Boring sermons & how to get buy-in from our people

I have spoken before about how our preaching is often boring and one of the reasons for that – arguably the main reason – is that our preaching lacks application. We spend 30 minutes exegeting a text, often a particularly obvious one at that, using the entire time trying to make clear what has already been clearly understood by everyone. We do not need long explanations about the parable of the sower (even JC Ryle said as much in his devotional commentaries on the gospels); everyone can see what it means easily enough already. What is needed is application i.e. I know what this means, but what does it mean for me in particular?

Some will shoot back that they do apply their sermons. Yes, they spend a long time explaining the text (people need to know what it means, after all) and then they apply it at the end. Only, of course, the weighting of those things tips heavily – like an elephant and a mouse sitting at opposite ends of a see-saw – in one direction. The application at the end is 5 minutes (if that) after 25 or 30 minutes of excruciatingly tedious explanation about something we all already understand because we just read it and its plain meaning is obvious. One of the many skills a good preacher has is not explaining the text per se but recognising which bits of the text require explanation and which bits are so glaringly obvious that, having read them, everybody already gets them. We only really need to explain what is not clear.

But suppose the preacher avoids that. They have explained the bits that warrant explanation and they haven’t laboured the bits that don’t. The explanation (and exegesis) is fine. Can you credibly offer valuable application of all that in 5-minutes at the end? Those who insist you can (largely) seem to be of the view that ‘believe the gospel’ or ‘Jesus loves you’ counts as good application. Now, don’t get me wrong. ‘Believe the gospel’ or ‘Jesus loves you’ might well be an appropriate application of whatever it is you’re preaching. Those things are certainly in the Bible and our people do need to hear them. But a few things bear saying.

First, those things are really a summary of whatever your application should be. The statement ‘Jesus loves you’ might well need to be heard, but of itself it doesn’t mean a lot. We need to do a bit more work than that. Second, those things might be termed general application – inasmuch as they apply to everyone on some level – they are not the kind of pointed application we need that is specific to the people listening. Third, and related to the second, that sort of general application does nothing to answer the ‘so what?’ question. Assuming ‘believe the gospel’ or ‘Jesus loves you’ is a legitimate and valid application of the passage you’re preaching, saying that of itself – and let’s be honest, it is essentially where a lot of what gets called application stops – does absolutely nothing to tell me what that means for me, what I need to do with it or how it affects my life. I am left at the end of the sermon still asking, ‘so what?’ Fourth, if your understanding of application is like this every week, you can’t be that surprised when people never seem to connect your sermons to the ordinary parts of their everyday life because you never help them connect those dots.

In fact, it is under such preaching that sentiments along the lines of, ‘we need more than “just the gospel”‘ or ‘we have gone beyond the gospel’ start to get aired. Of course, to anybody who considers themselves a gospel preacher in a gospel preaching church, that is like a red rag to a bull. Are you saying the gospel isn’t sufficient? How can you need more? How can you be so Gnostic as to think you advance beyond the gospel? All these are right sentiments as far as one’s theology goes, but misses the point of what is actually being said.

Most are not really saying they need something other than the gospel or they have advanced beyond it (even though that is how it is often articulated). What they are usually saying is that they need something more than a mere statement of the essential gospel message that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Not that they don’t need that message – they gladly admit of course say they do – but that what they’re really asking for is some actual application of that message, not just a restatement of the essential message itself that they have already come to know and believe. And they aren’t wrong to ask for that – the Bible would be a considerably shorter book than it is if all we needed to hear was a basic statement of the essential gospel message every week. John 3:16 alone would suffice!

And – as with our sermons – we need to get a so what with this blog post: we need to apply more. I appreciate that’s a bit general though, and we’re not after that, so how does that general point apply to you (and me)? We need to devote more time in our sermons to pointed application. We need to go beyond basic statements that they already know, they need to know how this particular passage, and whatever its general gospel application is, applies to them in particular. And I am going to suggest that if you think you can adequately apply a passage to the various people in your church, in the pointed ways required, in 5 minutes at the end of your sermon or just generally, the chances are you will not really be adequately applying it to anyone at all.

It is my contention that our sermons are often boring and that because we do not adequately apply what we are preaching to people. We labour what is obvious and only apply (if we apply at all) in the most vague and general ways. Let’s be honest, if you could take your sermon that you preached yesterday and take it another church, in another context, and preach it exactly the same way with no changes to your application, it suggests you haven’t applied the text properly. You have made some general applications that apply to everyone, or most people, which means, in practice, you haven’t really applied at all. You’ve made some broad statements that remain at the level of vaguery and are likely to impact no one.

None of this is to say that we need to take a narrow view of application. Sometimes pointed application is an encouragement to carry on doing something we are already doing or an instruction to stop doing something we are doing. Sometimes it’s a challenge to encourage us to do something we aren’t doing that we should. Other times, it is more to do with a change in our thinking about something which should impact how we then act in light of it. Whichever of those things pertain, they will not all apply in the same way to the person in work or out of it; who is married or not; has children or not; is living with illness or not; who is from the dominant culture of the church or belongs to a non-dominant group; the list goes on and on. For every point of application being pointedly applied we will need a handful of different examples so that people can see this does not apply in one way to everyone, but to different people in different ways (hopefully taking in the people sat in front of us) and several examples will be enough to help those you don’t manage to include to think about their own situation.

Of course, to do all that, we will need more than 5 minutes. And, if we aren’t to bore people with lots of explanation – particularly explanation of what they can already clearly see for themselves – we do well to weave our application throughout the sermon. Minimally, I’d suggest every point in your sermon requires its own bit of pointed application. Each point should half exposition (this is what the text says) and half application (this is what it means for you). To help with that – something I read Ray Evans saying a long while back and which I have found to be especially helpful since – it is useful to make your points (or headings, or whatever you call them) your main points of application so that your point follows this sort of structure:

  1. My first point is… You need to pointedly apply your sermons
  2. Here is where this text is suggesting you need to pointedly apply your sermons
  3. So, here is how you might pointedly apply your sermons

For each point you make, your heading points to your application and then you have two halfs to your point: (1) where the application I’m going to make comes from in the text; (2) how this application should work out specifically for you who are sat here in front of me. I don’t think it a bad rule of thumb that every 5 minutes of text-explanation should come with 5 minutes of specific application.

But whether you buy into the specifics of all that or not, this is my simple plea. Let’s stop being quite so boring by making sure that we spend more time applying our sermons. Don’t let people drift off wondering what on earth this has to do with me. Make sure they know, early on, why they should give you the time of day and frequently and regularly draw their attention back to the nuts and bolts of how this text specifically affects them. The answer to being more interesting isn’t to add a bit more expression and volume to our voices (not that it hurts). It isn’t to focus on the tricky bits of the passage and make sure everyone definitely understands the bits that all the commentators seem to disagree about (though that can be helpful in its own way). The key is making sure people know what this has to do with them, giving them a reason to bother listening and regularly bringing matters back to exactly how and why this affects them and what they are to do with it. Only then, I think, can we expect much buy-in to our sermons.