a set of principles by which to understand the world. It was optimistic, believing in the progress of science and technology, and it gave an automatic place in society for the church to offer its set of principles by which to understand the world.
Postmodernity is an ugly word to describe what seems to be happening at the end of the twentieth and beginning of twenty-first centuries. As Walter Truett Anderson puts it: “Postmodern is a makeshift word we use until we have decided what to name the baby.” There has been a new surge of spirituality at the same time as a collapse of rational coherence. Now the slogan is “Truth is what you make it.” “Anything can be true for anyone.” A suspicion has arisen about authoritative answers and absolute truths. The new creed is: “I feel, therefore I am.” Instead of the modernist attack “Christianity is not true,” the postmodern criticism is “Christians are claiming to have the only truth –how arrogant.”
Involved with this are generational shifts. Boomers are definitely modernist in outlook. Generation X has been called a “hinge generation” raised in modernity yet living in post-modernity. Millennials show signs of dramatic reversals of attitude compared with Generation X. Strauss and Howe in their new book, Millennial Rising: The Next Great Generation, see some very positive new characteristics.
For preachers it is vital to note too the dramatic communication shifts which are part of changing culture. Marshall McLuhan claimed that society has always been shaped more by the nature of the medium by which people communicate than by the content of the communication. The first era of communication was oral. Words as sounds were heard by the ear and were rich for building community, relationships, and memory. Remember, Jesus never wrote a book. Then with the invention of print there were widespread words for eyes which are significant for individual study and for the development of literature. Now, since 1985 (the year when more videos were checked out than library books) we have entered an electronic era. This impacts both the ear with amplified sound, so important to younger generations, and also the eye as vast amounts of information build up, especially on Internet. Now it is stereo communication as never before — ear and eye.
The impact of these changes is only being slowly felt in some churches. “Most Christians do not perceive the church to be in the midst of the most severe struggle it has faced in centuries.”5
How aware are we of popular culture? Recently Christianity Today published a leading article on the Simpson’s animated sitcom called “Saint Flinders.”6 It stated that for American students the name most associated with the word Christian — other than Jesus — is not the Pope or Billy Graham but a goofy looking guy named Ned Flanders. A 1999 survey found 91% of American children aged 10-17 and 84% of adults could identify each of the characters. And Flanders, according to some, is “television’s most effective exponent of a Christian life well-lived.” You can imagine the correspondence columns had heated exchanges, but it was a 26 year-old who wrote to say “good job.” Does it matter that many preachers wouldn’t have a clue about the Simpsons?
Bill Hybels is right when he says that most unchurched people think that pastors are woefully out of touch with reality. He selects 60-70% of his illustrations from current events. “I read Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, and Forbes. Every day I read the Chicago Tribune, watch at least two TV news programs and listen to an all-news radio station when I’m in the car.”7 What do you find yourself reading and watching?
What matters most is that we do not treat people in culture change as objects to stereotype or groups to generalize about. Love is always the key to God’s communication, and however wide the gaps opened up by secular culture, His love and ours should cross it.
3) Be real about your spirituality.
Mark 14:33-34 has recently hit me again about how Jesus wanted His three closest friends to be with Him in order to share His experience.
In secular times one of the most desperate needs is authenticity. False prophets swamp the market place with false options, and people want to know what that you are real, that you are genuinely an ambassador who lives out the greatest message in the world — a living “visual aid” of application. Linked with authenticity is the word experiential. The culture move from “I think therefore I am” to “I feel therefore I am” has heightened the role of emotion, of so-called right brain intuition and imagination. Christian preachers are in a particularly influential place if they are authentic and sensitive to the experiential.
Never has it been more important to be honest, vulnerable, and transparently authentic. I was taught to be reserved about myself and very rarely to tell personal stories (unless it was against myself). I have discovered increasingly more the significance of sharing personal stories. In 1987 I contracted a neurological disease and was told I would never work publicly again. This lead to a long and wonderful story of prayer and botulinum toxin injections which I have rarely told. Just recently I was preaching on Jesus’ ministry in Mark 1, and it seemed appropriate to be personal. The extraordinary range of comments afterwards made it plain that this ministered.
