I have said, many times, that the heart of many a boring sermon lies in an inability to make what we are reading applicable to those listening. If your sermon cannot answer the ‘so what?’ question, most people are just going to turn off. More specifically, what does this mean for me? Why should I bother spending my time listening to this? A bit of arcane theology or textual explanation probably isn’t going to do it for most.
Most of us, I think understand the need for application. Our problem is that we often don’t helpfully apply. We either wait until the very end of our sermon to do all our application, which if we haven’t already connected it with people, they have usually turned off by that point and started thinking about something that does seem relevant to them. Otherwise, we spend all our time applying our passage to all the people ‘out there’ without really doing the work of how it applies to all of us ‘in here’.
Our preaching is supposed to aim at heart change. But what good is it if our application – whilst great for those who are facing this particular issue, who are caught in that specific sin or have been drawn in to some particular cultural view – doesn’t apply to anybody in the room? We might triumphalistically speak about a particular cultural issue, but if none of our churches are enthralled to it, or in any danger of going after it, in what way have we really applied it to those we are actually speaking to? More to the point, if our application mainly applied to those ‘out there’ who aren’t there to hear it, what has our application actually achieved at all?
It’s easy to bash those ‘out there’ who may struggle with this sin, or that view, but in the end, all we achieve by doing that is creating Pharisees who thank God we are not like *those* sinners. Not only does this fail to lead to the heart change we want to see, it causes the very opposite by buoying people up with pride. But the reason we listen to sermons is because we want to hear what God would say to us in here.
I think this is a particular issue when it comes to preaching that speaks into “the culture”. Let’s leave aside for the moment that talk of “the culture” is often not helpful itself because the local culture of Oldham isn’t necessarily the same as the majority British culture at any rate. It is often telling when people say ‘in our culture, most people think…’ because I just don’t think that is uniform. I frequently find the things I am told ‘most people think’ are not what most the people we engage in our area are thinking. There is nothing wrong with broad brush strokes and generalisations, but we have to be clear there are just that and be mindful of when and where they are not appropriate.
But talk of “the culture” – particular the sins of “the culture” – makes it very easy to set ourselves up as Pharisees because the church is very often called to be countercultural. I was once in a church that seemed to preach about the issue of sexuality an awful lot. It was deemed, I think, a significant and serious cultural issue that ought to be spoken about. Whether that is true or not, I couldn’t help but think two things. First, it was over-emphasised to a degree that made it amount to an obsession. But, secondly and more significantly, it was always applied (if at all) as little more than ‘here is what is right and we should not affirm what is wrong’. The problem was, almost nobody in the room was in any danger of affirming it, which meant the sermon had little if anything to actually say to the majority of people in the room. This is the kind of thing that has little value.
I am not suggesting that if something is in the passage we are preaching that we skip it. Rather, what I am saying is we need to apply it properly to the people in front of us. So, if everyone in the room is likely on the same page concerning the doctrine or theology of thing itself, we shouldn’t spend our entire time applying it as though we aren’t. Instead, we should address the issues that those in the room *will* likely have. Instead of saying ‘thank God we’re not like those out there’, we might want to spend more time on how we perhaps don’t love ‘those out there’ very well who have a different (albeit unbiblical) view of the matter to us. We need to preach into the issues that people in front of us actually have and are properly facing rather than triumphalistically patting ourselves on the back for all holding the right view and becoming Pharisees in the process.