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Application: The Often Forgotten Part of the Sermon
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By Nikolaus Satelmajer, D. Min.
Former editor of Ministry; currently interim pastor of Jackson Heights Seventh-day Adventist (New York); writer and guest professor (including homiletics) at several educational institutions
 
 
The sermon was about Daniel, the well-known Old Testament prophet. The preacher listed Daniel’s positive character traits and then told the congregation that they should live just as Daniel lived. Sermon done.

Another preacher focused on Jesus and individuals who were in conflict with Him, such as teachers of the law, who did not accept Jesus because He did not meet their expectations. The preacher told the audience that we should not be like those who did not accept Jesus. Sermon done.

Neither of these preachers focused on the all-important question—what do I want the audience to do with this message? The reality is that all too many preachers ignore that question.   

I am writing this article while riding the New York City subway on the way to the Jackson Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church where I am the interim pastor. The car is comfortably full and as I look at the people I ask: what would these individuals get out of either of these sermons? The distance between their world and either Daniel’s or Jesus’s world is great. Remember, your congregation may be further removed from the biblical world than you realize. And that presents a serious challenge for the preacher. How do you want the audience to apply your sermon? It is not enough to tell them to be like Daniel or to not be like some of the people Jesus encountered. What is missing? Sermon application.

Sermon application is vital to sermon preparation and delivery. Your deep study of the Biblical passage (critical for a sermon), reading of other material (vital), praying for the sermon (a must), and outlining the message (if you don’t do it the sermon will come across like a tossed salad), will have little value if the application is missing.

Before we focus on how to design sermons for effective application, I want to mention what sermon application is not. It is not an afterthought tagged on at the end of the sermon. It is not an after-dinner chocolate mint you serve at the end of the sermon, hoping the hearers will have pleasant memories of your sermon. It is not a few words of admonition or advice the preacher shares. These approaches to application will leave your audience in a spiritual desert. Some will wonder what the sermon was all about and others may even ask why they listened at all.

How then does sermon application function in a sermon? Application occurs when the preacher presents the Biblical message in such a manner that the hearer will understand it and decide what to do with the message. The preacher must design and deliver the sermon with this in mind. Let’s focus on how that can be done.

Location of application
Application may be placed at the beginning, middle, or end of the sermon. The most unusual location is at the beginning and yet, if carefully planned it can be effective. For example, in John 6:67 (NIV), Jesus asks the disciples, “’You do not want to leave too, do you?’” At the start of the sermon, the preacher could ask the audience how they would respond. It can be effective to ask that question at the beginning, and then effective if you ask that question again—throughout the sermon and at the end of it. Application functions best if it is brought to the attention of the hearer several times throughout the sermon. Repetition in a sermon is a basic preaching principal, including repeating the application. Thus, location of the application is not the most important point—bringing the application before the congregation several times makes it more effective.

Types of application
There are at least two application types—direct and indirect. In our John 6:67 example, Jesus used the direct approach. The question was directed to each disciple. On the other hand, a story or illustration may be an indirect approach. The parables of Jesus are good examples of indirect application. The parable of the father and two sons (Luke 15:11; often called the parable of the prodigal son), does not end with a question or admonition. The story is told and the reader must decide how to apply it. Most readers of this parable will ask themselves where they fit into the story. If the preacher shares an effective story or illustration, most hearers will determine how the message applies to them. The direct method works best for some and others prefer the indirect method. For the most effective application, use both.

Language
Preachers need to continually think of the best way to communicate the message by carefully choosing words and expressions. Language skills are developed and improved through reading, listening, and writing.[1] There are several specific language tools that make sermon applications more effective.

The words we choose will, to a large extent, determine if the application will be effective or not. First of all, which is more effective—religious or contemporary language used in daily communication? Many preachers load their sermons with religious words or expressions and yet the hearers may not have the same enthusiasm (or understanding) for them as the preacher does. Words like justification, sanctification, salvation, and righteousness are good, but your understanding of them is often different than that of the audience. Preachers need to use words people use in their daily living. Hope, fear, anger, happiness, joy—both people inside and outside the church use these words. Jesus used everyday language to communicate a spiritual message and we should follow His example.