Said one Gen Xer: “Do you often tell your story?” “No,” I said. “You must,” he urged. “It really gives the Lord glory.”
Of course, there are dangers of overdoing the personal story, but today there is a greater danger of under doing the personal. Today, more than ever, people want to know that you are being real with them. H. Beecher Hicks says: “Authentic preaching is always the product of pain.”
4) Be courageous.
In Acts 20:27 Paul says “I have not hesitated to proclaim the whole will of God.”
Many qualities are needed for effective application, but the supreme quality is courage. Brian Chapell writes that the most difficult part of application is found in what he calls the “breaking point.” At this point expository preaching turns to affect the congregation. People may be able to switch off during the teaching, but when an application hits home they should feel its impact.
Haddon Robinson tells the story of the frontier town preacher in a community where lumber was their business. The preacher was well received when he first arrived, and they built a fine church for him. But he happened to see some of his parishioners dragging logs which had been floated downstream from another village. To his horror he saw his parishioners were sawing off the ends where another owner’s stamp was and were making their own mark. The next Sunday he preached with passion: “Thou shalt not steal.” “Wonderful sermon pastor” they said. The next Sunday he preached it again but this time he gave an application: “Thou shalt not cut off the end of thy neighbor’s logs.” And they ran him out of town.
Chapell advises how to share with maturity and humor. But there is no doubting that many or our churches have assimilated secular norms about life style issues — spending money, leisure, marriage, and divorce. There needs to be greater toughness in application. Wider community issues about justice, racism, and world relief demand much of a preacher in a secular self-seeking society. Frankly, there is no easy way to tell out a gospel which involves carrying a cross, denying yourself, and seeking first the kingdom. But secular society needs to hear a prophetic voice.
5) Be creative.
Matthew 13:34 is evocative for preaching: “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; He did not say anything to them without using a parable.” Of course Jesus used other ways of speaking, but parables were essential to His style.
In a secular culture words and style matter more than ever. The jury is still out on what long term impact TV will have on preaching, but it is undeniable how society is saturated with words and images. Preachers must watch their language. Every word and image should count. Active, well-chosen, succinct, image-laden words are needed. For biblical words and images to make impact we must work hard to stay both true and interesting. Boring language and predictable images switch off secular audiences. Less is more. Always keep looking for new ways to begin, end, and illustrate sermons. God can anoint imagination and creativity which is rooted in His word.
In particular, preachers have to practice the power of story. Analysts of contemporary culture stress how open secular audiences are to the influence of story. Authentic stories with experiential language make connections. Of course, over 60% of scripture is story anyway, and skillful retelling of Scripture can preach narrative expository messages. One of the challenges facing preachers is that of “running the Bible story” so that it confront us with living in God’s story today. I believe that you can be an expository preacher with both propositions and story because the Bible has both.
Beecher Hicks says that there is one rule for preachers today: “Decide to do something different.”
6) Be mature.
“Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundations” (Hebrews 6:1).
How preachers make application always reveals their maturity. Often immaturity is seen in setting unrealistic goals and by simplistic activism. New preachers sometimes hammer out lists of action points as though following through points one to five will simply result in major life change. Of course, secular people are hungry for new techniques for successful living — you only have to look at the vast number of “how to” books on sale. In some cases it is appropriate to spell out specific action. People need clear guidelines, and Christ does make direct impact on matters such as marriage, children, singleness, work, money, and leisure.
But the preacher is also responsible for proclaiming the reality of the lifelong personal and kingdom relation- ships of God with us. People need to grow in their understanding and experience of who God is and who they may become in Him. Christianity should never shrink to some good advice on how to live better lives. The more we mature, the more we realize how complex and deep many issues in life are and how everything depends on God’s presence and promise to us. Mature preachers blend practical “doing” with reflective “being” so that listeners develop over the long term into deeper people.
