This post is part of a multi-part blog series called Preaching Principles. Click here to watch the introduction video.
‘I don’t need your personal stories, I don’t need your “next steps,” I don’t want to hear about your “application points,” don’t mention of the state of our world today, I just want to learn the WORD! Don’t filter it – just give it to me straight. Just preach the WORD.’
This is a summary of some feedback I got following a sermon one Sunday. It sounds very spiritual. It sounds like something that very deep and holy people should say.
I’m not sure it’s possible.
I’m not sure it’s desirable
Heck, I don’t even think it’s biblical.
But it raises an important question, “what is the most important outcome of preaching?” If it’s mainly just a delivery system for doctrinally accurate information, then my critic above was onto something. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when the straight teaching of orthodoxy in a mentally downloadable fashion is necessary. There is a core of doctrine that every Christian should know and believe. But is that the main purpose of the weekly sermon?
I would argue that the most important outcome of the practice of preaching is LIFE CHANGE.
Again there are times when life change may require an information download of sorts. But more often, it involves connecting the ancient truths of the scriptures with our modern situation and then guiding our listeners in applying these truths to their real lives. In fact, the Bible seems to affirm the critical importance of connecting life change with learning, and the dangers of not doing so. Consider these biblical warnings.
The Dangers of Knowledge without Life Change
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 1 Corinthians 8:1Knowledge without life change brings judgment.
Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. James 4:17
Knowledge without life change deceives you into thinking you’re growing when you’re not.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. James 1:22-26 (emphasis mine)
“When we get people to look at, to remember, and to do God’s Word, they are inevitably changed! However, most preaching only gets people to look at the Word, but they don’t remember it and they don’t do it.” – Danny Akin
The Greatest Sermon Ever
Let’s look at the greatest sermon ever preached by Jesus. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount and you can read it in Matthew 5-7. Jesus was intent on connecting timeless truths with people’s real life situations. He was presenting a new way of living according to his kingdom. Notice how focused he is on the life-change of his hearers. In fact, his sermon is downright (ahem) topical!
- Jesus began by sharing eight secrets of genuine happiness in a section known as the Beatitudes.
- Then He talked about living an exemplary kingdom lifestyle, controlling anger, restoring relationships, and how to navigate the issues of adultery and divorce.
- Next He spoke of the importance of keeping one’s promises and returning good for evil.
- Then Jesus moved on to other practical life issues like how to give financially with the right attitude, how to pray, how to store up treasure in heaven, and how to overcome worry.
- He wrapped up His sermon by reminding people as they pursue this new lifestyle to not judge others, he encouraged persistence when praying to God, and warned about false teachers.
- Finally, He concluded with a simple illustration that painted a picture of the importance of this new kingdom life. The summary statement pointing to the importance of acting on what he’s taught. The desired outcome of his sermon. Put into practice what you’ve just learned! It’s about life change dummy! He said it much more gracefully…
Why don’t we preach for Life Change?
Here is a short list of why I think pastors, myself included sometimes, can avoid preaching for life change.
- We don’t want to add what we perceive as “fluff” to the sermon
- We assume people will intuitively make the connections between information and application.
- Challenging people toward life change is convicting and can make people feel uncomfortable.
- Because our own lives haven’t been changed by the text first.
- Because it takes more time and effort in preparation.
- Because we haven’t realized the importance of it.
But, consider this quote from the great reformer, Martin Luther; “If you preach the Gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your times – you are not preaching all the Gospel.”
The process of preaching for life change
It is hard to adopt this approach to preaching. It takes more time and research and thoughtfulness. It is much easier to just exegete the text and present it in raw form. It is much harder to exegete our audience and also our culture and then make the necessary connections between the timeless truths of the text and the current situation of our congregations. One of the things that makes this difficult is that the preacher is trying to declare eternal truths that never change and apply them in a world that is always changing.
Five steps of preaching for life change:
- Study the text.
