Podcast Episode 11 | 12 min
Applying Your Message
The goal of application: transformation not more information.
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Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com on Monday Morning Preacher. I’m here with our guest host, Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: Great to be with you, Matt.
MW: So Kevin, I've been preaching regularly for about 25 years now. Rough estimate, I've probably preached nearly 1,500 sermons so far in my career.
KM: Wow, that's a lot.
MW: Well, I've learned a few things. I've definitely discovered some of my strengths and weaknesses as a preacher and it's given me some time to think about and work on my weaknesses.
KM: Such as?
MW: Well, let's dive into some of my biggest weaknesses, why don't we?
Michael Scott: Guess what, I have flaws. What are they? Oh, I don't know. I sing in the shower. Sometimes I spend too much time volunteering. Occasionally I'll hit somebody with my car. So sue me. No, don't sue me. That's the opposite of the point.
KM: Okay, so our guest preacher today is Michael Scott from The Office.
MW: You know, I might get him as my guest host so you better watch out. He might have some good things to say. But seriously, over the years there's one area of weakness that I've struggled with that I've been working on really hard over the last two or three years, and I think I'm making some progress. And I don't think I'm alone in this, and it's the whole area of application, applying the sermon. And after coaching a lot of preachers I think it's a struggle for a lot of preachers.
KM: Well, yeah. I think because if you want to preach it's because you love the Book, you love studying the Bible and doing the exegesis work, and then if you start preaching you very quickly learn if I don't capture people's attention right away I'm in trouble, so you work on the hook, you work on the intro's and you kind of craft those. But I think both in terms of training, you don’t get a lot of training in application, and in preparing a sermon most preachers are not giving as much time to the application.
MW: That's why we need good models of preachers who know how to do application very well.
KM: Yeah, so who do we have today?
MW: Well, today we've got a master preacher, John Ortberg, who gave a sermon called "The Fourth Man in the Furnace," based on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Now, it's probably a 35-45 minute sermon but the last 10-11 minutes are pretty much application. He talks about facing furnaces in your life and then he keeps repeating this phrase over and over again: "God will meet you in your furnace, God will meet you in your furnace." So it's very beautifully done. And then we pick up at the very end of this sermon here.
John Ortberg: What Jesus basically said to people was, “Follow me and you're going to have a great big God and outrageous joy and you're going to be in trouble all the time.” And they followed him, and they followed him. By the hundreds and by the thousands and by the tens of thousands, they followed the same path that he walked on. They followed him through servanthood, they followed him through sacrificial generosity, they followed him through community, they followed him to suffering, they followed him to persecution, they followed him to death.
Do you understand that we are here tonight in this room because—and this is a matter of historical fact, of simple historical record—throughout history hundreds and thousands of ordinary men and women, most of whom are long-since forgotten, names and faces that will never be remembered in this world said that they were willing to go to the furnace. They loved God that much. They said, “I'll suffer, I will give everything for you, I'll die.” When they did, and when their final moment came, which it will for you, when that moment came then they knew loss and despair.
God did not forget them or overlook them or abandon them. God said to them what he said to Shadrach and Meschach and Abednego, what he said to Stephen who was the very first follower of Christ to be martyred. What he said to Paul and Peter, who were persecuted and beaten and jailed and probably martyred as well. What he said to Corrie Ten Boom and Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, what he said to Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, what he says to his followers still, in China and Albania and Cabrini Green, and maybe just maybe to somebody tonight in South Barrington: “I'll meet you in the furnace. I'll meet you in the furnace. If you dare. If you dare. I'll meet you in the furnace.”
This is your day, friends. Shadrach and Meschach and Abednego had their day. Daniel had his day. Stephen had his day. Peter and Paul had their day. Corrie Ten Boom had her day. This is your day. Your final moment is going to come. I don't know what furnace you're facing, I don't know what this means for you. I just know who will meet you there.
KM: Wow, that was powerful. What stood out to you, Matt?
MW: Well, the main thing that John wants to do here is he is not giving more biblical knowledge, theological truths. He wants people to experience the truth of this passage right now in the midst of their furnaces. So the Word of God is being activated now in people's hearts and lives. So there is a lot of urgency and expectancy in John's application.
KM: Yeah, I think one way that comes through is that John as a white Presbyterian almost sounds like a black Baptist with his use of repetition. You know, he'll say they followed, they followed, they followed. Or what God said to this person, what he said to that person, what he said to this person. Or he'll say they had they their day, they had their day, they had their day, now it's your day. He uses vocal verbal repetition to increase the emotional intensity in the sense that this applies right to me.
