In middle school, one of my favorite P.E. sections was when we learned archery. Coach would set up a dozen or so large, round targets for us to shoot at with red, recurve bows. Throughout the week, we shot arrows from 10 yards away, aiming at the bullseye and keeping score. But Fridays were the fun days. On Fridays, Coach would set up the targets 100 yards away, and as an incentive would give a free soft drink to anyone who even hit the target.
You can probably imagine a dozen pre-teen boys nocking their arrows, pulling the strings back as far as they can, pointing the arrows at the sky, and launching them into the atmosphere. Very rarely would someone even come close, but one day my arrow caught the outside edge of the target! I high-fived my friends in disbelief, and to this day, it’s one of the sweetest tasting Dr. Peppers I ever drank.
Sermon application is a lot like teaching God’s people how to shoot their arrows at the right target. I’m a strong advocate for specific application over general application. I want the people to see how the passage specifically applies to their lives, so I tease out a few scenarios where they might live out the truths of Scripture. For example, when challenging men to love and lead their wives, I specifically call them to lead their wives by praying for them and with them. I tell them to carve out time at least once a week to talk and pray with their wives. Specific application gives people handles to carry out God’s word. It’s like setting the target up 10 yards away and telling them to hit the bullseye.
But there are times when specific application gives way to more aspirational, or goal-oriented, application. This is when you paint a target in the distance and call people to aim their lives in that direction.
One example would be Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 1:15–16: “But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
Certainly, you can speak of specific applications related to what holiness looks like in the life of a believer, but you can also set up the target of holiness in the distance and exhort your people to aim for it with their whole life. You can do this by speaking of the holiness of God, which I believe we’ve lost the gravity of in our day. As you paint a compelling picture of the holiness of God, you then explain how holy vessels are those things set apart for the purposes and use of the Lord, so for us to be holy doesn’t mean we’re perfect as much as it means we’re available and useful for the Lord’s service. You conclude with the application of setting a goal to walk in holiness and to be available to how the Lord wants to use them for His purposes.
The key here is where the target is placed. You want a mixture of both short-distance and long-distance applications. Short-distance targets are specific and achievable. Long-distance targets are general and aspirational. We see both sets used in Scripture, so we should see both in our preaching.
So encourage your people, set up the targets, and watch the arrows fly.
Keith Collier serves as pastor of First Baptist Church in Groesbeck, Texas.