Crafting Sermon Applications that Stick
If we cannot apply the teaching of Scripture practically, we lose the teaching’s practicality.
Several years ago, while I was in seminary in Austin, I was sitting in the office of one of my professors who was reading over a sermon from Psalm 30. I wish I could say that the enthusiastic expression that crossed over his face at the beginning of the sermon remained on his face for the entire reading. However, by the end of the sermon, he simply raised his head and asked, “So what?”
The question both struck me deeply and has stuck with me since that day. His assessment, I have discovered, was absolutely fair. In his assessment, my exegesis of the psalm was excellent. My discussion of the theological underpinnings of the psalm were thoughtful and contextually appropriate. My language and rhetoric was creative and engaging. And, yet, when the sermon ended, it sounded hollow in the ears of my professor. It sounded hollow not because the faith of the speaker was hollow or because the passage was ill-selected. It sounded hollow because the message of the sermon (not the message of the text, mind you) went no further than the sanctuary doors.
The message sounded tinny in my professor’s ears (and in mine, in later offerings of it) because the message of the sermon did not connect with the real lives of the, in the words of Martin Luther, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who would give ear to this message. It has been my burden since that moment to make sure that my sermons are not just scripturally grounded and theologically informed but also culturally relevant. I think this is what Paul is talking about when he wrote to his protégé Timothy that we must “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). In doing so, we “do the work of an evangelist” and “carry out [our] ministry fully” (2 Tim. 4:5). Preaching becomes more than religious speechmaking; preaching becomes a transformational event.
How do we connect the timeless truth of the gospel with the timely reality of today? In answering this question, we discover how to apply the teachings of Scripture to, first, ourselves and, then, to our hearers. In blending solid biblical exposition with sound theological reflection and appropriate practical application, we carry out another of Paul’s admonitions: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The problem, it seems, comes with our understanding of “applications.”
Applications that don’t stick
Several years ago, I was sitting in a chapel service as the preacher walked up to the stage. He was holding something in his hands—a box of Twinkies! He said something about wanting to celebrate the reopening of the company that made Twinkies by passing a few out to the audience. The students who were taking my preaching class that semester thought this was an awesome engagement strategy. So I asked what the sermon was about? Yup, you guessed it. My room of students turned into a pack of stunned deer. To be fair, I have no idea what the sermon was about either.
On another occasion, a speaker continually referred to a ketchup packet throughout his sermon. He told a story about a time when he was eating hamburgers with his daughter and she told him that the ketchup reminded her of God’s love, because it covered us just like the ketchup covered a burger. It is a good illustration, however it still came up short in actually applying the teaching that he wanted to share. Again, I cannot really tell you what the sermon was about.
In sharing these stories, I do not mean to disparage the preachers who offered these sermons. I simply wish to state my thesis: If we cannot apply the teaching of Scripture practically, we lose the teaching’s practicality.
There are three terms that I think we often associate with “application,” with the practical focus of our sermons. First, there is illustration. What is an illustration? Put simply, an illustration is a story that illuminates an idea. It is a window through which we see the implications of the text. For example, in a sermon on Matthew 5:10-12, I focused on Jesus’ calling to accept persecution as a beautiful consequence of accepting the mantle of discipleship. As a way of illustrating the teaching, I talked about a friend of mine from college who had accepted a call to be a missionary in China. I talked about how my friend would communicate in code, talking about “meeting friends” and “sharing meals” together. My friend, who was teaching English overtly and the gospel covertly, knew that the Chinese government was reading his emails and scanning his packages. Yet, my friend understood the dangers, and the kingdom has grown as a result. You see, illustrations illustrate. However they do not apply.
Second, there is take-away. Put simply, a take-away is a concept that summarizes a larger teaching experience. My students call it the “tweetable moment.” Many of us call it the “big idea (see Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd ed.),” “theme sentence (see Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching),” or “focus statement (see Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching),” just to name a few. It is how we break down our message into its most digestible portion(s).
While I was preaching through The Story series, I came upon the message entitled “Jesus the Teacher.” In each of the sermons, I divided the selected passages up into three “scenes.” These scenes would then lend themselves to three “Points to Ponder,” three sub-points that summed up the entire message. In this particular sermon, my scenes were the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, and Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. My “Points to Ponder”—my take-aways—were that Jesus teaches about ethical living, Jesus teaches about spiritual formation, and Jesus teaches about salvation. These statements are by no means exhaustive, yet they summed up the aspects of Jesus’ teaching that I wanted my congregation to remember. You see, take-aways summarize the message. However they do not apply.
Moving to application
Most of us stop here, thinking that summing up is a success. They can tell us about what the sermon was about, yet transformative change will not happen because developing an idea is not enough to sustain meaningful change.
