Practical application in preaching

How do you shape your sermons so they touch the lives of your people? This article, which concludes our series on preaching, not only tells why your sermons should be practical but suggests that by such methods as characterization and modernization you can really affect your listeners' lives. This is a practical article on practical application in preaching!

W. Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is associate secretary for continuing education of the Ministerial Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


When you preach, don't aim to lecture on the water of life, but to give your listeners a drink. Halford E. Luccock illustrates by postulating a scenario in which someone is speaking to a man dying of thirst in the Sahara: 'Let us consider the properties of what we call water. Water is a colorless liquid which on being raised to a temperature of a hundred degrees Centigrade or two hundred and twelve degrees Fahrenheit . . . becomes what is called vapour. If, however, on the other hand, the temperature is lowered to no degrees Centigrade, or thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, lo, it is ice! In the final analysis it is discovered to consist of two portions of hydrogen to one of oxygen, hence arises the name H2O.'

"The thirsty man interrupts, 'For the love of God, mister, a drink!'"1

When you preach, don't aim to lecture on the water of life, but to give your listeners a drink. Not only must you present truth but you must emphasize a practical application of that truth to daily living.

Preaching must be practical

Let me give you four reasons why preaching must be practical.

1. A change in everyday living affords the only positive proof of good preaching. You can know that you have preached well not by how you feel after the service, but by whether or not your sermon has helped people live well. Your effectual argument in the judgment will not be "Look at my sermons, look at the grand truths I presented, look at my beautiful organization, look at my polished delivery." It will be "Look at my people."

The preacher must love truth, but he must never love it more than he loves people. In fact, truth is of no value unless it helps people. When the disciples came to the Temple they said, "Look! What beautiful buildings!" When Jesus came to the Temple He said, "Look at that woman putting her money into the Temple treasury." The disciples saw things. Jesus saw people.

Matthew 5:1, 2 introduces the Sermon on the Mount: "And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: ... and he opened his mouth, and taught them." The greatest sermon ever preached resulted from the Preacher's seeing the needs of His people. Your best sermons will also come after seeing your people's needs.

Charles Reynolds Brown insisted: "Your business as preachers is not to lecture on botany but to raise flowers. Your thorough knowledge of botany will help. It is impossible to raise successfully a full measure of the finest flowers without a knowledge of botany. But in his use of that knowledge the eyes of the wise gardener are constantly upon the results to be achieved in the realm of life." 2

The sermon is like a wagon wheel. Sermon ideas or lessons are the spokes. A spoke is useless unless it is fastened at both the hub and the rim. It makes no difference how securely it is attached at one end if it's loose at the other. It carries no weight, makes no contribution.

Like spokes, sermon ideas must be fastened at both ends. The hub of the wheel represents truth in Christ as found in Scripture. That is absolutely essential. But it is not enough. The rim of the wheel represents life as your listener lives it day by day—where the wheel meets the road.

No matter how true, Biblical, or Christ-centered your sermon may be, it has precious little value unless the listener sees how it can work in his life—where the rubber meets the road. Sermons are not preached to be heard or even to be understood. Sermons are preached to be lived. A sermon containing truth without a life-situation thrust answers questions nobody is asking. A sermon emphasizing life rather than Bible truth may be an excellent lecture, but it is not really a sermon at all. The spokes must be fastened at both ends.

2. Practical application proves religion relevant. Commenting on preaching, Harry Emerson Fosdick made one of the most thought-provoking observations of recent times when he said that only a preacher would ever assume that people came to church desperately anxious to know what became of the Jebusites.

Now, there's nothing wrong with learning about the Jebusites. The preacher ought to know how people lived in Bible times. But the principal reason for knowing is so that he can better show how Bible truth applies to our time. He studies life in Palestine way back then so that he can better show his people how Bible truth can work in their townnow.

In preaching expository sermons, the preacher too often takes a passage of Scripture and proceeds on the assumption that his hearers are deeply concerned about its meaning. He picks it apart verse by verse, throws in a little historical context, and spices it all with dashes of original language. He enjoys doing it. That's why he became a preacher. But many of his people don't. That's why they didn't become preachers. Finally, the speaker shares a thought or two about how the passage still applies today—and sits down. Meanwhile the ladies in his congregation have used the time to plan their dinner menu, and the men their upcoming week.

The problem is not that the preacher knows the Bible too well. Nobody knows too much about the Bible. His problem is that he doesn't know his Bible well enough. Bible writers didn't approach religion this way. They invariably dealt with contemporary problems and needs. The Old Testament tells of God's attempt to lead His people through the practical problems of everyday living. Jesus taught in parables so that people could understand truth as it related to life. Paul wrote mostly as a pastor addressing himself to his people's specific needs and temptations. The Bible insists that religion be kept contemporary.

