Let’s just get it out there. Preaching is hard.
In the midst of all the disputes over preaching, this fact remains undisputed. Yes, preaching is wonderful and exhilarating. But, it is also exhausting, frustrating, and difficult. Whether a person has preached one time, or a hundred times, they know this.
Why is that? What makes preaching so hard?
I would suggest that it has to do with the nature of preaching. Preaching is not just delivering a message, passing along facts, or making a point (though it does include these things). At its core, preaching is something that calls for a response in the listener.
Put differently, members of the congregation are not to be just detached observers of a sermon. God always calls his people to respond, in some fashion, to what his Word declares.
But it is precisely this feature that makes preaching so difficult. What are the most effective ways to call for a response? Or, in more common parlance, how do we apply God’s word?
When it comes to application, I would suggest that preachers tend to fall into a bit of a rut. We tend to use the same type of application, over and over again.
In order to remedy this, let me suggest three different categories for how to apply God’s word. These three categories are not mutually exclusive (and often overlap), but they can provide much-needed balance and breadth to our preaching.
Application to Action
The first type of application is the most obvious. And that is the application that calls the congregation to do something.
This sort of application is calling for a change in behavior. As preachers, therefore, we are trying to motivate.
Now, these “do” applications have fallen on hard times of late. This is due in large part to the fact that these sort of applications are overused. Preaching becomes this one-dimensional exercise where the preacher tells you do something more (or different). And the congregation never feels like they live up to it.
It’s my hope that the other categories below can help us break out of this one-dimensional type of application.
That said, we need to remember that action applications are still legitimate. It is not unbiblical, nor is it contrary to the gospel, for a preacher to call members to change their behavior. Indeed, many of the biblical texts we preach are focused on our behavior as Christians!
Application to the Mind
The next category of application is calling for a change in the way we think or reason. As preachers, therefore, we are trying to persuade.
I think this is the most overlooked form of application. We tend to focus on external behavior, and downplay the role that conviction and belief have on that behavior.
This category reminds us that preaching is a form of apologetics. As preachers, we are trying to convince and persuade our congregations that God’s ways are the right ways.
We want our congregation to hear God’s word and say to themselves, “Yes, that’s true!” or “Wow, that really makes sense!”
Don’t underestimate the power of the mind. Actions often flow directly from what a person believes about the world and about reality.
In our current cultural climate, this second category of application is needed now more than ever. For too long, preachers could get away with just telling their congregations what to do. But, now people are bombarded daily with the opposite message. Mere exhortations to morality rarely work.
People need to know more than what to do, they need to know why to do it. They need to know why it is right and true.
Application to the Heart
In applications to the heart, we are calling for a change in one’s affections. As preachers, therefore, we are trying to stir up a person’s heart.
This final category of application is also critical. It’s a chance to put Christ and his beauty on full display and to show people how wonderful he really is. It’s a chance to show people that Christ is worthy of their affections.
So, we are looking for responses like, “Yes, Christ is more beautiful than anything else,” or, “Yes, my sin is ugly and I hate it.” These are the responses of the heart.
In the end, our goal as preachers is not to choose one of these categories, but to use all three (as appropriate). They all need each other and imply each other.
People are multi-dimensional beings, with heart, mind, and body. Thus, we need to continue to look for varied types of applications that hit the whole person.
We should also remember that application itself does not elicit the desired response. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. But, he does use preaching (and our applications) to accomplish his purposes.