Preaching, application and the sins of your people

Hardly a pastor I know has not, at some point, been asked whether something they said in their preaching was aimed at someone in particular. More often than not, it is a disgruntled congregant who thinks something has been said with them in mind. At other times, it might be somebody taking offence on behalf of somebody else whom they perceive your comments to be directed toward (rightly or wrongly).

Usually, behind those sorts of questions is an assumption that the preaching should not ‘target’ particular people and their specific sins. We tend to worry less about using particular people as helpful examples of whatever positive thing we are preaching from the passage. The question is, is that assumption true?

Now, personally, I do think it a bit inappropriate if one particular person seems to be in your sights week in, week out. But the main reason that’s a problem is because there is a room full of other people to whom the scriptures also need to be applied. If you’re only ever applying it to one particular situation that doesn’t apply the vast majority of the congregation, you might be applying scripture for one particular congregant but you are failing in your duty to apply scripture for the whole church.

But I’m not convinced we should never land on the specific sins and issues of particular people in our congregation. It seems to me, application that lands is application that is relevant. The broader your application, the less pointed it is and so the easier it is to distance myself from it. Can we really expect people to change in response to the Word as it is preached if we keep putting such distance between them and the text that they can only take some very broad principles and apply them broadly to their lives? Surely, if there are issues within our congregation and the Word speaks to them, those are the applications on which we ought to land?

Whilst (for me), I wouldn’t want to go calling people out by name because I think that is nothing more than an exercise in shaming them publicly, I have no problem landing on specific issues and sins of people in the congregation. If there are modes of thinking and matters of lifestyle that are prevalent in the congregation, I will happily speak to that. But there are times when I will think of exactly who is in front of me, and the specific issues they are facing, and I will ask what does the gospel, as presented in this text in particular, say to John or Mary, Alireza or Fatima? Sometimes, if the text calls out a particular behaviour that those particular guys have exhibited, then I gladly preach the text – landing on that specific issue – showing that the scriptures, and not just me and my own view, considers it to be a problem in the hope that, through the working of the Spirit, they may be convicted of sin and turn from it.

Some will want say at this point, ‘but if we all know that John, Mary, Alireza or Fatima have done those things, isn’t it still publicly shaming them?’ I suppose it is possible that they might feel publicly shamed. But if everybody knowing about it already hasn’t publicly shamed them, we have a bigger problem on our hands, don’t we? Not that the preacher called sin, ‘sin’, but that the rest of the church apparently aren’t prepared call sin, ‘sin’. In effect, they are prepared to tolerate it in the church for the sake of not offending another person. That strikes me as a considerably worse problem.

If the church have been honest enough to speak with our friend about their sin and call it just that, it is hard to imagine preaching from a text that deals specifically with that issue and calls it ‘sin’ will come as a shock to them. If everybody already knowing about their sin hasn’t cause them to change, it is hard to imagine they will be shamed any further by the preaching. If they are, could it not be that it may just have the effect it is intended and cause them to turn away from it? That’s not to say you go out your way to shame people – that would, in my view, be entirely the wrong motive – but if the faithful exposition and application of a text lead you to legitimate call certain behaviours and lifestyles sinful, things that are exhibited by people sat in front of you, it strikes me as entirely right and proper to preach just that.

So, what am I to say when somebody asks, ‘was that about me?’ No. It was about Jesus. But does Jesus has some things to say to you? Of course he does! The question ought not to be, does that apply to me? I should hope it does. The question should be, given that applies to me, what am I to do now. If we’re holding Jesus out to people like we should, we should avoid legalistically beating people about the head. We aren’t simply calling people to stop whatever they’re doing, we’re calling them to trust in Christ and remind themselves of who they are in him. If the application is a shot across your bow, Christ remains the answer and the saviour to whom we need to return to avoid being sunk.