Grady Davis suggests: "If, in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus had preached as many of his followers do, he would have talked first about Isaiah or about his book, about the situation at the time when Isaiah spoke, about the office of prophecy. After that he would have argued about the faithfulness of God's covenant with Israel, about the unchangeable truth of God's Word. Then he would have asked what meaning Isaiah's words had for the people in the synagogue that day. . . .

"Jesus, however, began very differently. He began in the present tense. The first word he spoke was today. 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke4:21). 3

3. Practical application improves audience rapport. It proves to the man in the pew that the man in the pulpit has something in common with him—that he understands him.

Some preachers seem more at home with the twelve apostles than with their own church board, more interested in Paul than in their own people. The listener may feel separated from his preacher, whose theological background and Biblical knowledge so far surpass his own. But when the pastor talks about problems of everyday living, the listener realizes they stand on common ground.

When Jesus spoke to the woman of Samaria the two of them didn't seem to have much in common. They were strangers. He was a man, and she was a woman; in their society, that created a wide gulf. He was a Jew, she was a Samaritan; racial prejudice was evident. He was perfect, she was morally bankrupt. But Jesus found one practical need they shared. Both were thirsty. Jesus began His discourse by talking about water because that common need established a rapport with His listener.

4. Practical application helps hold attention. People are interested mostly in themselves. When your sermon talks about their needs, they'll be interested in your sermon.

Notice the postman going down the street. Door after door will open just behind him. Watch people quickly shuffle through the mail, looking for something personal. Life will always have zest as long as there is first-class mail. Oh, the letters may not be nearly so well written as those coming from gifted public-relations writers. They may not be nearly as beautiful as the four-color advertisements from somebody selling something. But they're a lot more interesting, because they show someone cared specifically about them, their feelings, their needs.

The sermon that most effectively holds the congregation's attention will not necessarily be the sermon by the preacher who seems most gifted, or the sermon most beautiful in form and polished in delivery. Rather, it will be the sermon that most effectively shows that the preacher cares about and addresses himself to the feelings and needs of his listeners.

As Paul preached, Agrippa cried out, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian" (Acts 26:28). Every sermon should attempt to elicit that same cry from every listener. "He's not talking about theory, he's talking about life, my life, my problems, my needs. He's talking to me.'' A good sermon leaves the listener wondering how the preacher knew all about him. And sermons like that always hold their hearers' attention.

How to make your preaching more practical

If practical application is so important, how can I get more of it into my preaching?

Emphasize visitation. You've heard of the preacher accused by his congregation of having foot and mouth disease—he wouldn't visit and he couldn't preach. The truth is that many a preacher can't preach because he won't visit. The minister who is invisible six days of the week tends to be incomprehensible on the seventh.

One of the most outstanding preachers of our century was Charles Reynolds Brown. He shared what he believed to be one of the reasons for his success: "In my own ministry I have steadily emphasized the value of personal visitation. It was my custom for twenty odd years to make at least one thousand pastoral calls in every twelve months— this was the minimum with as many more added as time might allow. The process of using up the gray matter of the brain in the preparation of sermons should in my judgment be paralleled by a similar process of wearing out shoe leather." 4

Start your sermon early. Let the Holy Spirit speak to you through the Word during the first part of the week. Begin to form the basic ideas you feel God is asking you to share with your people the following weekend. Carry these ideas with you all through your parish all through the week. Walk your ideas around in the street. If they don't meet practical needs you see there, don't preach them. If they do fit, you'll find illustrations and practical applications by the dozens that will help you teach them.

Then, before you preach, stand at the church door as people come to worship. Greet them. Look into their faces. Feel their needs. This final tuning will prepare you to lead them in worship.

Use characterization, putting yourself in the prophet's shoes. The ancient rhetoricians Hermogenes and Apthonius developed a method of training speakers that took the ancient world by storm. It was called the progymnasmata. One of its methods was characterization. The rhetoricians assigned a student to pretend he was some specific historical figure under a prescribed circumstance. Then they asked him to give the speech that he imagined that person would make. The idea is so old, it's new again. Today we call it role playing.

Try stepping into the shoes of a Bible character or Bible writer. What real life problem did he face? How does that same problem manifest itself in contemporary society? Remember, the Bible was writ ten to address practical problems and needs.

Try modernization, putting the prophet in your shoes. What would Paul say to your church if he were writing today? How would Jesus tell the story of the good Samaritan if He were preaching now?

Professor Phillip Morrison, of Cornell, one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, visited Hiroshima. The devastation nearly overwhelmed him. How could he help Americans sense the horror of atomic war? Instead of describing Hiroshima, he imagined the bomb having fallen on New York City. Then, in graphic detail, he depicted the horror of this unfamiliar experience as if it had taken place in a setting familiar to his readers.

