Monday, October 30, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 5: Life Application Sermons

Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4

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.


Rusty said...

"Practical application," through "relevance," has become the means in which entertaining, and short, sermons are delivered. We've taken our capitalistic mentality and have attempted to apply it to our Christian faith. And so the thinking goes, "Success is measured in numbers, and numbers are generated by marketing strategies..."

Here's an excerpt from John Parker, Guide for the Cineplexed: on Churches That Give You What You Want, But Not What You Need, Touchstone Magazine July/August 2006,

The Church from its inception has never been “market driven.” By divine institution, it cannot change according to the whims of society, the drive of the market, the desires of the people. Indeed, it would be spiritually dangerous to do so. The Church is gathered to worship together as a community of faith, and to go forth into the world to present the gospel to all who will hear, that on the last day, we each may enter and be seated at that Great Heavenly Banquet on the Never-Ending Day of his Kingdom.

Brian B said...

Phil - another excellent post! An analogy came to mind as I read it: sermons whose main content is "practical application" is to sermons whose main content consists in theological principles as "symptom management" is to a cure (or as "giving a fish" is to "teaching to fish.") The former robs the believer of the opportunity - indeed, the necessity - to interact more deeply with the great truths of Scripture in such a way that it becomes "internalized," systematized, integrated into the whole of a Christian life. Instead, one gets spoon-fed a limited, context-dependent, "quick fix" that, without that necessary integration into one's character and belief structure, is just ad hoc. Those who know a good bit about practical application, but not the principles underlying such application, will lack true wisdom - there will be no genuine virtue of character here; only a jumble of incomplete, ungrounded rules for this or that situation.

Imagine being married to someone who didn't really KNOW you, but had a handy list of how-to's for various circumstances - one not based on a proper or full or personal or intimate UNDERSTANDING of who you really are; they might "act rightly" toward you in many cases, but not for the right reason. Which sounds like the stronger marriage: one in which the spouses looked up the closest match for a given scenario in their little Rule Book for Marriage, and then acted accordingly; or one in which each spouse became so well integrated into the life of the other, knew their spouse so intimately, understood their essence and nature so completely, that in a given situation, doing the right thing toward them consisted in merely reflecting on - or perhaps spontaneously knowing - who their spouse is as a person and how a given action is likely to affect them? Theological "principles" - such a cold, academic-sounding locution - just means "knowing God intimately and completely." It is to transcend the piecemeal and ad hoc, and to apprehend the universal, the fundamental, the true, about God's nature. The more of that kind of knowledge of God we come to have, the more accurately and naturally we apply it in "practical" situations.

Or, to put the whole point a lot more succinctly - to those who think that a focus on practical application should be primary, I would simply ask: practically apply what?

Matt said...

Great post! I definitely agree. Expository preaching, I think, is crucial to preaching the Word well, and expository preaching with little to no "practical application" allows the Spirit to convict people where they are at and will allow for God to speak to people.

Daria said...

Hiya, Phil--I agree with my brother: you say great stuff here! = ) you go, Phil. : ) well, and it's why we've always been your fan as parishioners, of course!! : ) who wants this paltry "life application" nonsense, when, as you say, they generally make the Scripture terribly UNapplicable. sigh --and the lessons you have taught across the years *about the Scriptures themselves*--why, they have utterly changed my cognitive frameworks, my whole way of viewing and understanding and relating to God...that's the penultimate. that's what it's supposed to be all about: teaching us how to understand God, human nature, and our relationship to the Creator, each other, and ourselves.

With this topic, I always think of Guiness' points in "Prophetic Untimeliness" about how our culture looks at "old" things as automatically inferior. And it has seemed to me, listening to people immediately jump to, "well, so how can we make this applicable to today?" that they suffer from this ridiculous, insidious notion--as if the Bible needs their help to "make" it relevant. The arrogance and ignorance is astonishing, really. : (

A couple points, however, about principles and their applications: As an educator and someone who studies people and our cognitive processes ; ), I do think people need help a) in identifying the principles in a Biblical passage; and b) making the connections between principles and practice. For some of us, this is just how our minds work, because our minds have been trained to do so. This training is a rare privilege, however, and so, we musn't assume that everyone has these cognitive skills. In effect, you as a teacher are charged with the task of training people's minds (not something I imagine is really talked much about in pastoral training, but I believe it's very important). They need to be taught how to think about Scripture, how to approach it, how to dissect it, if you will, and how to use proper means of interpreting it. Then, they must be taught (and must be able to practice the skill) how to connect principles and practice: if I believe this about God's nature, what does that mean/what are the implications for >whatever/everything< . I think, honestly, that this is why the Bible is so full of stories and concrete instructions: stories (God's kind are always "good ones" ; )) convey both principle and fleshing out of the principle in vivid, emotive/experiential fashion that all of us, no matter our cognitive training, can grasp. And, as for the concrete lists of instructions ("do not lie, be forbearing, be compassionate")--well, we're very concrete creatures, and we may need these lists of "so, here's the endpoint of understanding these things about God and being in relationship with God" because we are often rather inept and slow in making those connections. Anyway...just some thoughts (probably rather scattered right now, sorry)...

Tom said...

How does 2 Timothy 4:2-"...Rebuke, reprove, and exhort" fit into your idea of application? I am asking this sincerly. I would take the above passage to mean that it is the expositors God-given duty to make "applications" just as it is to teach. For example: 1 Tim. 4:13 calls timothy to give exhortation. Col. 1:28 also comes up to my mind where Paul says He proclaimed Christ, teaching and admonishing. Again, I am asking this sincerly> How do you understand these verses in light of your veiw of application. By the way you can even email me at