My natural interest leads me to migrate naturally more toward some of the functional sermon elements than others. For instant, my natural gifting and past studies lead me more toward heavy dense explanation in my sermons. Also, I love good stories personally and love to help people see the truth of God’s Word, so this leads me to appreciate and employ many illustrations when I preach. This is just the way I am wired!
However, I am not as naturally inclined to think about and use application when preaching God’s Word, especially as it relates to applying the Bible in specific ways to specific people. Therefore, my sermons are not as readily filled with compelling and convicting applications that move people to action. Forming great applications is not something that comes as easy to me. As a matter of fact, I admit and say that I often find this very difficult.
Now, I certainly think the functional element of application can and has been at times over done. For instance, we may do this by getting so specific in applying God’s Word that we allow some people or groups to think this message is not for them resulting in “letting them off the hook.” Or, it is clear that we have spent more time thinking of cleaver ways to apply God’s Word than actually studying to understand it rightly. And then there is also the felt needs or life-application driven sermons. This is where a person or group of people’s assumed needs or life situations actually become the genesis of a message and not the Bible. None of these are good practices of application in the sermon.
Nonetheless, application is important to the sermon. Another way to say it, until we have applied God’s Word, explained that it is authoritative for everyone, and called people to respond to it (and for that matter shown them how to do so when it is not clear), we really have not preached. So, application in preaching is vital. And, since I struggle with it and it is not my natural forte, I have developed some habits that help me in the area of being better at applying God’s Word. In this post, I list five ways that I approach creating fresh illustrations in my sermon preparation process that connect with the congregation.
First, I work to apply the main truths of the text.
The idea and importance of finding and preaching the main ideas of the text as the main ideas and thrust of your sermon is certainly a reoccurring theme in this blog. I am not trying to beleaguer you or the point, but this is essential for true text-driven expository preaching. As such, we must also make sure that the majority of all of our functional sermon elements focus on the main point of the text and not some tertiary point or, worse yet, a point that is not in the text at all.
This is also and especially true for application in the sermon. Our applications will be much more authoritative to our people when they can see that it comes from the text. And, they will connect better with the congregation when they can see this is precisely what God is talking about. On the other hand, if we spend a significant amount of time explaining and illustrating a biblical truth from a passage and then make an application that does not seem to relate at all, our sermons will not be convicting and probably will not move people to response. Furthermore, if our application comes from a tertiary point in the text, are based on only causal biblical authority, or is derived directly from a clear explanation of our passage, then at best it will not resonate with your people and at worst it will confuse them.
Second, I base my application off the intent of the text.
I mentioned in another post on this blog that texts not only have a meaning, but they also have an intent. Perhaps a better way to say it is, words, and thus texts, not only mean something, they do something. Click here to access the previous post in which I explained this idea.
So, God has spoken to His people and He has spoken for a reason. There is a purpose and an aim that He has for giving this Word to this people in this circumstance. We need to work to try to determine not only what a passage means, but also what intent it has. Then we can base our primary application, thrust of our message, and aim of the sermon on the original intent for which the passage was given. Certainly, I do not mean by this that all of God’s Word is not authoritative for all people at all times. But, what I do mean is if we try to build an application based off of meaning void of intent, purpose, and aim, we only have half the picture.
A danger exists and a significant error in interpretation and preaching can occur if we only consider meaning in our sermon applications. If you have discovered the meaning only and not considered intent, you may still make some statements that are not biblically true or intended. Allow me to give an extreme example. Let’s say you were preaching a message on Philippians 1. In this passage, Paul proclaims “Some to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will . . . the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice” (Phil 1:15-18, NASB).
Now the meaning of this text is quite clear as far as passages of Scripture go. Paul rejoices, finds great surpassing joy and pleasure, in the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being shared and preached. And this is true regardless of the situations in which it is proclaimed or even in spite of the selfishly and sinfully motivated preachers who are proclaiming it. This, or some derivative of it, is the meaning. So then, would a proper application be “It is okay and you can even seek to be a selfishly and sinfully motivated preacher. God will rejoice over you if you do so!” This would be a great message to preach at a pastors’ conference, wouldn’t it!
Or, “We do not need to pray for ministers who have righteous motives and pure callings to lead and preach in our churches. We do not need to correct the pastors and preachers who have wrong motives. As a matter of fact, if your church is looking for a pastor, I would encourage you to look for one of these guys.” I think we should teach this at next year’s Baptist State Conventions or the SBC. Are these applications correct or biblical? Of course not! But wait, they are based off the meaning of the text. What is the problem then? The problem lies with intent. We have captured the meaning, but have neglected the intent of the passage. I am convinced that this happens a lot from our pulpits and in our sermons!
Beyond all of this, there are good practical reasons for considering intent as well. I have found that when I take the time to base my application on the original purpose that God had in the passage, craft my intent on God’s original intent, and call for response based on the original call for action that God desired for His people, my sermon in general and application specifically have so much more impact. Whether people can put their fingers on it or not, this approach seems to make more sense and is logical. Again, there is much more authority behind what you are commanding.
