After we clearly explain a biblical text or theological concept, we must help hearers answer the question, What difference does this make in how I live?
In the application of the sermon " Overcoming the Influence of Affluence " (click on sermon title to see full text of message), I see three strengths and two areas for improvement.
1. The sermon features deep application. This suits well the overall purpose of the sermon, which is primarily application and secondarily persuasion. Each movement has an element of application to it. The first movement (see outline below) confronts false beliefs hearers may hold. The second movement lays out general attitudes and virtues we should cultivate. The third movement covers specific ways to express those attitudes and virtues in daily living. There are strong contrasts drawn throughout the sermon between right and wrongagain, fitting for a sermon whose primary purpose is application.
I. Myths about the American Dream
A. Being good at making a living is the same thing as being good at making a life.
B. Money should be able to solve all my problems.
C. I deserve more and better.
D. I'm not keeping up with my peers.
E. Being able to afford it is reason enough to have it.
[transition: 1 Timothy 6:19 - The Good Life of God]
II. Four Necessary Changes in Our Perspective If We're Going to Pursue the Good Life of God (1 Timothy 6:17-18)
A. To fight arrogance, cultivate humility (v. 17a).
B. To fight materialism, cultivate godliness (v. 17b).
C. To fight dissatisfaction, cultivate enjoyment (v. 17c).
D. To fight selfishness, cultivate generosity (v. 18).
III. Action Plan
A. Be open to a radical lifestyle change.
B. Cap your income.
C. Become an underconsumer.
D. Get out of the suburbs and serve the poor.
E. Become a consistent giver.
2. The sermon raises the bar high. The five suggestions of the final movement challenge our socks off! The preacher was not afraid to present the radical claims of Christ with regard to money. One of the biggest mistakes we can make in application is to cave in to cultural values and soften the clear call of Scripture to the point that no one feels they need to grow.
3. The illustrations show in concrete ways what the application looks like. The people chosen for illustration vary from the famous (Rich Mullins) to the unknown (the man who gives his time and money to help out a physician in Uganda) to the preacher and his wife. The sermon uses dramatic illustrations (going to Africa as a missionary) and less dramatic ones (giving up a vacation to give more to church). It would have been a mistake only to use famous people and dramatic illustrations, which everyday disciples may not identify with as quickly. Oftentimes the most useful illustrations are those that come out of the common experience of a congregation. As one of my pulpit mentors once said, " Find everyday people who are doing something right and make a federal case out of them in the sermon.''
Ways to Improve
1. Tie the specific points of the third movement directly to the main points of movement two. For example, when the sermon argues that " to avoid arrogance, we're going to cultivate humility, " this seems to tie right in with the emphasis on " being open to a radical lifestyle change. " Or when the preacher says, " To avoid materialism, we're going to cultivate godliness, " this points us toward his challenge that " another thing you can do is become an underconsumer. " This approach derives the application more directly from the biblical text and implicitly gives it more authority.
2. Be careful that the application is true to Scripture. One of the points of application is " to cap your income. " Biblically and ethically, I'm not sure the amount of a person's income is really the issue that should be addressed. For example, who determines what is a sufficient amount of income? Or who is to say what is too much income? I'd suggest eliminating this point of application and instead driving home the necessity of generosity (point four), regardless of income. This is more biblical (1 Timothy 6:18), ties in directly with the second point of the sermon, and gets the sermon out of a subjective, personal morass on an issue for which there is no clear answer.
As this suggestion makes clear, application is no easy task, even for the experienced preacher. The Bible is always harder to apply than it first appears because it was written to specific situations some two to three thousand years ago in a different cultural setting. Moreover, our audiences today do not always believe that Scripture says something to their contemporary needs. The preacher's daunting job is not only to explain clearly the text or theological concept but also to make it relate to the lives of the listeners in an accurate and useful fashion.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.