We barely notice the cough medicine on the shelf until the day the allergies hit. We don’t give a second look to the gas station until the needle points toward empty. And the car commercials? We flip the channel until our clunker finally gives up the ghost and we’re in the market for something new. Information we otherwise brush past grows suddenly critical when one element enters the scenario: need. When we need something, even something to which we previously gave little attention, we give ourselves entirely to it.
People listen to a sermon when they sense the sermon will address a need in their lives. Their minds, which otherwise wander from next week’s ball game to the shopping list on the refrigerator to the project at work, suddenly focus on the preacher’s words when they recognize the upcoming teaching will address that struggle, question, or issue that keeps them staring at the ceiling until 2 AM.
I offer three suggestions for helping listeners see how the sermon’s message matters to them.
Raise Need in the Introduction
For every biblical teaching, there exists a corresponding human need. For example:
TRUTH: God’s Spirit empowers us. → CORRESPONDING NEED: We feel feeble and inadequate.
TRUTH: Christians live with an eternally significant purpose. → CORRESPONDING NEED: We muddle aimlessly through our days.
TRUTH: God designed Christians to thrive in community. → CORRESPONDING NEED: We struggle with loneliness.
Once we recognize what biblical truth we will preach, we ask ourselves what corresponding human need that truth will address. Then, we develop a paragraph or two for the introduction that describes that need. The paragraph might include a story that illustrates the need, a quote, or straightforward discussion such as: “Perhaps you came this morning feeling lonely. You live in a busy neighborhood, you work around dozens of people, you sit here this morning in the midst of a couple hundred people, but you’ve never felt so alone.”
When we raise such needs in our introductions, listeners recognize that the sermons will provide help for their struggles. Hungry for help, they listen.
Develop Applications That Relate to Need
As we develop applications and sprinkle them throughout the sermon, we keep a constant eye on the need raised in the introduction.
For example, if we raised the need of feeling feeble and inadequate, how can we equip listeners to recognize and rely on God’s empowerment through his Spirit? What can they pray, who can they talk to, what might they read, what Scriptures might they memorize, where can they turn to replace those feelings of inadequacy with reliance on God?
Consider Immediate Applications
We learn best when we immediately implement what we learn, turning abstract concepts into concrete experiences. In some circumstances, we can challenge our listeners not only to apply the sermon but to apply it immediately, even before they leave the worship center.
For example, immediate application can come through:
- Writing: In a sermon about hospitality, have listeners write the names of three people they will invite into their homes over the coming three months. In a sermon on encouragement, provide cards, envelopes, and stamps, then give them time to write brief notes of encouragement to others who need their spirits lifted.
- Prayer: In a sermon about worship, have listeners list the three attributes of God that have been most obvious to them lately, then give them two minutes to pray and worship God for these particular attributes. In a sermon about guilt and forgiveness, allow people a couple of minutes to confess their sins to God, then to thank Him for His grace.
- Texting: When the application involves interaction with other people—expressing gratitude to them, perhaps, or inviting them to something—consider offering your listeners a couple of minutes during the sermon to send text messages.
- Case Studies: If the sermon equips listeners to overcome worry, describe a situation that might make them anxious, then allow them time to write or discuss how they might overcome worry in that particular situation.
The Bible is relevant. Biblical truth addresses human needs. Faithful, effective sermons uncover the text’s relevance and help listeners see the “cash value” of the truth, applying it to the struggles that keep them awake at night and the circumstances they face in the day.
Daniel Overdorf is the Dean of the School of Congregational Ministry and Professor of Preaching at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee.