Preacher: Less Application Please
There is no shortage of advice for preachers. Apart from the countless titles published each year on the subject there are also the masses of well-meaning folk who want to give some ‘feed back’ over coffee in the foyer. But one piece of advice I’ve never been given is to include less application. But that’s precisely what I want to suggest.
Before I’m flayed as a heretic, let me explain.
The end goal of this article is to encourage preachers to magnify in the right direction. But to reach that goal, I’m asking you to take a step back and trace the journey the church has been on in recent decades.
The Bible is not your road map
As evidenced by the earliest writers, the church has always lived in uneasy tension with the dominant cultures of this world. Sometimes applauded, and at other times rebuked, the church lives out its existence in a foreign environment, not as an unwilling participant, but as salt and light — both a witness of, and testimony to, the unsearchable riches of the grace of God in Christ. Yet in recent years, since the age of enlightenment, a shift of thinking within the church has impacted our approach to preaching and given rise to the endless call for more application.
Here’s how it works: Christianity, and more accurately, evangelicalism, has moved increasingly toward defining itself as primarily a moral lifestyle. Post-enlightenment cultural concepts have helped drive this shift, with the end result being that both our individual and corporate evangelical identity is often defined by how ‘Christian’ something is. Moral positions, particular activities, even music and film, are all graded on a scale by how ‘Christian’ or ‘secular’ they are.
Now, if this is the defining lens through which you view Christianity it has a significant impact on how we read and preach the Bible. For if we view Christianity as primarily a moral lifestyle, then Christianity’s most significant text must surely be the source of how we achieve that lifestyle, right? So the Bible now becomes the authoritative body of work that either affirms or condemns certain lifestyles or behaviours. This view has given rise to the popular notion of the Bible being our ‘road map for life’, or ‘playbook for the game of life’, or even our ‘instruction manual for Christian living’.
As a preacher, if I dare speak into this context without providing enough ‘application’, I’m likely to be reprimanded for it. Because, after all, isn’t Christianity primarily about a moral lifestyle? And aren’t our Bibles meant to tell us how to live this fulfilling lifestyle? So won’t every passage of Scripture tell me how to achieve this satisfying lifestyle? So why aren’t you, my preacher, giving me the ‘how to’ on how I can get this thing sorted out? It has been this, in large part, that has formed one of the driving contributors to our very own evangelical expression of moralistic therapeutic deism.
Telescopes and Microscopes
I would argue that the Christian life is not primarily about a moral lifestyle, though of course, it does include a lifestyle of morality which is informed by the gospel of grace. Instead, Christianity could be defined as mankind’s proper response to the revelation of God’s holy righteousness and the demonstration of his grace as seen and experienced in the person of Jesus Christ. The defining attribute of my Christianity is not my ability to behave and act like a Christian, but that I am a sinner saved by grace through faith—that’s what makes me a Christian. Everything else that follows—my moral stance, my decision making process, my ethics, and my behaviour—all flow from who I am because of Christ. Therefore, how I read and understand the Bible will alter.
Fundamentally, the Bible does two things consistently.
It firstly magnifies the worth and value of God in a similar way that a telescope does. A telescope brings things that are far off, immense systems of power and grandeur, and brings them close to us in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to appreciate. The Bible does that for us with God. God, who is utterly separate from us in every conceivable way, draws close to us through his own Word. The Bible is God’s self-revelation to his creation, without it we would be at a loss to know him or see him for who he is. The pinnacle of this self-revelation is the Living Word, the God who became flesh and dwelt among us, yet for those of our generation even this revelation is dependant on a book.
But the Bible doesn’t only reveal God to us, it also reveals our own true nature. In this way, the Bible acts like a microscope, magnifying the reality of our lives, making clear what would otherwise be hidden. In this way, God’s own Word intimately exposes us to the righteousness of Christ, demonstrating our most desperate need for reconciliation.
Magnify in the right direction.
This is why I call for less application. The primary role of reading Scripture, and this is especially true for those of us tasked with preaching, is to magnify in the right direction. To take the eternity-altering power of God’s Word, and rightly handle it in such a way as to clearly show God for who he truly is—communicating the grandeur and glory of God’s holiness, not as being out of reach and seperate, but now brought near to us through his son, Jesus Christ. But then also to boldly bring into focus the nature and need of the human condition—that we are more then simply ‘broken’, as this is far too passive, instead we are broken precisely because of our active rebellion against the reign and rule of the eternal King. This type of preaching brings into sharp focus the propensity of our hearts to manufacture every conceivable idol, in order that we may bow to fractured alters and drink from septic wells rather than bend our knee to the throne of heaven and drink from the fountain that gives eternal life.
So by all means, if the text requires us to cast off the old pattern of life, and put on the new life we gained in Christ, then apply it. Show us what it looks like to live out this grace-wrought life. Help us explore the implications of the gospel in marriage, career, and community. But whatever you do, don’t neglect to magnify in the right direction.