It does connect better with people. Because again, it is derived directly from God’s Word and how it was designed. In this way, you do not have to fabricate anything and nothing is synthetic. It is based on the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture is indeed enough, and this allows the Bible to do what it is capable of doing!
Third, I create applications that connect with different demographics in the church.
I find that my applications come closer to hitting their mark and making an impact when I can consider more details and specifics in my sermon preparation process. What I mean by this is I like to think about the biblical truth I have discovered as it relates to a specific person, group of people, or age groups in the church. This gives more clarity to me as craft my application in my study and attempt to apply it well in my pulpit.
One way that I do this is by considering people in different age groups and those at different stages in their lives. For instance, in my sermon preparation I may list or create four different categories of people. These could include a single father, a young businesswoman, a retired couple, and a teenage girl. Then, I go through the process of asking the questions of how the biblical truth from the text I am preaching applies to each of these people. I often actually write out the answer on my outline or sermon brief.
So, after I understand both what the text means and what God’s original intent was in giving the text, I ask what does this truth look like to a retired couple. How would this biblical mandate be lived out in the life of a single father? How would a businesswoman obey this part of God’s Word? Or, what does the intent of this text look like meted out in a teenager’s daily routine? When I do this, I feel more confident in my applications. Furthermore, on average they seem to be much more impactful in my delivery when I follow this practice.
Fourth, I craft applications to relate to the different areas of people’s lives.
I like to get even more specific than applying the meaning of the text and emphasizing the original intent of the text in the lives of different groups or categories of people in the church. If possible, I attempt to design these applications specifically for different scenarios of the people or group of people whom I identified in the previous step. So, not only will I think of four different categories of people (a single father, a businesswoman, a retired couple, and a teenage girl), but I will also think of three or four different areas of their lives. These could include at home, with friends, in the community/school/work, and at church.
Then, I again go through the process of asking the questions of how the biblical truth that I have discovered in the text applies in each of the situations for each of these people. I write down as many as I can think of and that validly apply the passage. So, I may ask what does this truth look like to a retired couple when they are with their friends. How would this biblical mandate be lived out in the life of a single father at work? How would a businesswoman obey this part of God’s Word at home? Or, what does the intent of this text look like meted out for a teenager at church?
My ultimate goal in this process is not necessarily to get minutely specific as much as it is to move as far past the abstract as possible. The more concrete I can make my application, while considering textual intent, the better off I am at applying God’s Word effectively in the actual delivery of the sermon. This leads me to my final point.
Finally, I aim applications at specific people in the congretation.
Let me be clear concerning what I do not mean by this. I am not saying that you call people out by name when you are preaching the sermon. I also am not advocating for describing someone who is present in a way without using his name, but in a way in which everyone else knows precisely who you are talking about. And, I certainly am not saying that you should say or even imply something like this: “This text is talking about someone here today because someone present struggles with this exact sin. You know who you are and the Bible is authoritatively telling you what to do.” Really, what I mean here does not relate to what you should do in the delivery of the sermon at all.
I simply mean that instead of thinking about categories of people in different areas of their lives in a general way, it helps me when I am thinking about and crafting applications to consider real people. I am not preaching to categories. I am preaching to people. And, more than likely, I have specific people in my church who fit into all of these categories and situations. They will be present on Sunday when I deliver this message. I do not have to wonder generically what this biblical truth may look like to a faceless retired couple. I can apply it to Tom and Bernice. I do not have to think about the intent of this text meted out to a teenage shadow. I can think of the intent of this text having God’s intended impact in Samantha’s life.
Again, this helps me move past abstraction to concrete deliberations. Specifically what does this look like? And, how should God’s Word be obeyed and how does it impact a life? When I think of specific people and apply God’s Word to them in their lives in my study, I usually have a lot more impact in bringing God’s Word home in my delivery. I have more clarity in calling for responses that bring conviction in the pulpit.
As I stated above, application is one area of sermon preparation and delivery in which I am not naturally gifted. Historically, in my preaching ministry, I have failed here or at least not been as strong as I would like to be. Often, when I thought about bringing the message home or down to life, I would go blank. Sometimes, I would approach this part of my preparation with hesitation and dread and this part of delivery with fear and trepidation.
However, with a little intentionality, foresight, planning, and work, I have become more competent in my applications. I can now approach this area with a plan. Often it has yielded joy and anticipation in my preaching. And, I have seen the impact biblical truth has had in specific people’s lives. I have witnessed the change it has wrought. Making sure I have understand the specific meaning of the text and basing my application on the original intent of the text gives me confidence because it grounds my application in God’s authority. Thinking of specific people who I know in my congregation and their specific life circumstances, has helped me sharpen my application skills in sermon preparation and delivery.
These strategies have helped me. I believe they can help you! I pray that you are able to apply them to help you better “Preach . . . and Apply the Word!”
Even though I cannot reference a specific source or sources, the origins for much of the ideas for what I do in my application process derived from Dr. Calvin Pearson. A lot of this information for this blog, especially sections 3 and 4, came from Dr. Pearson’s “Sermon Application Grid,” which I learned from him while his student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, TX.