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Master the art of Application in Sermon Development. Understand how to incorporate Biblical truths into your listeners'effectively into.

Every sermon listener inevitably asks, “So what?” They want to understand why they spent the last 20-40 minutes listening to this preacher. How does a text written two to four thousand years ago resonate with me in the present? This is the essence of Application in Sermon Development. Applying the text is perhaps the most crucial task a preacher tackles. Application takes the text and implants it into the will and potentially the listener’s lifestyle.

We will explore what applications help listeners incorporate the text into their lives. The application emphasizes the ancient texts’ timeless relevance, which can transform a person’s daily life. It seeks to change the hearers’ lives in specific ways, as presented by the text we preach.

What is Application in Sermon Development?

As our previous posts on the 4 Essential Elements of Sermon Development said, we seek to help our listeners…

  1. Understand the message or Big Idea by explaining the text and the idea we’re preaching from the text.
  2. Believe the Big Idea through proof or argumentation that helps the listener believe what we’re saying is true.
  3. See what the Big Idea looks like or use natural analogies, quotations, statistics, or other illustrations that helped us develop the sermon’s Big Idea.
  4. Now we explain how to apply the Big Idea to a person’s life.
Always include good application in your sermons, or you will leave the tile work unfinished.

My home shower has tiles with grout between each tile. The builder failed to seal it properly, and the grout deteriorated, causing leaks behind the shower wall. We got the grout fixed, and now we need to seal it. We bought a can of material that promises to seal the grout, and a guy who knows far more than I do said this was good stuff. Right now, that sealant still sits in the can it came in from Lowe’s. We have yet to apply it to the shower tiles.

Like that can of sealant, my sermon will only make a difference if I help my audience actively engage with the idea and put it into action in their lives. I need to spray the sermon development dispenser to apply the Biblical notion, just like I need to spray the grout sealant onto my shower tile. It’s not enough to study the passage, craft a message that we effectively explain with accessible information and good illustrations the audience can imagine, and prove the truth of our message. We must also guide them in applying the message to their lives.

What does it mean to apply the text? What does good application in sermon development look like?

An Example of Applying a Biblical Idea from Romans 12:3

washing feet as i Application in Sermon Development for Romans 12:3
Jesus demonstrated humble service by washing his disciples’ feet.

We’ll use Romans 12:3, which says…

For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

Romans 12:3, NKJV

We want to help our audience understand, believe, and imagine the practical meaning of the message from verse 3, which says we’re not to “think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” We should remain humble as we seek to present our bodies to God as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1). Let God control your mind. You do that by humbling yourself even to the point of personal sacrifice, like Jesus, who died for us.

Our message states, “We can only serve God sacrificially when we humble ourselves willingly.”

We would explain that sacrifice comes from verses one and two, which ask us to present our bodies to the Lord as living sacrifices. Do a word study to explain the kind sacrifice Paul asks of us. Then, prove the truth of humility as a prerequisite to proper self-sacrifice.

We should show our listeners what that looks like and explain how they can live a humble, self-sacrificing life before God.

How to Give Away the Praise – Apply Rom 12:3

As a pastor, I often received far more attention and glory than deserved. Our church would hold Vacation Bible School and bring in many guests who didn’t usually attend church. The worship time, the games, the food, and the lessons came together with precision. We ended the week with a great time of celebration, and parents came to watch their little tikes perform kids’ songs and quote memory verses. In the end, some people would tell me what a great job I did, but I didn’t do it. I always followed the advice of Dr. Thom Rainer, one of my seminary professors, during my time at Southern Seminary.

Dr. Thom Rainer said in Church Growth class…

Always give away the praise.

It’s tempting to gobble up praise and accolades for yourself. Praise feels good and boosts your ego. But, even if you know you are responsible for something good happening, find a way to give away the praise. Sacrifice what you think you deserve by building up the people who serve along with you. They will want to continue to serve when they feel appreciated.

My experience as a pastor during VBS and Rainer’s quotation illustrates how a pastor can humble himself sacrificially and willingly to fulfill his calling to build up people in his congregation.

Consider getting Thom Rainer’s book, Who Moved My Pulpit, for great discussions on Biblical leadership (note that’s an Amazon Affiliate Link).

Methods of Effective Kinds of Sermon Application

Illustrations are helpful tools for preachers who aim to apply their message to the lives of their congregation. For guidance on how to use them effectively, please look at our previous action in sermon development. Illustrations help people see how they can live the truth through their experiences.

You can use several tools for application in sermon development, such as:

  • Natural Analogies: Illustrations from the real world become metaphors for our ideas.
  • Examples: Illustrations demonstrate how a person applies the truth.
  • Quotations: Effective quotes should come from famous people everyone respects or knows. They should be worded creatively, cleverly, and succinctly state the truth. Long quotes should be avoided, as they may be difficult to follow.
  • Cross References: Quotes from other portions of scripture or stories from the Bible that speak to how to live a truth. However, it is essential to remember that unless you can effectively prove your idea, these alone won’t help as some listeners may not accept scripture as accurate. Also, carefully choose passages that prove your point, and don’t take them out of context. We call that proof-texting.
  • Suggest Community Support: Please encourage your listeners to discuss the idea with fellow believers and let each other know how to apply Biblical truths in their daily lives.

