I recently listened to a great message by Mike Bullmore called ‘Some Things I’ve Learned from 15 Years of Preaching.’ At the end, C. J. Mahaney and Mike discussed the subject of application, and both agreed that application should be given proper time and attention, to avoid preaching that is an ‘information dumps.’ Application is often the most difficult part of sermon preparation and must be attended to with great care.
In my humble opinion, I believe the discussion needed a clear definition of application. Mike and C.J. had a misunderstanding over illustration when Mike said preachers should strive for one very good illustration rather than a collection of weaker illustrations. C.J. took that to mean, ‘avoid anything illustrative.’ Mike had to clarify that there is a difference between quick word pictures and illustrations. Mike calls an illustration a story that takes some time to develop. I whole-heartidly agree with Mike that illustrations often weaken the instruction of Scripture, and elevate the speaker rather than the Scripture.
‘Application’ also needs clarification. Many view application as that part of the sermon where the lessons learned are applied to daily life — meaning, how can I use this in the workplace tomorrow? How can this help me in my marriage? –that sort of thing. It’s application focused on ethics, piety, relationships, behavior, authenticity, and the like.
However, application is much broader than that. One of the greatest kinds of application, that usually does not fit our homiletic models, is application that enlarges one’s view of God, life, or themselves. Most application follows the form, “because you learned this, now do this.” Application must be much broader, and include having our eyes opened to truth that is bigger than our personal lives, and that may not have a specific and actionable application.
In fact, you could argue that this kind of application is the most needed because we see God too faintly, and our personal lives too importantly. Take care not to force application into something it is not, and be sensitive that often the light of Scripture that provides a new found clairty of illumination is just the application that the Spirit is working in the heart and mind of our people as we are preaching. And to cut off that growth for the sake of some cookie-cutter-application-moment could very well deflate the work of the Spirit in your listeners.
We should also guard against thinking we are the expert in application, and thus enter into competition with the Holy Spirit. The more I’m involved in ministry and preaching and teaching, the more I see that we need to remove ourselves from being application hounds. Scripture usually brings it’s own application. So if you’re faithfully preaching Scripture, application will naturally flow. God is working in his people. So preach the Word as if you know that the Holy Spirit is faithfully at work in his people, and is well equipped to do so.