It was the biggest blind spot in my preaching ministry. A year and a half into my first pastorate, I discovered it. The previous few weeks I had noticed that there was a spiritual need in our congregation. I was finishing a series, so I scheduled the next one based on the need. That first sermon seemed to make a significant impact, judging by the exit comments that morning. Later that day, while attending a meeting, it was evident that the message did not take. I was frustrated, confused, and angry. I spent the rest of the evening going back over my sermon to see where I had failed. Since explanation, illustration, and application are necessary elements of a text-driven sermon I used them as a tool to evaluate my message. They helped me expose the blind spot. While I had adequately explained and illustrated the text, I treated the application like the cousin everyone hopes doesn’t show up to the family reunion: I ignored it. Thinking this was an outlier, I glanced at some other recent sermons and realized that this was the norm.
I feel like I am not the only pastor who has this problem. More of us have it than are willing to admit it. Those trained in the handling of the scriptures are especially susceptible to this condition. The reason for this is simple: because of our training, we are intuitive about moving from the truth of a text to a response in our lives. Since we do it easily, we assume others in our congregation can do it the same way. However, this is a dangerous assumption. This is not a reflection of congregational aptitude, but rather exposes the fact that they have never been taught how to navigate apply a text. So how do we cure this blind spot? We climb a flight of stairs!
Before we start up the staircase, it is essential to know where we are going. With that in mind, it helps to begin with a definition of application. The story above inspired the research of application that eventually became my dissertation. As a result of that study, I developed a definition that I hope will assist us in this process. Application is the process of moving from the truth of a text to a response, first by the preacher, and then by his hearers with the purpose of life change. This process involves intentionality by the preacher, while fully acknowledging the role of the Holy Spirit in making additional, unplanned application to the hearers. Now, let’s take hit the stairs.
Stair # 1: Explore the Meaning
The first step in the application staircase is discovering meaning. The preacher must identify the “truth of the text.” Application begins the same place that the sermon begins, exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis helps determine what a text says. Once the preacher learns what the passage says, the process of hermeneutics helps decipher what it means. From there, the pastor develops a central idea of a passage. This one sentence encapsulates the meaning of the pericope and will serve as a filter when the pastor is developing primary and secondary applications of a text.Primary applications are formed from the central idea of the text, while secondary applications are possible as long as they are subservient to the meaning of the text and not detrimental to it.
Stair # 2 Examine the Preacher
The second stair of the application process involves moving from the “truth of the text to the response, first by the pastor.” A pastor who fails to examine his own life and heart with a text he is preaching is irresponsible at best, and hypocritical at worst. James 1:22–25 is clear that the end goal of the word is action based upon what the text says. Therefore the passage we are preparing to preach must prepare our hearts before we take it to our people and ask them to do the same thing. The preacher must respond to the text if we expect those who hear us to respond.
Stair 3 Examples for the Congregation
The final stair one must climb in the process of application requires great intentionality by the pastor. Per our definition of application, it must move from the pastor “to the hearers for the purpose of life change.” The pastor must think outside of his personal application and consider his congregation. Indeed the longer one pastors a place, the easier this becomes, but it still requires intentional effort. I encourage you to carve out at least a half-hour of your prep time to think through how a text can apply to various members of your congregation. Ask yourself specific questions about the passage’s orthodoxy or orthopraxy. For example, does it establish a doctrine to believe or correct some faulty pattern of belief? Does it correct a bad behavior or instruct in a proper one? Also consider your audiences’ stages of life, work situations, family dynamics, etc. Make a list and then weave those applications throughout the sermon. When you draw their attention to potential ways they can apply a text, it will model proper application for them, and they will learn the skill themselves.
A Final Word
Before we leave our application staircase, it’s important to note that when we preach biblically, we preach in the Holy Spirit’s power. We must acknowledge that the third person of the Trinity will often make application in the lives of our hearers that we never intend, but they may need. I have often had someone approach me after a sermon and report that I was preaching exactly what they need to hear about a particular issue. Upon reflection, I realized I never mentioned that particular sin in my sermon, Yet, the Spirit took the truth and applied it as His pleasure. The Spirit’s involvement doesn’t excuse us from demonstrating to our people how to apply the scripture in their lives. Before you preach next time, let me encourage you to take the stairs in order to help your people become doers of the word.
Clint Ellis is the Pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Florida.