In this post I want to tackle a possibly controversial topic. It is my belief that when pastors try to be too “practical application” oriented in their sermons, the paradoxical but inevitable result is that their sermons apply to fewer and fewer people. The solution to sermonizing that is nothing but storytelling and “life-application” is sermonizing that is exegetically grounded. I believe that when we let the text do the speaking, the Holy Spirit is able to take the Word and apply it to each and every life far better than I could if I worried too much about applying it for people.
This first struck me as a real problem with “story-telling” preaching several years ago sitting under a pastor who had a gift for connecting with people, and who genuinely loved the members of his church. I enjoyed him personally, and was enjoying the prospect of sitting under his preaching. But just a couple of weeks in, I knew I wasn’t taking anything home with me. His sermons were comprised of story after story and a few thoughts thrown in from books on coaching. As I listened to his stories, it dawned on me that exactly zero of his “life application” attempts had any kind of real connection with my life.
The reason was that he narrowed the focus of his sermons to the list of stories he could come up with for his topic, thus excluding the congregants whose lives did not fit any of the contexts of the tales.
On the other hand, over the years I have spent pastoring, teaching, and sermonizing, the greatest results I have seen or heard from sermons came after a minister opened Scripture and let it do the talking. It is absolutely incredible what a passage of Scripture can do when it is allowed to do all the work. Recently I spoke on 1 Kings 19 and focused on how God worked with the depressed and hopeless Elijah. My primary point concerned the “low whisper” (how the ESV translates “still small voice”) in which God spoke to His prophet. After the service, a bunch of us went out to eat, and people were talking to me about the sermon and what they got out of it. To my pleasant surprise, they did see and comprehend what I put across, but they were all drawn to other parts of the passage that were read aloud in service and dealt with, if even on a cursory level. God spoke to people because the service let Him do the talking and applying.
The overarching point, I believe, is this: practical application without principal is practically useless. It is the principals in Scripture that do the work of transforming the heart and mind, and they can only do their work if the minister behind the pulpit is dedicated enough to do their homework theologically and biblically and brave enough to get out of the way.