When it comes to the sermon preparation process, application is often one of the most challenging aspects. But if we’re honest, we can easily fall into a rut. No matter what the main thrust of the passage is, we can find ourselves gravitating to our favorite hobby horse issues. Or we fall back on generic application points like reading the Bible or praying more (both of which are important!).
So how do we break out of this rut? First, we need a holistic view of application. Second, we need to analyze our audience. Third, we need to consider both individual and corporate applications.
A Holistic View of Application
Too often when it comes to application we think primarily—or even exclusively—in terms of what people should do in response to the passage. But if the goal of application is life transformation, we need to consider four application questions.
- What does God want me to think/understand? Central to growing in godliness is the renewal of our minds so that the way we think about the world reflects God’s will (Rom 12:1–2; 2 Cor 10:4–5; Titus 3:5–6).
- What does God want me to believe? As believers, we all have a gap between what we understand about God and how we actually live on a daily basis. That is why Paul, after taking three chapters to explain who God is and what he has done for us through the gospel (Eph 1–3), spends the next three chapters explaining how to live in response to that truth (Eph 4–6).
- What does God want me to desire? God wants to transform what we long for, what we value, and even what we feel (Ps 42:1–2; 86:11–12; Prov 24:1–2).
- What does God want me to do? Building on the three previous questions, we can now identify specific actions in response to the passage. Sometimes the passage makes it obvious (Rom 12:9–17), while other times we need to make inferences.
Asking these four questions will help you apply the biblical text holistically to the people you lead.
When it comes to applying the Bible to others, we need to understand the people we are leading. The smaller the group, the easier it usually is to know them well enough to make targeted application. But if you preach to a larger group of people, you may not know every individual in your audience. Regardless of how well you know the audience, the starting point is the passage itself and a good working knowledge of the fallen condition—the sinful beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, or tendencies—mentioned or implied in the text. Try to be as specific as possible about the fallen condition. Think through examples that illustrate how the fallen condition might show up in different ways in the lives of different people.
When it comes to thinking about the different ways a passage might apply to different people in the audience, there are several areas that are helpful to consider. Gender is a good place to start. The way that a fallen condition works itself out in the life of a woman may differ from how it shows up in the life of a man. Ethnicity can also play a role. Cultural circumstances and values within a person’s ethnic background or context can often influence how a fallen condition manifests itself. The same is true of socio-economic status, spiritual maturity, and a person’s life stage (e.g., child, teen, college student, married, single, parent, retired). These categories work in tandem to shape how the fallen condition shows up in a person’s life. As a result, they will also shape some of the specifics of application for the various people in your audience.
Individual and Corporate
As Westerners, we tend to default to thinking about application in very individualistic terms. Through the gospel, God calls individuals to repent and believe, as well as to obey him. But when God saves us, he saves us into a body of believers—the church. Scripture often addresses how we should live as the people of God as a group, not merely as individuals.
So when thinking about how to apply a passage to the people you lead, be sure to consider how it applies to the corporate life of your small group, class, and/or local congregation. Think through what the passage has to say about the way that believers should live together as the church. Are there truths that the entire group of believers needs to partner together to obey? What does the passage say about how we should interact with each other and with those outside the church?
Unleash the Power of the Spirit
Application can be one of the most challenging parts of preaching, but without it we short circuit the goal of helping people experience life transformation. Cultivating a holistic view of application, analyzing our audience, and considering both individual and corporate applications can go a long way in keeping us out of a rut and unleashing the power of the Spirit to change lives.