Read the lost son parable in Luke 15:11-31. How many “religious” words or expressions do you find? I find only one such expression—“’Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.’” (Luke 15:18, 21). That’s it—the only expression that has “religious” language. Yet, even this expression is easy to understand. The most secular person, who may not believe in heaven, or pretends to be a non-sinner[2], would understand this sentence. Look at the words and expressions Jesus uses: man, sons, father, property, wild living, feed pigs, came to his senses, starving to death, compassion, feast, alive again, older son, music and dancing, angry, alive again, found. These are everyday words. The hearers of the parables do not need to be experts in theological expressions to get the message. The listeners to our sermons likewise should not have to bring a theological dictionary[3] to understand our sermons. The Biblical message must be communicated in words that people use daily. Our mandate is to communicate a spiritual message in modern language.[4]

Secondly, use personal pronouns—I, you, he, she, it, we, they—to increase sermon effectiveness. Let’s focus again on Jesus’ question in John 6:67—“ ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ ” This question is a golden opportunity for application by repeating the question in various ways, such as:
How would you have responded?
I wonder how I would have responded.
If Jesus asked us, how would we have responded?
You and I must not only read the response of Peter—we have to ask how we would have responded.
 
By using personal pronouns you can bring Jesus’ question into the present lives of the congregation. The question no longer applies only to the disciples—Jesus asks each of us.

The third language tool is language specificity.
The story is told that U. S. President Calvin Coolidge went to church alone because is wife was not feeling well. When President Coolidge retuned home, his wife asked what the sermon was about.
“Sin,” Coolidge, a man of few words, responded.
Not satisfied with his answer, Mrs. Coolidge wanted to know what the pastor said about sin.
“He was against it,” responded President Coolidge.[5]

This is just one example of the absence of specificity. All too often the hearers of our sermons are not sure what we are saying or what is the expectation. Surely it is not enough to just be against sin. If the hearers do not know what we are saying or what we are expecting, application does not happen. Specificity means that we choose language to accurately convey what we have in mind. The hearers of our sermons do not know what we think; they hear our words[6] and interpret them. So, we must carefully choose the words and the manner in which they are delivered.

Specificity must be planned. U. S. President Ronald Reagan was known as an effective communicator. In 1987 he spoke at the Berlin Wall, a symbol of division. Many remember Mr. Reagan’s memorable challenge—“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”[7] What makes this sentence memorable and a good example of specificity? There are at least three points that make it a classic example of application by specificity:
Who: It clearly states who is addressed—Mr. Gorbachev.
Action: It clearly states the expected action—tear down.
What: It clearly states that the wall was to be torn down.
 
This powerful sentence is short and to the point, but creating such a sentence takes planning and effort. Preachers need to focus on the audience and the action they expect the audience to take. This can happen if, in the sermon preparation, you focus on questions such as, what do I want them to do; how do I want them to accomplish the goal; when do I want them to do it; and why do I want them to do it.

The authority of application
We have discussed some ways of creating effective sermon application, but there is one more critical issue—what is the authority for the application? Planning and techniques are important, but the Bible is the authority for application. Application must be based on Biblical teaching for otherwise application may only reflect our personal opinions. Sharing our personal opinions is not preaching. Preachers must help the hearers understand how the Biblical message applies to them. That is effective sermon application. In order for the application to be effective, the preacher must keep it in mind throughout the research, preparation, and delivery of the sermon. If you use this approach the congregation will understand and know what do with the message.
 
[1] In our age, language skills are taking a back seat. Too many individuals search the Internet for a sentence or phrase and do not focus on the context. Some language scholars even state that we are entering a new age of illiteracy.
[2] Of course, there are also religious people who claim to be strangers to sin.
[3] Many of us have such a dictionary, but should not take the words from such a dictionary into the pulpit. We should use such tools in sermon preparation and not delivery.
[4] After I wrote this sentence, I looked at my sermon outline for the next Sabbath, to see if it passes this test. I think it does, but the final judgment will come from the listeners.
[6] Our ethics and actions also impact what we preach, but that topic is for another article.
[7] Peter Robinson, “Tear Down This Wall,” Reader’s Digest, February 2004, 174.