A method for finding the practical response called for in a text
Terry gathers his family and quickly herds them into the station wagon. He has to get to church early to photocopy some handouts for the Sunday school class he teaches. Then there's choir, and after church several conversations about the committee he serves on. With seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, Terry is immersed in church activities. In his quiet moments, however, Terry worries. At home, his briefcase holds a doctor's report telling of a shadow in the x-rays of his lungs.
Ruth is known for her contagious smile and warm encouragement. As hospitality chairperson, she seems to know everyone in church. How can she always be so up? people wonder. While Ruth is succeeding at church, she believes she is an absolute failure at home. There is constant bickering with a teenage daughter, and she feels a growing sense of distance from her husband.
An honor student and a varsity volleyball player, Janet is the picture of the all-American girl. She's also actively involved with the church youth group and takes her faith seriously. But she wants to know how to bring what she believes into her everyday life, especially with her boyfriend, who lately has been pressuring her sexually. Janet sits in the back of the church and wonders.
Recognize any of those people? You've never met them, but you probably know many just like them. They fill our churches: men and women and young people, some desperate, looking for answers.
Steven Brown, pastor of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Florida, says that when he preaches, he safely assumes seven out of ten people in the congregation have broken hearts. They especially need a life-changing word from God, something they can act on as well as know.
As a communicator, I recognize the value of applications, and the difficulty of making appropriate ones. In fact, in many sermons I hear (and some I've preached), the application simply is left out. Yet, as Jay Kesler, president of Taylor University, puts it, preaching a sermon strong on information but weak on application is like shouting to a drowning person, "Swim! Swim!" The message is true, but it's not helpful.
A friend once said of his former pastor, "The closest he came to application was occasionally to end his sermon with, 'And you?' " I'm sure he wanted to drive home his sermon, but although the spirit was willing, the application was weak.
Why the difficulty?
If applications are desirable, why are they so often lacking? As I've talked about this with pastors, and especially as I wrestled with applications as senior editor of the Life Application Bible (Tyndale), I've identified several reasons.
This is, perhaps, the main cause of application deficiency. They're tough. They demand time and effort.
When our team began working on the Life Application Bible, we wanted (1) to help our readers ask the right questions, and, (2) to motivate them to action. That twofold response was our definition of application.
I anticipated little difficulty writing application notes. After all, I'd spent two decades in youth ministry challenging young people to follow Christ and teaching them how to grow in the faith. But my assumption was wrong; finding applications was tough work. I found it enjoyable to research and explain textual questions, cultural influences, and theological intricacies, but I couldn't easily make the bridge to real life. Even now, after years of writing application notes, I find it doesn't come easily.
I used to assume the audience will make a connection between the lesson and their lives, a common mistake. None of us wants to insult the intelligence of our listeners, and so we lay out the Bible story, the theological insights, or the timeless truths, and leave the rest to them. But most people, I found to my dismay, can't make the mental jump. Our congregations don't want to be spoon-fed, but they do need to be led.
We may fear being "too simplistic." We may think we have to speak deep, complex truths or broad, general principles to proclaim properly the Word of God. There have been times when I've subconsciously tried to show off my education. How easy it is to preach to ourselves, splitting the finer points of theology, extrapolating the etymology, or considering the cultural context, while the congregation waits for a life-changing challenge!
I've worked hours grafting sermons I then delivered with confidence, only to have people stare back with a collective ho-hum. It's not that I wasn't prepared or "pre-prayered," or that I stumbled or stuttered. In fact, the congregation probably learned something, and I heard quite a few post-sermon comments such as "That was interesting" and "Good job." But nothing was said about changed lives. For fear of oversimplifying, I simply had been nonspecific. I had failed to move to application.
I've spoken to many preachers who bemoan their lack of training in applying Scripture. While grateful for the intensive work in other areas of homiletics and theology, they express need for a dose of reality. "I wish I'd been taught how to relate the Word to the needs of real people," said one.
A misunderstanding of what application is can weaken preaching. If I'm unsure of my goal, I'll definitely have trouble hitting it. So what is effective application?
What application is not
Let's begin by listing what isn't application. First, application is not additional information—simply giving more facts. Whether in detective work or in Bible study, gathering facts begins the process, but it doesn't complete it. The facts need to be used.
For instance, it's good to know Matthew was a tax collector and that tax collectors conspired with Rome to become rich, exploiting their countrymen. Such information puts Matthew in context and helps us understand the Bible. But to become useful, the information needs to become wedded to action a listener might take.
