A Truth Universally Acknowledged?
“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that young ministers are often notoriously bad at application in their sermons…”
Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration. It’s certainly a generalisation. But it’s pretty close to what I heard an older, wiser pastor once say. And actually, you know what, it’s pretty close to how I’d evaluate my own preaching.
By the way, here I’m using application to mean the ‘what-difference-does-this-make?’ element of our sermons. In other words, what impact will the Bible have on my life? When we’re bleary-eyed first thing on a Monday morning, or when we feel like we’re treading water and weary on a Wednesday night, when Sunday seems light years ago, what difference will that sermon make?
And I’m realising that’s where I could probably do a whole lot better.
Where Am I Spending My Prep Time?
Of course, first things first, with any sermon I want to prayerfully grapple with the particular Bible passage I’ve been tasked with opening up. I definitely don’t want to dilute my prep energy here. So I dig into the passage and try and consider what the original author meant and why they wrote it; what were they trying to achieve through these Spirit-breathed words? And that means seeing it in the wider context of the particular Bible book as well as the whole of the Bible’s big story.
But when I’ve done that, when I’ve distilled the passage down to a fairly concise purpose statement/aim & theme sentence/melodic line (delete as appropriate to your own schooling), what do I do then? What’s the next move in my prep time?
I’m realising that maybe as much as 90% of the rest of my prep time goes on working out how I can help someone understand the Bible passage – basically working out how I can take someone through the ‘text journey’ that I’ve just been on.
And more often than not, that then translates to about the same 90% of the actual sermon content.
Don’t Neglect to Prep Your Application
But what I think the seasoned minister cited above was getting at is that sometimes we’re so focused on showing people how to understand the text, so driven to explain what the passage means (and what it means in context), that we just don’t leave time for good application. And maybe that’s because we haven’t given ourselves time to do that in our prep.
Of course the Bible challenges our whole perspective on life. So it’s important to see that application is much more than just a ‘to do’ list of actions. God’s word is to engage our hearts before it engages our hands. And I think there’s been a healthy emphasis recently on showing how God’s word does call us to change our heart attitudes and our affections/desires.
But as a preacher I still need to join the dots between the text and ‘where the rubber hits the road’. Michael Lawrence put it like this in a 9Marks Journal on preaching:
For all this wealth of knowledge and understanding, passionately delivered as of the greatest import, our congregation is left with little understanding of what they should do with it. They know it’s important—because it’s God’s word. More than that, they know it’s supposed to be God’s word for them.
But having explained it, we essentially say to them, “Over to you. You’ll have to figure out how to apply this on your own.” Or worse, we leave people feeling a little embarrassed and unspiritual for not knowing how to apply it, since it clearly seems so obvious to us.
Based on my own best intentions as a sermon-listener, I think it’s fair to say that chances are if the jots have not been joined in someone’s mind during the sermon itself (or during a set-aside time of reflection in the service), then they’re not going to be joined at all. (Perhaps the exception to this is if you have small groups or prayer triplets which intentionally pick up on Sunday’s sermon.)
Learning from the Copy-Writers
I read something recently that nudged me on this. And it wasn’t from a talk on ministry or a hefty new preaching tome. It came from a guy called Mike Kim, who is a copy-writer (i.e. he writes stuff, often for sales).
Mike explained that he’s started preparing his copy by crafting his ‘Call To Action’ first.
(A CTA is just business-speak for the big ‘take-home’ challenge or summons that a sales-pitch will end with. It’s the ‘buy this product’ or ‘enrol on this course’ or ‘consider this perspective’ punchline.)
In other words, Mike has realised this is arguably the most important part of any piece of sales writing. Without a decent Call To Action, then the chances are there will be no ‘Action’. In other words, the copy will fail to do what it is ultimately meant to achieve.
If you’re interested, his prompt was something Stephen Covey says in his legendary 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is “to begin with the end in mind”.
So when did you last write a sermon by crafting your application first? When did you last begin with the end – the goal of spiritual transformation – in mind?
Sermon Prep That Begins With the End in Mind
Ok, so there should probably be some caveats here about how email sales-copy is very different to preaching. Sure, a preacher is not a sales-person. We don’t manipulate or deceive or coerce (although I’m sure most sales-people would say that really effective sales don’t do these either).
But we are undoubtedly both communicators. Communicating God’s word in the power of the Spirit is the ‘means of grace’ that preachers have been entrusted with. And we are looking, hoping, praying for action. Change in attitude, desire, life, perspective, time-use. This is the business of spiritual transformation.
Maybe some of us love our ‘text work’ and this takes up most of our prep: highlighting chiasms and repetition and cross-references. Or maybe some of us love to pour hours into the communication side of things: finding the best illustrations, phrases, attention-grabbing devices.
But here’s the question I’m left pondering: how much time do I give to preparing application in my sermon preparation? Or is that I’ve not really considered the end in mind, let alone begun with it?