What Cover Songs Can Teach Us about Doing Application in Our Preaching

The weekly task of the pastor is to take what the Bible meant back then and show how, when taken to heart, it changes everything in the here and now. Easier said than done, especially in passages that don’t explicitly command or call to repent.

If homiletics is the art and science of proclaiming the Scripture, then preaching passages without imperatives is on the art side of things. It takes imagination and creativity to apply a passage that indirectly teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains in righteousness.

This poses a problem for the conscientious preacher who wants to be faithful to the passage and his congregation. It makes him sing, “My Bible to the left of me, my church to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you,” when the you is a sermon outline empty of powerful calls to holiness. It makes him feel like a clown and a joker.

The principles behind a cover song can help

I think that we can learn how to bridge this gap better by observing what makes a cover song good.

A good cover song, for those of you less musically inclined, is one musician’s rendition of another musician’s song. It explores the possibilities of the original piece, while staying true to the song’s meaning and form. It dutifully adheres to the soul of the composer, yet beautifully performs it for the ears of a different audience. It’s different, but the same.

Essentially, cover songs uncover the implications of a piece of music. The artist asks, “Where can I take this song without losing this song?”

That’s what preachers are trying to do when they apply Scriptures to their hearers. That’s why good cover songs can teach us.

You have to know the original before you can appreciate the cover

Preachers have to do two hard things at the same time. The first is to guard against getting stuck in the original context when doing application. But the second is not to jump too quickly to the present. If the preacher hasn’t understood his text and its implications for its first audience, he won’t be able to present them to his audience.

Similarly, hearing the original in the back of your mind while being fascinated with a new rendition is what makes the experience of listening to a cover song enjoyable.

If you had never heard Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” you might not think that the cover by The Civil Wars was anything special. But if you had, then the Wars’ acoustic version would blow your mind.

We’re not trying to do something very different than that when we preach.

The difference between cover songs and cover bands

When an artist develops a cover song, he takes the original piece and explores how he should play it for his audience. The cover band, however, plays the original piece in its original form, often in the outfits the original band performed in.

Pastors walk a tight rope between the back then and the here and now…between what was relevant for the original audience and their current audience…between text and contextualizing. It’s important not to get stuck in the past.

The homiletical equivalent of a cover band is the preacher who doesn’t contextualize his application for his audience, but only communicates what it meant back then.

You might as well don a robe and sandals.

This neither enriches nor edifies your people. It leaves them wondering what they are actually supposed to do. You might say that it’s their job to draw the implications for the life themselves. But how will they learn how to do that unless we model it for them?

How to explore the implications of the original piece

The question remains, then, how do we follow the direction the biblical author leads, yet remain faithful to the text as we go down that path? Three suggestions.

1. Focus on the funnel of the passage. I like to think of preaching like an hourglass. The top is the what the passage meant to the original audience, which funnels into a main idea, which then flows out into all kinds of opportunities for application today. The funnel keeps you anchored to the text’s meaning.

2. View your personality as an asset, not a liability. You can’t prevent your personality from affecting the way you apply a passage in a sermon, so you might as well go with it. On balance, be aware of – and beware of – your tendencies so that the text remains the controlling factor.

God has graciously designed the preaching act to channel the power of his word through the personality of us pastors, despite our flaws and idiosyncrasies. Cake nailed this with “I Will Survive.” John Mayer nailed this with “Message in a Bottle,” (not so much with the studio version of “Crossroads,” although this live performance was pretty sweet).

3. Blend continuity with creativity. If you are more likely to stick to the text, you may need to approach with the question, “What possibilities for application are presented here?” If you tend to be more liberal in the practical parts of the sermon, you many need to ask, “How did the author expect his audience to apply this?”

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