Second, application is not mere understanding. Understanding God's truth, the step that must follow fact collecting, is vital. We need to know what the Bible means, not just what it says. Again, however, a sermon left here is incomplete. Many people understand biblical truths, but the truths make no impact on their lives. I may understand that Jesus quoted Scripture to counter Satan's attacks in the wilderness and that the Word of God is powerful. But so what? How would I ever do that?
Third, applying the text is not merely being relevant. Relevance explains how what happened in Bible times can happen today. For example, we can describe Corinth as similar to many cities today—wild, filled with idols, violence, and sexual immorality. Relevant description can make us more open to application. But this step still falls short since it doesn't tell us what we can do about the situation we recognize.
Finally, illustration—explaining how someone else handled a similar situation—doesn't qualify as application. Illustrations shed light on a passage and show us how someone else applied truth to his or her life. But it remains removed from the individual—from us.
If each of these four aspects of Bible exposition isn't application, what is? What steps can we take to apply the Bible to life?
Applications at their best
Simply stated, application is answering two questions: So what? and Now what? The first question asks, "Why is this passage important to me?" The second asks, "What should I do about it today?"
Application focuses the truth of God's Word on specific, life-related situations. It helps people understand what to do or how to use what they have learned. Application persuades people to act.
For example, Luke 5:12–15 reports Jesus' touching and healing a leper. Beyond describing the horrors of leprosy in the first century (information) and pointing out the similarities to aids victims today (relevance), application asks the congregation to think about who they may consider untouchable and challenges them to touch those people for Christ. It asks, "Who do you know who need God's touch of love? What can you do today or this week to reach out to them?"
Application moves beyond explaining the text and stating the timeless truths. It makes the message personal and challenges people to act. For this to happen, four steps are necessary:
- The listener must receive the message: Do I understand what was said?
- The person should find reason to reflect on his or her own life: What does the message mean for me?
- The individual needs to identify necessary behavior changes: What should I do about it?
- The person should lay out a plan or steps to make a change: What should I do first?
Keeping these steps in mind during sermon preparation can help us preach a sermon that moves people from receiving the message to taking action. But how do we determine an appropriate application in the first place?
Preparing for application
I use what I call the Dynamic Analogy Grid to discover possible applications in a Scripture passage (see adjacent illustration). Whether my text is a verse, a paragraph, or a chapter, this tool helps me move from the words and their meanings, to God's word and his message for the people in the pews. Here's how I work through the grid, using my other Bible study tools and my knowledge of people.
I work across each horizontal row of three boxes, starting with boxes 1 through 3. These three boxes deal with the information in the text. I decide what the passage says about mankind's need/problem, God's action/solution, and mankind's necessary response/obedience. That helps me put the passage in its cultural-historical context and determine the biblical principle or timeless truth.
If, for example, the passage chastises the people of Israel for idol worship (let's use 1 Samuel 7:3–4), I'd want to know what gods were idolized, how they were worshipped, and what problems ensued for the Jews. That would fill box 1. Then I'd want to determine God's action or solution for this problem (box 2), and how he wanted the people of that day to respond (box 3).
Next, I'd move to boxes 4 through 6, which put the text into a contemporary context. When filled in, these boxes make the text relevant.
For box 4: What are the idols today? Of course there are differences, but which of our problems, pressures, and temptations are similar to those of the people of Israel back then?
For box 5: How does God's solution for the Jews then parallel his actions for Christians today
Dynamic Analogy Grid
For box 6: What response does God want now?
What does God want people to do? This answers the question So what?
The final step is to fill in boxes 7 through 9. This applies the passage personally as I think of specific needs in my community and congregation. This leads us to answer the question Now what?
For box 7: What is one example of a similar problem I'm facing now? Or, what are we facing as a church that's similar to idols?
For box 8: What is God telling me as an individual, or us as a church, to do about it?
For box 9: Then what, specifically, does he want me or us to do first? What are some steps we should take today to rid ourselves of idols or to reorder our priorities?
Preaching for application
Here's how one pastor used the grid. Hebrews 1:1–2:4 introduces the theme of the pre-eminence of Christ, saying that Christ is greater than the angels. The problem at that time (box 1) was that Hebrew Christians were in danger of falling back into Judaism, and many were fascinated with angels. Simply stated, God's solution (box 2) was to use the author of Hebrews to emphasize the superiority of Christ, that he alone is sufficient for salvation. First century believers were challenged (box 3) to understand Christ's true identity, to worship only him and not to ignore salvation (2:3).
