Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bad, Bad, Bad Applications

Sometimes preachers get their applications wrong, and it annoys me. I can see what the passage says; I can see what the passage means, but I have no idea whatsoever how you can say it applies like that.

Of course, sermons should be applied. People should be made uncomfortable; they should see that not everything is the way it should be, and they should see what to do about that. But there are good ways of doing that and bad ways of doing that. One good way is to establish “timeless truths” that the passage teaches, and then apply them to specific situations today – God does not want people to steal, so don't take stationery supplies from work for personal use, for example (though that's a bit obvious). Another way is to establish a correspondence between situations then and situations now, but you need to be able to show it works. For example, the disciples being called to follow Jesus is like us being called to follow Jesus. Daniel's prayer in Daniel 9 is a model prayer for us, and so on.

On the other hand, it is quite easy to do that wrongly – to establish a false connection between the past and the present and end up with unregulated analogy, or to say that just because something happened in the past it is a good example for us to follow. So David killing Goliath, instead of being about how the kingship of God's unlikely king is confirmed (which is what the context suggests), is treated as if it is about us needing to kill the problems in our lives.

Often preachers don't show their working, as to how they get from the passage to the application, or even make it so that the application dominates the sermon. But there's a small gap in the way the congregation sees it between preachers not showing their working and preachers not doing their working or doing it wrongly. So we're told that Ephesians 2 is about how to handle conflict situations at work, for example, or that Haggai 1 is about the 17 qualities of a truly inspirational leader, and there's no evidence given.

With this in mind, I give you some (tongue in cheek) applications of Bible passages:

The Naomi Principle

How should we go about proactive leadership in the Church? How can we stop the decline of congregations while avoiding burnout, keeping ourselves fresh and always making sure to have the time for our families and hobbies? How can our churches stay relevant to culture? I give you, the Naomi principle, from that great woman of God who led Ruth to faith:

Wait, my daughter, and see what happens...
Ruth 3:18, NIV

Esther's Secret of Success

How can we succeed at work? Lets take advice from Esther, who rose from being a young orphaned Jewish girl to being the queen of the whole Persian Empire. From Esther, we learn the following key secrets of success:

  • Always be willing to act like a trophy for the boss (1:10-12)
  • Get the best beauty treatments possible. (2:9)
  • The best way to the top is to sleep with the boss (2:12-17)
  • Don't forget to ruthlessly destroy anyone who crosses you (8-9)
Learning Pastoral Skills from Nehemiah

I'm sure that sometimes we have all come across people we disagree with on certain issues. Is it right for Christians to go to the cinema or not? What about if it's an 18-certificate film? Well, we can learn a lot from Nehemiah about how to handle these little differences.

And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take oath in the name of God
Nehemiah 13:25, ESV

Coping with Regret

Or how should we cope with doing something we regret? Well, I'm sure we could all learn from a man who spent three years learning personally from Jesus himself.

Then Judas bought some land with the money he was given for doing that evil thing. He fell headfirst into the field. His body burst open, and all his insides came out.
Acts 1:18, CEV

1 comment:

Timothy Davis said...

Good post. When it comes to application and exposition, could I share the following scenarios that preachers should beware of?

1. Preachers who go into great detail about the historical situation of the passage and how it applied to the people then, but who don't apply it our own lives now.

2. Preachers who look like they are going to preach from the text (or the subject in the text), but who veer off after a message that has nothing (or next to nothing) to do with the passage.

3. Preachers who make a whole list of assertions and applications, but who provide no Biblical warrant for why we should believe them. Preachers should persuade the people that what they are saying is what God is saying to them from the Bible. They are God's spokesmen, not their own.

4. Preachers who make a huge leap in their argument from the passage to an interpretation or application, without filling in the necessary logical steps in-between. (Akin to the previous.)

5. Preachers who generalise the application and who don't ground it in real life situations especially. I think there is a fear of being too direct, but that is what people need. Clearly, I'm not saying he should preach from the pulpit, "Mrs. Jones down there in the back pew, will you stop deriding your husband in front of all the other wives."

6. Preachers who don't take the time to do basic hermeneutical work, e.g. the classic application of "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" to the Bible, when if they had bothered to look at Deuteronomy 8:2-4, they would see that it is the decretive word of God.

7. Preaching that stays within too small a compass of the teaching of Scripture and that doesn't seek to thoroughly equip the people of God.

8. Waffling, directionless and unstructured preachers.

9. The demise of preaching in some quarters where it becomes a 5-minute "thought" after an hour or two of singing.

More could be said about the "moralistic" and Gospel-less preaching that I have experienced in some Anglican churches, but I thought I'd just stick to the Evangelical side of things.