I operate on one simple principle in my preaching: God’s Word has something to say to us today. My belief that every bit of God’s Word has something to say to us today affects how I preach. I am not there merely to explain the passage, though it is obviously true if we don’t understand it we’re not going to know what it has to say to us. My aim in preaching is to draw out what God’s Word has to say to us today.
I think a lot of our preaching falls down because it doesn’t seem to operate as though God’s Word has something to say to us today. A lot of preaching is delivered as though God’s Word merely has something to say that ought to be understood. Which, of course, it does has something to say and needs to be understood on its own terms. But I might understand exactly what a passage is saying and yet leave the sermon with no understanding whatsoever of how it impacts me.
It comes out in the way we preach at all points. It isn’t uncommon for someone to come up with three points of a passage that might help us understand what is going on. So, we get three points that take us through a passage like this: (1) Paul goes here; (2) Paul says that; (3) Paul does this. And, so far as helping us understand what is going on with Paul (assuming our passage is about him) that is broadly helpful. But in terms of that connecting with any of us, it does absolutely nothing. What has that got to do with me?
If we have a view that God’s Word has something to say to us today, our points – though they might ultimately be the same in content – might change. Instead, we might get headings that are the key point of application we are making rather than the main thing going on in the narrative. Instead of ‘Paul speaks about the Athenian statues’ we get ‘connect your evangelism to what people know’ (or whatever point of application you are making). That way, we are making it clear in the points we are making that this passage has something specific to say to us today… and here is what that is!
We tell people what this passage has to say to us in the heading, we show them from the text where we’re getting this from, then we pointedly apply what this passage is saying to us to the specific situations of the people in front of us. That, it seems to me, is preaching that connects and shows that the Bible really does speak to us today.
We often seem to forget that the average person in church on a Sunday morning is not asking, ‘what does this passage mean?’ They are usually asking, ‘what does this passage mean for me?’ They aren’t looking for some interesting thoughts on Ancient Near East literature. Nor are they looking for such broad application that you could preach it anywhere and it has no specific cash value for people the very next day. Instead, they want to know – if God does really still speak through his Word today – what, exactly, is he saying to me?
I would go further. Far too often we patronise people by re-stating what we have all already read in the passage. One reason pointed application gets squeezed out is because the preacher thinks they have run out of time. After explaining the passage, they have no time left to apply it. But a lot of explanation is unnecessary. There are bits of the Bible that are just obvious on first reading. And using lots of words to describe what we have all just read – unless there is some obviously tricky thing to understand in the passage – just isn’t that helpful. One skill in preaching is knowing what needs explaining and what doesn’t. I am convinced if more sermons reckoned with this they could cut out half to two-thirds of their material. That, I think, would leave them with much more time for the important work of actually applying what the Bible says to those listening.
But if we keep at the front of our minds that the Bible has something to say to us today, we will remember that our job is to make clear what that is. Our points will be directed towards what this passage has to say to the people in front of us rather than just highlighting what is in the text. Our explanation will limit itself to the things that actually need explaining. Our goal will not be to content ourselves with explaining what the passage says, but exposing how what it means has important implications for our lives and spelling out in clear terms just what those things are.
One simple thing we can do to help with this is to make our points the main applications we will draw out. Tell people, upfront, what this passage will ask of them, encourage them to do, think or whatever. Then show them where in the passage you get that application. Then pointedly apply your application.
Let’s imagine you are preaching Acts 2:41-47. One of the things going on in that passage is that a movement of the Holy Spirit, making believers, leads God’s people to care for the needs of the brethren. Now, you could make that point with the heading: the Holy Spirit makes the church generous. That’s okay. But you could make it an application so that your heading is: Be generous. You might have better ways of saying it, but you get the point. You are taking something abstract, seemingly unconnected to the people in front of you, and writing the point in a way that connects directly to the people listening.
So, let’s say you took that heading: be generous! What then? Show why this passage is suggesting that Christians should be generous. So, point to specific verses that show the effects of the Spirit in the church that show us we should be generous. Then, when you’ve shown from the text that we ought to be generous, pointedly apply that application. So, in what ways ought we to be generous? What does radical generosity look like for the people sat in front of you? Every time I preach this passage I make the application the passage clearly does: maybe Jesus is calling you to sell your home for the kingdom. Maybe he isn’t, but he will be calling you to serious generosity nonetheless, so give some examples of how that might work out for people. Maybe your people don’t own houses, what does generosity look like for them? Maybe your church is full of asylum seekers and benefits claimants who don’t have much. What does generosity look like for them in practice?
This is a basic thing we can do to connect God’s Word more helpfully with our people. Keep at the front of your mind that God’s Word has specific things to say to people today. Then, whatever passage you’re in, tell them what this passage specifically means for them today. Make your headings your points of application, show where you get the application, then apply your application. This, I think, will go a long way to making us much less boring and – most importantly – will help people realise that the Lord really does have specific things to say to them today.