We are usually told that we need “more application” and that our sermons shouldn’t become boring technical lectures, so this article from Chris Thomas may prove a surprising read to many. For balance, you may want to read this from Steve Kneale showing that there are still people arguing for more application.
I also want to encourage you to read both articles because both authors are right. How can that be so? Well, first of all, I think we have to remember that different contexts bring different dangers. There are two absolutely horrendous ways to do preaching, I’ve heard both and I think that Steve and Chris are reacting to the different types.
On the one hand, it is possible to have a sermon which sounds more like a self-help manual. It may or may not include some exposition of the text but it will conclude with “Here are three or four handy tips about how to be a better Christian in the week ahead.” Such approaches can feel a bit mechanical and they can also end up being a bit legalistic. Chris writes to correct against this.
But equally, Steve is right to raise concern about the under applied sermon. In fact too often we end up with a meandering exegetical lecture that fails to grasp the purpose of the text or to apply it to our lives. This is not really an exposition or a sermon. A sermon should have a point to it.
Now, where I’d want to push further is here. First of all, we need to remember that less can often be more. So, I am with Chris in saying we may need less application. You know, it struck me quite a few years back when managing teams that I would sit with an employee and agree 3 or 4 objectives with them for the year ahead. Then I would go to church and I would be given 3 or 4 objectives for the week ahead. If I attended morning and evening, that would double up to 6-8 objectives with a further 3 or 4 added at Home Group, not to mention all the application I was getting from my Bible reading notes. So how likely do you think I was to do all that. Better I would suggest that we focus on one specific application each week and make sure we do it well. Less is more.
Secondly, I want to suggest that application should arise naturally out of the text and often is best done with a light touch rather than a heavy handed way. I should also not expect to do everything from the pulpit. I’m currently attending a small group where we take time each week to further think through how to apply the sermon. Use of small groups, 1-1 conversations and encouraging people to think things through for themselves in the week may be more helpful than trying to work through every aspect of the “how to” in your sermon.
Thirdly, if we want to escape legalism then we need to recognise that application is not only about what we need to do or to change, it isn’t always about behaviours. This means that a sermon exhorting us to fix our eyes on Jesus, to worship him is not a sermon lacking in application. The application is there front and centre. Yes, a sermon’s application may ask us to “do this” but there are other responses it can call for including:
- Consider this
- Enjoy this
- Believe this
- Understand this
Application that first of all leads us to wonder and delight at the beauty and glory of Christ is application that encourages us to fulfil our chief end to Glorify God and enjoy him forever. It is application that will enable us to live out what we believe without succumbing to legalism.