The religious to-do list that cripples real growth

There are countless books on preaching and sermon prep. Many of those books focus on getting the exegesis (the text work), which is right and necessary. But there aren’t many books, or at least there aren’t many good books that I’ve read, on sermon application.

I’ve listened to a lot of sermons over the years, some by ‘big name’ speakers and a lot from local guys that you wouldn’t know exist. Every preacher applies a sermon to their own local context, normally to the people sitting in the pews as they preach.

A lot of the application that you hear in sermons today fall under the ‘this is how to implement this tomorrow morning’. The preacher helps the listener see how a specific Bible passage or truth should impact their lives in a very practical way. This isn’t bad, but is it enough?

The issue with constantly equating sermon application with actions means that listeners could come away with a religious to-do list. They might walk away from a sermon thinking that they need to do ‘x, y and z’ that week to be a ‘good Christian’. Sound familiar? That’s moralism! Constantly having action-heavy application can lead people away from the gospel and instead lead them to focus on their religiosity. It also means that they feel wracked with guilt if they don’t achieve the ‘goals’ set but the preacher on Sunday. This could lead to the Christian doubting their salvation or it could lead to them pretending they’re fine when they aren’t. Neither of those options are good and they should not be promoted in any pulpit!

Another issue is that people can think that if they follow the practical application that they will feel some kind of ‘spiritual high’ and when that feeling isn’t there they feel defeated and useless.

So, how do we fix this problem?

There are ways to make sure that you’re communicating genuine practical application without it becoming a whip. The way we say things from the pulpit is very important! Communicate truth well, exemplify it to your flock, encourage people in their discipleship and never encourage moralism.

But going a bit further than that, we maybe need to consider how to apply sermons at a deeper level. Application doesn’t always have to be ‘go and do’ it can also be ‘go and think’.

I don’t mean that we must force people to think in a certain way, but helping people see how the truth of the Bible should challenge our thinking is important. For example, thinking of the rich young ruler in Mark 10 it’s helpful to get the listeners to consider where they are basing their hope and security.

The ‘go and think’ application might also mean that you’re encouraging the congregation to think about the impact of a particular truth on their life and thought patterns. It could be that you’re expounding a truth from the Bible and helping the listener see that the right response is to be more in awe of God, to see Him for who He is and to praise Him.

Application, is good and necessary, but to always give a ‘go and do’ can create a moral monster that is used as a whip on the church. A to-do list that cripples people into thinking that their religious acts will save them and not doing them makes their faith weak or fake. Helping people see how the Bible should impact the way we think is important, it creates holistic discipleship that goes deeper than the day to day.

Think it through, apply the Bible holistically and help the listener see the impact of a passage in all areas of their lives not just their actions.

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