Chapter 3

Using Images in Application

Vague generalities don't change lives.

Editor’s Note: How can we improve our sermon applications? asked preaching professor Steve Mathewson to critique the application section within one of his sermons. Mathewson preached on a tough passage--1 Samuel 15:1-35.

Mathewson notes that "the challenge for the preacher in every sermon is to talk to people about their lives from the Bible." So how did Mathewson evaluate his own sermon based on this goal? Overall, he said, his sermon moved in the right direction. But he also admitted his application could have been stronger. Here's his analysis with some helpful tips for how we do application in every sermon.

When you use two or three varied images, at least one image will usually intersect with the experience of any listener.

The challenge for the preacher is to talk to people about their lives from the Bible. How well does the narrative sermon "No Selective Obedience" execute this fundamental of preaching?

Overall, the application in this sermon moves in the right direction, but it does not move far enough.

Strengths of Current Application

Positively, the preacher extracts application from the main idea of the sermon. 1 Samuel 15 is about the failure to listen to God's voice or, in one word, disobedience. I would state the big idea like this: " The result of rejecting God's voice is God's rejection of you. " The application in the sermon lines up with this idea.

The preacher applies this idea to two different scenarios in which believers must not reject the Word of the Lord. The first is the command to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. The second relates to the Holy Spirit's prompting of believers to use their gifts for a particular assignment. The preacher exhorts: " If God speaks to your heart about an assignment, carry it out. "

Application goes awry when preachers base application on peripheral (though important) events of the storyline rather than on the author's intended meaning. I commend this preacher for sticking to application that flows out of the main idea of the story.

For example, some preachers yield to the temptation to build an application on 1 Samuel 15:9: " But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs — everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed. " The application goes something like this: " Mark it well, the material things of the world look attractive. So beware of what you see. The attraction of material possessions — fine cars, large houses, and expensive cruises — have led many servants of God astray. Yes, the 'lust of the eyes' will keep you from fully obeying God, so beware. " Thankfully, the sermon avoids this line of application.

But what's wrong with an application like this? Didn't the apostle Paul recognize the validity of looking at Old Testament narratives as examples of how to live or how not to live (1 Corinthians 10:6, 1 Corinthians 10:11)? Yes, but this kind of application fails because it misconstrues the author's emphasis. A close reading of this story shows that the disease behind Saul's failure to obey is peer pressure rather than materialism. Saul admitted in 1 Samuel 15:24: " I was afraid of the voice of the people, and so I gave in to them. " This is not to deny that materialism contributed to Saul's disobedience. But the author does not see materialism as a major factor behind Saul's sin.

This example raises another key issue. When we think of application, we usually think in terms of offering a remedy. We focus on suggesting how we can live out the story's truth in a way that pleases God. Sometimes, though, we need to precede this with an application of the disease. That is, we need to show how the disease or sin in the story happens in our lives. I suggest taking time in this sermon to point out to listeners what the sin of " listening to the voice of the people " looks like in the twenty-first century. How do modern believers face peer pressure?

So I commend the preacher for sticking to the application that flows out of the main idea of the story.

How to Improve My Application

My major concern, though, is that the application in this sermon does not go far enough. While it moves in the right direction, the sermon settles for generalities — obeying God's command to love my wife and obeying the Spirit's prompting to use my spiritual gift. However, like fog, generalities disappear quickly. After reading this sermon, I felt unsure as to what I should do. Furthermore, I could not envision how peer pressure (the voice of the people) competes with either of these two types of commands.

Let's work with these two examples — obeying God's command to love my wife and obeying the Spirit's prompting to use my spiritual gift. Let's assume that these issues emerge after you prayerfully ask: " Where do my listeners struggle with the temptation to disobey God's voice and instead give in to the voice of the people around them? "

With these two examples in hand, we need to develop an application image. This is an extended picture of what the truth looks like when fleshed out in a believer's life. Here are a couple of examples of application images we might present to our listeners.

Where are you struggling with obeying God's voice? Perhaps it's the Lord's command to husbands, " Love your wives as Christ loved the church. " But your wife is distant emotionally. Her post-partum depression darkens her mood. She snaps at you for not picking up a gallon of milk at the supermarket. As your eyes meet, you notice the lack of eye-liner. There's no blush on her cheeks. She's letting herself go. You give her a playful hug, but there's no response. When you crawl into bed, she pretends to be asleep.

And yet God's voice is clear. " Love your wives as Christ loved the church. " Oh, but it's tempting to listen to your culture on this one. If she's going to act this way, ignore her. Don't rub her back. Don't tell her you love her. Don't try to confide in her. You can talk to that gal who works with you in the sales department. She acts more interested. She's more caring and compassionate. She appreciates you. But God's voice is clear, " Love your wives as Christ loved the church. " If Christ could love the church when she is unlovely, then you can love your wife when she's unlovely. You can stifle a cutting remark when she snaps at you. You can continue giving her hugs even when she seems unresponsive. You can confide in her even when she seems disinterested. You can rub her back even when she ignores you.

(By the way, if we're going to talk about the problem of a husband responding to his wife, we probably should balance this with the problem of a wife responding to her husband.)

Or, what about times when God's Spirit prompts you to go to Haiti on a short-term mission trip with a team from your church. Will you listen to God's voice, or will you let the voice of people around dictate your response? You sense the Spirit leading you to use your skills as a craftsman to rebuild a church building destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. You feel compelled to take a week of vacation to make the trip. But it's over a weekend your friends want to fly to Los Angeles. You'll get to watch UCLA play USC. You'll golf every day. You'll hit the beach. Besides, you've heard people say that Haiti is a dirty, third-world country. You might get hepatitis. You might get caught in a military coup in Port-au-Prince. But if God's Spirit has made it clear that you should go, his voice should trump the voices calling you to stay.

What do these application images offer? First, they have sticking power. Pictures take time to develop in listeners' minds. Like the one side of a Velcro fastener, the details in these images provide the hooks that will latch onto the loops in the fabric of the listeners' minds. Second, they deal with real life — the kind of situations our people will face. Finally, they offer specific direction. They provide tangible examples of how to live out the truth. When you use two or three varied images like these, at least one image will usually intersect with the experience of any listener.

A friend of mine complained, " I want to respond to my pastor's sermons, but he never tells me how. " Strengthening the sermon with concrete, extended application images will enable listeners to put the story in 1 Samuel 15 to work in their lives.