Third, then, there is application. What is an application? Put simply, an application is a plan of action that puts an idea into practice. Rick Warren generally summed up the concept of an application when he said, “The purpose of the Bible is not for doctrine, not for reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness. . . . The bottom line is life change . . . If you are not having life change, you are not preaching.” Preaching is about calling people to live like Jesus, to allow God to change us through the power of the Spirit. While I disagree with Warren that “life-change” is the only goal of preaching, his statement certainly speaks to an intentionality that I think we often lack.
Think of applications like learning objectives. Learning objectives help teachers develop their curriculum holistically, to ensure that as many levels of learning are reached as possible (see Rick and Shera Melick, Teaching That Transforms). In order to understand sermon applications as learning objectives, we need to ask ourselves four questions:
Is the application concrete, meaning is the application tangible?
Is the application progressive, meaning does the application integrate the teaching into the action?
Is the application reasonable, meaning can the application be accomplished?
Is the application measurable, meaning can growth in faith and/or practice be demonstrated)?
Does a sermon on prayer lead the congregation to pray more intentionally? Does a sermon on forgiveness guide the congregation to forgive those who hurt them?
I know what you are probably thinking: how does this work? Let me give a couple of examples. First, in a sermon on prayer from a series on spiritual formation, I ended the sermon by talking about a set of prayer beads I purchased when I studied in Greece during my senior year of college. While living in Greece, I saw persons flipping these beads around their fingers, saying quiet prayers as they did. These were not just rote prayers. It was, in many ways, a living demonstration of Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). With my prayer beads in my hand, I demonstrated the practice and then walked my congregation through a simple prayer formula that they could begin using that afternoon.
Second, in a sermon that focused on confronting gossip and criticism, my friend Jeff Garrett issued a challenge to our congregation to measure how they talk about others. He passed out rubber bands and demonstrated what he wanted the congregation to do: each time we caught ourselves speaking ill against another, we were to snap the rubber band and move it to the opposite wrist. For the next few Sundays, I would see folks come in with their rubber bands on the opposite wrist (as I did). Note that in each of these examples, the application was connected directly to the sermon and were simple actions.
The concern at this point is how is this approach to preaching, or at least the application portion of preaching, truly transformative? How do these examples of intentional prayer and inflicting a moment of pain upon ourselves demonstrate legitimate spiritual development? First, there is experiential evidence that development has occurred. On a number of occasions, those who have been challenged to demonstrate their faith by developing a more intentional approach to prayer or being authentic in our speech have come back to me and shared their progress with me. They share with me the new vocabulary and depth of experience that they have felt in prayer. They share with me the reconciling in relationships that has occurred as a result of being more authentic in their speech. In this way, I have seen individuals and congregations aspiring towards exhortations to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom. 12:2), to “be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15) and “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jam. 1:27). In such ways, we find ourselves becoming “a new creation” that has engaged in “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-18).
Yet, does stringing some passages together demonstrate that identifiable transformative growth has occurred? Well, no, it does not. Yet the actions displayed do serve as evidential proof that transformative growth is occurring because it demonstrates learning theory in action. Although space does not allow for a full treatment here, Transformative Learning Theory is certainly an application of Paul’s admonition to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” in Rom. 12.
Here is a brief overview of this theory. Our congregation prepares to hear a sermon that they assume they already know the point of. However, we present the message in such a way that it creates tension in the mind of the hearer. Choosing to resolve the conflict, the hearer continues on the intellectual journey with us, hoping to find resolution in the end. The preacher, however, does not resolve the conflict, choosing instead to present a challenge to the hearer. The hearer must now willfully and intentionally decide to act out the sermon in his or her life by engaging in the action presented. The hearer engages the action and either immediately or over time finds that redemptive power of the action, which urges a more authentic adherence to faith in Christ and willingness to be guided by the Spirit.
Shifting the view
Several years ago, I was browsing through a Christian bookstore with my wife while we were waiting for a movie. She was looking for some Sunday school curriculum and I found myself wandering into the minister’s resources section. As I was looking through some of the small group curriculum choices, I noticed a book that was out of place. I picked it up because the title caught my eye—Preaching with a Plan. Written by Scott Gibson, the book focuses on developing effective strategies for sermon planning, planning that cultivates spiritual growth (that “life change” we were talking about earlier). However, as Gibson argues, planning creative sermon series will not lead to spiritual growth on their own. We must shift our view of what preaching is about. Congregations across the country are eliminating education programs and Bible studies. As a result, the amount of good teaching that our people are receiving is dwindling. Gibson argues that as preachers we must begin to see ourselves as religious educators and spiritual directors. The way to do this is to begin thinking like one. Truthfully, they go hand-in-hand, teaching and directing.
Will transformational growth happen in one sermon? Maybe, maybe not. However, it will happen if we consistently and intentionally develop learning-based applications that challenge our congregations to put their faith into action.
Rob O’Lynn teaches preaching at Kentucky Christian University, Johnson University, and Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a minister in Ashland, Kentucky.