The Final Product of Application in Sermon Development

Let’s take our Biblical idea. It says, “We can only serve God sacrificially when we humble ourselves willingly.” The overall sermon tells us to present our bodies as living sacrifices. What does that mean? We serve God sacrificially only as we serve humbly. Earlier. I offered an example of how I did that as a pastor. Since we must change our attitudes, we might need an illustration or natural analogy that deals with a humble attitude.

We can only serve God sacrificially when we humble ourselves willingly.

Our sermon idea from Romans 12:3

Here’s an example of sermon development crafted to develop our Biblical idea.

A pair of cardinals like this one live behind my office.

A pair of cardinals live behind my office building. I see them occasionally land on my window sill. One day, the female cardinal flew into the window. I presume she thought she could fly into my office and didn’t realize the window wasn’t an opening. Or she’s stubborn and didn’t believe a window could stop her.

As I considered each cardinal’s coloring, I wondered if the male’s beauty and bright red feathers made him a greater target for predators. Do they notice him first and attack him instead of his less colorful mate?

Too often, we exaggerate our accomplishments and try to win the glory of others instead of giving it away. We become targets of people frustrated by our arrogance. If a man humbles himself, he will succeed in serving the Lord because God will bless his humble service and, by God’s grace, use the man to achieve more for the kingdom.

Give away the glory people bestow on you. Respond to praise by saying, “Thank you, but Jane deserves the credit. She worked tirelessly to make that dinner a success. I hope you will tell her how much you like it. I know I will. But I thank you for your kind words. I’ll share them with all who helped make it a success.”

Explaining How Our Application Example Works

The above example includes the natural analogy of a pair of cardinals I see regularly outside my office window. Their coloring illustrates humility versus pride. In reality, no one blames male cardinals for looking prettier. God designed them that way. However, the natural, real-world analogy illustrates the concept.

Our cardinal couple explains, in a natural analogy, the concept of our Biblical truth (explanation). We can understand (the mind) and see (the imagination) what we’re discussing from Romans 12:3.

Our example proves that God blesses us when we sacrifice the glory.

Finally, the application in sermon development comes in our example of someone who gave away praise from a person regarding this church dinner. He said Jane deserved the credit. It was humble because he thanked the person for their kind words but clarified that he didn’t do what the person praised. Instead, Jane deserved it.

Be Careful of the Heresy of Improper Application

unrecognizable hands doing jigsaw puzzle
Try not to fit a verse in sermon application where it doesn’t belong, like a puzzle piece forced into the wrong spot.
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Preachers often get the text’s main idea and explain it well. However, when they attempt to apply it to real life, they improperly apply it. This takes a good message and tries to force people to do what God never wanted to say they should do. It’s like working a puzzle; you think a puzzle piece fits in one spot, but it’s intended to fit in another. It doesn’t fit; you must force it, mangling that puzzle piece. Haddon Robinson called this the Heresy of Application.

Haddon said in an interview about the concept of application that preachers introduce more heresy through application than in any other part of sermon development. The example he offered came from the book of Ruth. He once heard a sermon on the story, and the preacher said that this taught him how to properly deal with in-laws. He continued…

Now, it’s true that in Ruth you have in-laws. The problem is, Ruth was not given to solve in-law problems. The sermon had a lot of practical advice, but it didn’t come from the Scriptures.

Haddon Robinson on the Heresay of Application

The preacher he mentioned likely got the Explanation and Proof wrong, too. The whole Big Idea missed the target completely.

We hit the mark with our Sermon Idea: “We can only serve God sacrificially when we humble ourselves willingly” from Romans 12:3. I’d explain what sacrifice means and how we should humble ourselves and sacrifice praise for the glory of God and to bless others.

A Good Example of Bad Application in Sermon Development

What if I applied the text to sports? We don’t want athletes who play more for the name on the back of their jersey than the name on the front of the jersey. For those who don’t follow sports, teams often print the team name on the front and the player’s name on the back.

Why is the above sports application a heretical application of Romans 12:3? In context, Romans 12:3 clearly applies to building the church. We could correct our mistake by turning the illustration into a natural analogy instead of an example of proper application.

Aaron Rodgers 2015-2016 playoffs

Aaron Rodgers played quarterback for the Green Bay Packers when they won their last Super Bowl following the 2010 season. He became insufferable to many fans. They believed he promoted himself more than he supported his team. He seemed to promote his own name on the back of his jersey instead of the team’s name on the front.

Many preachers today lead their churches for their own glory, robbing others of the proper praise they deserve for well-done jobs. More importantly, too many pastors rob God of glory by never directing praise to Him.

It’s one thing to thank people after they compliment you on a message. It’s ungodly to preach that message for the compliments of people instead of for the congregation and the kingdom and the joy of the Lord.

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