Doing application in your sermon can feel like using the bathroom at a gas station. You need to do it. You’re not looking forward to it. And once you take care of your business, you feel gross and glad at the same time.
The glad feeling (with application, that is) comes from knowing you did what you were supposed to do. You’re supposed to apply your message to your congregation.
But you feel a little gross for giving advice on how start living holier now that probably doesn’t fit everyone in your congregation. You guessed, and you hope for a couple people you guessed right.
A paradigm shift for sermon application
Most of the problems with doing application in sermons can be solved by changing the way we ask the question.
Instead of asking yourself, “How do I apply this to my congregation?” Ask, “How do I demonstrate application for my congregation?”
The difference is huge.
The first question assumes that it’s the preacher’s job to hold the congregation’s hand each step of the way. But that’s impossible, since each person needs to apply it differently. If you try the 3-Step Method of application, you will sound practical, but in reality you will be superficial, since you will have to be general to include everyone.
The second question recognizes that you can’t give steps, but you can give fundamentals. You can’t hold their hand, but you can show them where the path begins. You can’t do their thinking for them, but you can provide wisdom to guide how they connect their life to the passage.
The hands follow the heart
The seeker movement made the mistake of preaching to the hands but not the heart. Sermon titles that start with Seven Principles For… imply two things: 1) you have the capacity to improve your spiritual life, and 2) your problem is not your sin, it’s your lack of directions.
Neither of those address the fallen condition of our heart. We don’t have the capacity to improve our spiritual life. That’s why we need Jesus.
Tim Keller, following D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, emphasizes preaching to the heart. If you can preach to your congregation’s hearts – so that they sense God’s exalted glory, they love Jesus for his gracious sacrifice, and rely on the Spirit for power – they will figure out what tangible actions they need to take to glorify God with their life.