This is the process of exegesis. Informally, exegesis simply means drawing meaning out of the text. It is arriving at the critical explanation and interpretation of the passage of Scripture you are presenting. In the inductive bible study method, the questions you are answering here are, observation “what does it say?” And interpretation “what does it mean.” This step takes into account the literary genre, the immediate and larger historical and literary context, the intention of the original author, repeated words and phrases, and the plain and obvious meaning of the passage. Once this work is done, it would be easy to stop here and present your raw findings to your congregation and call it a sermon. But there a few more critical steps if you are preaching for life change.
- Find the timeless truth(s).
There are plenty of commands in the Bible that were give to a specific person in a specific situation. The command, “Bring my cloak and parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13), was given to a specific person. So was the command, “Use a little wine because of your stomach” (1 Timothy 5:23). The same letter says, “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once” (verse 9). Other commands were deeply imbedded in a first-century Mediterranean culture. First-century men were advised to pray with their hands raised (1 Timothy 2:8). Slaves were advised to submit even to harsh masters (1 Peter 2:18). Virgins were advised to remain virgins (1 Corinthians 7:26). Women were told how to dress when they prayed (1 Corinthians 11:5), and men were given advice regarding hair length (verse 14).These commands don’t just carry over verbatim into the modern context. It is the job of the preacher to locate the timeless truths or the universal principles in the text and then build a bridge from the ancient world to the modern world. The key question to ask at this stage is,
“What response is called for by this text?”
- Think of your audience
Now comes the work of contextualization. Part of my process before preaching each week is to go through my mental Rolodex and think of different people in my congregation. I literally try to picture their face – old and young, rich and poor, brand new to faith and mature in faith, black and white, rural and urban, and I ask myself, “how will they hear this message?” I try to consider their needs, their hurts, their sins, their pains, their backgrounds. Another question I always try to ponder at this stage is, “how will a skeptic hear this?” What are the common objections to this passage and then try to work in some phrases to address those objections.Rick Warren once published a list of 6 things that are true about every audience:
- Everybody wants to be loved.
- Everybody wants their life to count (meaning, purpose, significance.)
- No matter how wealthy or successful, life is empty without Christ.
- Many of these people are carrying a load of guilt.
- Many are consumed with bitterness (from past offenses.)
- There is a universal fear of death.
With these things in mind, the last step is,
- Apply the truth to their need.
We call it Next Steps. Some call it application. Application is answering the question, “How does God want us to obey, follow, and trust him in light of this text. Without this critical step, the sermon can sound like it’s being read from a bible commentary. Good next steps allow the preacher to move the congregation from just an information download to actually doing something about it. It’s what allows us to avoid the dangers I mentioned at the beginning of this post.An important initial question is, “how would this passage have been applied by the original hearers?” The Bible can’t mean something it never meant, but it’s eternal truths can be applied in countless ways to countless situations. A call to ‘be generous’ will look very different for someone in prison, compared to a single mom, compared to a multi-millionaire. The truth is the same, the application is different. The message is the same the methodology is different. Shout out again to Rick Warren and a little book he published called Bible Study Methods. In it he included an acrostic that’s just weird enough that I’ve never forgotten it! Spacepets… It asks: Is there any …
- Sin to confess? Do I need to make any restitution?
- Promise to claim? Is it a universal promise? Have I met the condition(s)?
- Attitude to change? Am I willing to work on a negative attitude and begin building toward a positive one?
- Command to obey? Am I willing to do it no matter how I feel?
- Example to follow? Is it a positive example for me to copy, or a negative one to avoid?
- Prayer to pray? Is there anything I need to pray back to God?
- Error to avoid? Is there any problem that I should be alert to or beware of?
- Truth to believe? What new things can I learn about God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or other biblical teachings?
- Something to praise God for? Is there something here I can be thankful for?
Otherwise, I’ve also used a generic application moment to conclude a sermon where the congregation and the Holy Spirit do the work. I’ll wrap up by saying, “there has been a lot of truth presented in this text, we’re going to provide a few moments to let you do business with the Spirit of God. What would he have you change in your life this week as a result of the truth of this passage?” And then give some space.
Point people to Jesus.
Always preach the gospel in every sermon. The gospel is the central message of the Bible, the good news that Jesus has come to save us and the Spirit has come to help us, so all faithful preaching should point people to Jesus and the good news of the gospel. Let’s strive to be like Paul, who could summarize his preaching by saying, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).