For the "Now" row, this pastor decided that most people today don't have old religions to fall back into, but several new ones entice us, such as the New Age movement and cults, which permeate all areas of our society (box 4). People easily follow theological tangents. People today need to understand the superiority of Christ over all religions (box 5). Christ is better—the only way. And we need to challenge believers to keep their eyes on Christ and to trust only him (box 6).
After filling the first two rows, this pastor understood the context, the biblical principles, and the relevance of those principles. He could answer "So what?" The final step was to consider the people of his congregation and what possible actions they should take. He applied the message to both unbelievers and believers wavering in their faith.
For unbelievers, confused by the supernatural talk in society and unfamiliar with Christ (box 7), he emphasized the "great salvation" described in Hebrews 2:3 (box 8) and challenged them to trust Christ (box 9), The Christians sidetracked by theological gurus or fascinated by faddish ideas and theologies (box 7 again) need to reject heresies that diminish Christ, to center their lives on Christ, their only authority and hope of salvation (box 8). One possible way they might do that (box 9) would be to learn more about orthodoxy, perhaps by reading a Josh McDowell book or joining an adult study on the topic at the church.
"Christ is greater than the angels" became more than a truth to affirm. It came alive as a message that challenged people to act.
I usually prepare by working from left to right, as I've illustrated above, but when I speak, I sometimes move down the boxes vertically, one column at a time. That moves from people's problem then, to society's problem now, to my (or our) particular problem; from God's solution then, to God's solution now, to God's solution for me (or us); and from mankind's expected response then, to mankind's expected response now, to my (or our) specific and personal response. That adds variety.
Here's another suggestion: Lloyd Perry, homiletics professor emeritus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, recommends a subpoint of application for every main point in the sermon. In other words, he recommends not leaving all the applications until the end, when people are least likely to be listening because they're tired or thinking about lunch. If we're running late, we're tempted to generalize or skip the challenge to action if it's lumped at the conclusion. Perry suggests we sprinkle applications throughout.
Mining for applications
If I want to prepare applications that hit home, I find it best to think through the needs of the people to whom I'm speaking. Needs may be categorized many ways. For example, I generally think in terms of felt needs, hidden needs, and spiritual needs.
As the adjective suggests, felt needs relate to what people are feeling. Felt needs include physical and social pressures at the front of their awareness. Hunger is a felt need, as is loneliness or conflict or guilt.
Hidden needs are those things people need but aren't aware of at the moment. An engaged couple needs to know about conflict resolution, for example, but might not recognize it before the wedding. Other hidden needs a congregation might have include the needs to tithe, to have patience, and to be good stewards of time.
Obviously, such needs could fit under the heading of spiritual needs. But what I'm calling spiritual needs are God's special demands on life and the implications of what it means to call Christ Lord. Involvement in church, sharing the faith with others, studying the Bible regularly, and praying consistently are some of the spiritual needs that come to mind.
Another way to expose a congregation's needs might be to think through the following eight areas of personal application:
- Relationships (for example, with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow believers).
- Conflicts (in marriage, with children, at work).
- Personal burdens (sickness, family pressures, death, loss).
- Difficult situations (stress, debt, hindrances).
- Character weaknesses (dishonesty, lack of integrity, anger).
- Lack of resources (in time, energy/money, materials, information).
- Responsibilities (work demands, church programs, volunteer efforts, home projects).
- Opportunities (learning, working, serving, witnessing).
Some people study, study, study, and do little about it. They act like a football player who loves the game and knows the plays by heart, but who seldom practices or plays.
Others do, do, do, and spend little time in study. They act like the athlete who runs, throws, and catches footballs by the hour, but who spends no time understanding the rules of the game or learning the playbook.
True Bible application involves both studying and doing. It is discovering what the Bible is saying to me and then doing what it says.
We've been given the awesome responsibility of presenting and explaining the Word of God. We must be sure to tell our listeners everything they need to know about the text and context—history, culture, archaeology, theology, and etymology. But we can't neglect application.
"Keep putting into practice all you learned from me and saw me doing," Paul writes, "and the God of peace will be with you" (Philippians 4:9, TLB). Our job: to explain what God wants people to know and do about his eternal commands, promises, and truths, and then to offer them ways to do it.