MW: Yeah, it's really well said. And speaking of African American preaching, I've been to E.K. Bailey Preaching Conference for a couple of years, and Cutting It Straight: Expository Preaching Conference, and really been immersed in the African American preaching tradition, and I've got to say a lot of African American preachers do that really well and it's been a real learning experience for me. They really understand that craft of driving that truth home in a very beautiful and poetic way.
KM: So how do we learn from them and other great preachers like Ortberg and do this application better?
MW: There's a lot to it obviously, but let's look at three really simple principles of application.
KM: Wait, you have a plan?
MW: I have an outline. It's a three-point podcast. So point number one, aim for transformation, not more information. You know, I've seen a lot of preachers—I'm tempted to do this myself, I'm sure you've seen this coaching younger preachers—you get to the end of the sermon and people try to smuggle in another point. I tell preachers, you had 20, 30, 40 minutes, however long you preach, you had your best shot, you're done now. You're done giving information. Now you're aiming for transformation, not more information.
KM: You know, one thing that's helped me in that regard is reading Andy Stanley's book, "Communicating for a Change." He finally got through my thick skull that one idea per sermon. One. And what I found though, the joy of that, was it meant that I could really do satisfying biblical exposition of that one idea in less amount of time than it took to do two, three, or four ideas, and therefore it gave me more time to do this kind of application and transformation work.
MW: Okay, so principle number two, diversify your applications.
KM: What do you mean by that?
MW: Well, they don't all have to sound alike. I think sometimes preachers get into a rut. Say for instance, every single sermon has one specific action step. Now, I think that's great sometimes. Sometimes you'll say, “This week I want to challenge everybody to spend five minutes every day reading one chapter out of the book of Proverbs.” Very specific. That's a good application. There's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you might want to throw out a question and let it linger there, let it stew, let people think about it. You might want to give a story, you might want to give an image. Sometimes it may be more about implication rather than really specific application. So diversify your application. Have different ways to conclude your sermon.
KM: Yeah, I remember one time I was preaching from Psalm 148 which is a Psalm of praise and I thought, I'm not going to tell people to praise the Lord more, we're going to do it together. So one of our musicians wrote a song based on that Psalm, and at the end of my sermon I said, “We're going to stand right now and we're going to sing this song and live into what this Psalm invites us to do.” I think people like that because it's not like one more thing than they have to do.
MW: Yeah, that's really good. So aim for transformation, diversify your applications, and number three is avoid heresy in your application.
KM: Well, I'm glad you told me that, Matt, because otherwise I would have inserted a lot of heresy. What are you talking about?
MW: Well, Haddon Robinson once said, and I think very wisely, "More heresy is preached in application than in biblical exegesis.
KM: I do remember that.
MW: Yes, so what do you think he meant by that?
KM: I did ask Haddon one time about that, and here's what he meant is that it's easy to take the thus saith the Lord of the biblical principle and apply that level of authority or weight to a variety of pastoral applications, some of which are definite like love your neighbor, some of which are probable, and some are not possible. So he gave this example from his own preaching. He had preached one time a sermon about husbands and wives, I think it was from Ephesians 5 or maybe 1 Peter, and he said something about wives, you ought to make your husbands breakfast, something like that, it was something simple and domestic, and it came across as though this is thus saith the Lord. Well, that's not in Paul's text. That is one possible application in some settings, but so we need to be more careful to not overweight things that God has not said.
MW: It sounds like you're also suggesting as preachers we need to be clear about what level of authority we are laying on people with our application. We need to be up-front about that.
KM: Yeah, I think that kind of signaling is really important, and we see it in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul will say, I have this on authority from the Lord, command from the Lord. Or sometimes he'll say, I don’t have a command from the Lord, I'm just speaking as one that I think is worthy of trust and I hope that you will take this to heart. So I think we need to do more of that clarification.
MW: Sure. Well, I actually have an application to preachers about application.
KM: Whoa, you are the gold star student today.
MW: I told you I've been working on this. And one application to preachers is preachers, I really encourage you to see the beautiful opportunity that you have in your application. It's hard work, it's risky, it takes time, you need to be really intentional, you need to be prayerful. But it's a wonderful moment in your sermon and in the worship service where you get to take the truth of Scripture and then with a pastor's authority and a shepherd's love you bring the Word of God right into where people live and into the homes and into the lives of your people, and that is an incredible privilege and responsibility and really a beautiful moment between a pastor and his or her people.
So thanks for joining us on Monday Morning Preacher. And by the way, if you have a topic that you'd like us to cover—some facet of preaching that you're struggling with or that you'd like us to dive into—send it our way. We'd be happy to consider it. Send your thoughts and your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.