7) Be holistic in worship.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3.16).
Preaching should always be seen as part of our total act of worship within community. As secular people search for authenticity they also long for intimacy and relationships that are genuine. The need to belong to others causes a desperate ache for so many who find themselves caught up and even lost in our fragmented society.
The greatest opportunity in postmodernity for deep community relationships may be found in church fellowships which have rediscovered what it means to belong together and worship together in Christ. Here the preacher’s task is to proclaim God’s word to a people who are committed to working out its implications together. The sermon is bound up with the whole life of worship and faith of the whole people. Preaching is sharing good news, shaping Christ’s community and His mission. Holistic preaching is the whole word, for a whole people in its whole life, for a whole world.
8) Be a team player.
Ephesians 4:11-12 identifies key leadership roles which together prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up. Preachers do have a distinctive calling and task, but too often they have been solitary figures. In order to be faithful to God’s word and to declare prophetically, they have ring fenced the pulpit as private property. Too often preachers speak of “my pulpit.”
Better appliers of preaching have always known the importance of listening to others and of being accountable in their sermons. Today, many of our churches are full of gifted people with wide experiences, gifts of communication, and creativity. The advent of the internet has released entrepreneurial creativity on a scale never seen before. The stress today is on involvement and interactivity.
Preachers should learn to offer their skills and insights alongside others in the building of God’s kingdom. This can take several forms. I have found immense value in forming a group to help plan services in advance. It is amazing what insights they can bring and how the application of the sermon can be sharpened dramatically. Some of us have also found it to be of tremendous value for a small group to meet afterwards to evaluate the preaching. This sounds very threatening, but if preacher and trusted friends are prepared to tell the truth in love it can release a preacher into life long learning. My own testimony is that after preaching for 15 years, my self-awareness was drastically affected by a lengthy written critique I received from a gifted visitor to my church. At first I resented the criticisms, but quickly realized the privilege of receiving quality feedback. Ever since, I have advocated that preachers each create a safe mentoring group that will help them to grow.
9) Be a good listener to young people.
Ephesians 6:4 warns about creating resentment in children. This seems to fit oddly alongside these other suggestions. However, it is my conviction that a new generation of young people is emerging with very significant characteristics. In their book, Millennial Rising: The Next Great Generation, Howe and Strauss contrast those born since 1981, the Millennials, with previous generations. They find that a new group is emerging which is pleasant, cheerful, helpful, ambitious, and community oriented. Instead of pessimism, 9 out of 10 say that they are positive with a strong belief that it is their generation that will do the most to help the environment in the next 10 years. When asked what was the major cause of problems in the USA they answer “selfishness.” For them “it is cool to be smart,” and they are rule followers rather than rule breakers.
The implications for the church are already beginning to filter through in our encouraging work among high school and college students. At a recent conference I conducted with Millennials I checked through many of these claims with them and found a resounding “Yes.” Here is a generation with such potential greatness for God, who love to worship with loud music and who also revel in the clearly preached word. Preachers must connect with them urgently.
10) In everything be dependent on God.
Ephesians 3:7-9. We are only preachers because of the gift of God’s grace and through the working of His power. Only God opens hearts of listeners with conviction. All our clever planning and good ideas go nowhere unless God blesses the preaching. It is humbling to realize that He wants our best, but only by His power will anything eternal be accomplished.
1John Broadus, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, page 245.
2Haddon Robinson, Making a Difference in Preaching.
3Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching, p. 210
4Jimmy Long, Generating Hope.
5George Barna, quoted in G. Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide on Contemporary Thought and Culture.
6Christianity Today, February 2001.
7Bill Hybels, Mastering Contemporary Preaching, p. 36.
Applying God’s Word in a Secular Culture
You can argue that there is nothing more important in preaching than application. Any sermon without application isn’t. Sermons without application just make noise.