Pointed application and avoiding disjointed sermons

Yesterday, I wrote about the problem of disjointed sermons. I suggested you don’t always have to find a ‘big idea’ because there isn’t always one (but it pays to say there often is!) But there is always a context. The writer has always purposefully put narratives together, stories side-by-side, constructed arguments and flows of thought with intent. If we are going to grasp what needs to go into our sermon – if we are going to grasp what this passage is actually about – we have to understand these things.

One of the other things we are trying to do when we preach is to apply the Word. We are, in the end, preaching to people. We are not merely imparting information so that they know what this passage is about – though we do need to do that – we are also seeking to apply the Word so people may change. We want them to know what this passage means and understand what how they ought to respond to it. Our preaching is not meant to be a series of lecture points: (1) Jesus heals a man; (2) Jesus cleanses a leper; (3) Jesus walks on water. It is supposed to be exposing what the writer is saying and applying it to the hearts of those listening; showing what the Bible means and showing both its relevance to those listening and what they must do in response to it.

For this reason, my preaching points (or whatever you want to call them) are purposefully designed to highlight the key point of application. This means I am very unlikely to have a heading like Jesus calms the storm. I am much more likely to have something like You can trust God to protect his mission. I am telling the people that this part of the passage is relevant to you. It’s not just a point of information about something Jesus did, it is intended for you.

So, I state the headline point at the front end, I then go through the passage and show how I get to the headline point of application. This is what is going on in the passage and how it leads to this particular point of application. Once we have seen where the headline point of application is drawn from the passage, I then start applying it directly and giving specific examples of how this might work out for the particular people in front of me. So, if this passage is showing that you can trust God to protect his mission, here is what trusting God to protect his mission means in practice on Monday morning when you get the kids sorted for school, or you’re in work, or your at the job centre, or whatever. Ray Evans did an excellent series of articles for FIEC on this whole area that was brilliantly simple and suggested tweaks that will genuinely revolutionise the form of your preaching.

Now, as I said yesterday, we want to be clear on the main idea – or, if not the one big idea, how this passage fits into the wider context – so that people know this is not just a disjointed bit plucked out randomly but is part of an integrated whole. But if we want our headings to relate to the main points of application for our people, that can look like a lot of disjointedness. The different parts of the passage, that are all united, may not seem so obviously part of one point or evidently belong to the same context when their points of application can be quite different. How do we hold these things together?

For me, I begin my sermons with a brief introduction highlighting what the passage is primarily about. I then give three or four short sentences on the context of the passage – this is what has happened in the book over the last few sermons and what was going on – and explain how our passage today naturally follows on from what came before. I then outline, at the front end, the three or four (or however many) things the current passage has to say to us here, at which point I tell everyone what my main points of application will be. Then I preach through each point of application, showing where I got it from the passage and then applying that headline application specifically and directly to the various people in front of me.

Whilst that is how I deliver it, the construction of it almost works backwards. As I am getting to grips with what the passage is about, I formulate points initially along the very lecture lines I earlier said not to do in your sermon. So, I read the passage, I try to understand any main idea(s) involved, and then I think through natural breaks in the passage itself. I may even, initially, write down three or four headline points like this: (1) Jesus heals a blind man; (2) Jesus cleanses a leper; (3) Jesus walks on water. These are really just an aid to me to see the flow of the passage and the different acts going on in the scene.

Once I have these different acts written down as temporary headings, I look at those scenes and work out why they have been placed together and how they fit into the context of the book. I then work through those different sections, doing the work of exegesis, to figure out what the writer is trying to convey to us. Once I know the point he’s trying to convey, my heading for that section changes to whatever that point is. I then think through the various ways that point applies to my context and our people. This means each point of application becomes the heading, I show where that point of application is found from the passage and I then apply that point of application specifically and directly to the people in front of me. I follow this for each point I make. To maintain the context and flow of the passage, as we move onto each new point, I show what comes before and after. So we can see how the context of this point fits into the wider context of the passage and how it fits idea(s).

The point of all of this is to avoid disjointed sermons that go off on wild tangents and also to meaningfully apply the biblical passage to the people in front of us and show its relevance to them. So people are seeing how any given passage fits into a wider picture, how each point fits into this particular passage and how each point specifically applies to them.