The “application” of a sermon has become essential for many Christians. And rightfully so in many ways. There’s definitely a problem when a speaker drones on about confusing doctrine that seems only important for a game of Trivial Pursuit.
If that’s the situation, “application” becomes a cantine of life-giving water in the dry, deadly desert of depersonalized doctrine.
But this desert is not the danger facing many churches.
Many churches—large and small—have become increasingly taught by “communicators” driven by application. They are highly praised as “practical.” Week-in and week-out, people leave with easy-to-apply principles that help them live “more abundant lives” with tips and advice that are workable, relevant, and helpful.
They’re not in danger of dehydration in the desert—they’re drowning in “application.”
“How do I apply this to my life?” has become such a goal in many sermons that the dreadful and delightful news of Scripture ends up becoming the strange starting place for much more practical matters.
Ask Jesus into your heart to forgive you of your sins. Then we work on application and advice.
The strange. Then the sensible.
Maybe an example is in order. I recently had a conversation where the person across from me was describing lessons being taught in classes on Sunday. They gave an example of how a “lesson on patience” might include practical steps on how to “apply patience to our lives that week.”
How many church lessons are just like that in some way or another?
It might be patience or courage or kindness or loyalty or humility or love—take your pick. Work on those things for the week. Apply and develop them with these tips.
But the problem is that none of these virtues are explicitly Christian.Almost everyone—Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Atheist, Agnostic—agrees on these virtues. And many teachers and many lessons are content to allow these virtues to remain vaguely Christian—that way everyone can get something out of the teaching.
Anyone can “apply” them.
This is absolutely 100% foreign to the Christian Bible. The grand story of Scripture centers on Israel’s God revealing himself within history as Jesus of Nazareth. He takes the Old Testament’s tragedy upon himself and dies on a Roman execution stake. Then our Creator-made-flesh turns the tragedy into a comedy by exploding the curse of death from within. He invites all to trust him and to be transformed by him. He promises them rescue and resurrection.
This is explicitly Christian.
God made man. The cross. Resurrection. New Creation.
And there’s of course room to talk about “patience” here. After all, we worship a Deity who sweated drops of blood, cried “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” and suffered the cross—I think he will teach us about patience, love, and every other part of being fully human.
When our imaginations, worldviews, and prayers are shaped by this haunting picture of God, we will find ourselves (mysteriously) transformed from within by his Spirit.
If we’re not interested in this—if we’re more interested in self-help than self-surrender—then we’ll continue to preach and put up with vaguely Christian sermons communicating vaguely Christian virtues.
But at that point, take that cross off your steeple.