Experiment with problem-centered preaching. Having suggested it, I want immediately to wave a red flag. Fosdick, who is often thought of as developing problem-centered preaching, probably went too far with it. Certainly his admirers did, preaching a social gospel with too little dependence on Scripture.

But let's not throw out the baby with the bath. Fosdick had something to say that we all need to hear. He believed that the sermon should focus on some specific, practical problem; that helping people solve life problems was the sermon's business. When he preached he wanted his listeners to know within the first sentence or two that he was going to address a problem they had experienced.

Here are some typical opening sentences from his sermons:

"Amid the uncertainties of modern psychology, one thing seems assured: More people suffer from a humiliating sense of inferiority than ever has been supposed."

"Our morning's subject, Handicapped Lives, probably takes us all in."

"Our thought starts this morning with the plain fact that it is not always easy to tell the difference between right and wrong." 5

No less a theologian than Karl Barth once described preaching as an attempt to give God's answers to the questions people raise. Don't be afraid to address questions people raise. Just be certain you are, to the best of your ability, giving God's answers.

How aware are you of the hurts represented in your congregation week by week? Over there sits someone who's just been told by her doctor that she must have surgery. Yonder is someone who's just learned that it's too late for surgery and that nothing human can help. Back there is someone single who longs to be married, and in the next pew is someone married who longs to be single. Seated on the aisle is a wife who wants to be pregnant and isn't. Across the aisle is one who doesn't want to be pregnant and is. The old couple up front wish their children would come to see them; home has far too much peace and quiet. The young couple in the "Reserved for Parents" pew near the back take turns rushing in and out on 1-, 4-, 6-, and 9-year-old emergencies. They wish the kids would all go away, just for a little while, and give them a little peace and quiet at home.

You can see, scattered throughout the congregation, the epileptic, the diabetic, and the heart patient, worried over getting through the service without an attack. And notice, out in the foyer, the deacon so deeply in debt and so discouraged he's ashamed to join the congregation. There in the middle sits a pregnant teenager. And on either side of her sit her parents, trying desperately to "hold their heads up."

Preacher, what do you have to' say to these hurting people? How can you show that Jesus can help ?

There's nothing wrong with problem-centered preaching if you just keep your timing right. There's a time to focus on truth and a time to focus on people. Both are necessary. But the focus on truth should precede the focus on people.

Don't go to your study feeling you know what life's problems are, sure you have the answers, and looking only for Biblical support. If you do, you've become a humanist, a philosopher, not a preacher of the Word. Rather, go to the Bible, asking what the real questions of life are, seeking the answers. Then find how God's answers to God's questions meet your people's needs. When it's time to preach, feel free to begin with people's needs, because in the study you began with God's answers. Keep your timing right.

Share your pulpit with your people. If you know of someone in your congregation who has through Christ learned how to cope with a certain problem, ask him to share his experience as part of the sermon. One pastor says that every three or four weeks he gives five minutes or so of his sermon time to someone from the congregation for whom Christ has recently done something special.

Preaching for decisions

To be practical, preaching must persuade people to make decisions.

Henry Ward Beecher said the sermon should be like a hunter's gun, not a firecracker. People explode firecrackers just to make a noise. The hunter fires his gun expecting to see some game fall. Always preach for decisions. Expect some game to fall.

You should preach not only for decisions—but for immediate decisions. Don't preach a series of sermons anticipating that people will make their decision when you get to the last one. In the first place, you will never have exactly the same audience. Second, the human mind doesn't work that way. Big decisions are best made through a series of small ones. I could not run ten miles without a break, but I can run one mile. And if I run one mile ten times, I have run ten miles.

Expression deepens impression. Two men discuss a business deal. Reaching agreement, they shake hands as a physical expression of the decision made. A couple stand at the wedding altar. They exchange words and a kiss as an expression of their commitment. Research indicates that when a person transfers an idea in his mind to his body's motor system through some physical activity, the idea leaves a longer-lasting impression on his brain.

If, by means of some physical activity, a person will express the decision he has made for Christ, it will be more specific in his own mind and will last longer in his everyday experience. Expression deepens impression.

Leighton Ford comments: "I am convinced that the giving of some kind of public invitation to come to Christ is not only theologically correct, but also emotionally sound. Men need this opportunity for expression. The inner decision for Christ is like driving a nail through a board. The open declaration of it is like clinching the nail on the other side, so that it is not easily pulled out." 6

Vary your form of expression to fit the occasion, the congregation, the sermon, and your own personality. Have an altar call. Or invite your people to raise a hand, stand up, write a response, fill out a card, attend an after meeting, pray silently, pray audibly, or pray in groups. H.M.S. Richards has become convinced through the years that many, especially in the upper echelons of society, would never respond to a public invitation of any kind. He suggests that these be visited and asked to make decisions in their own home.

However you do it, preach for decisions and help people find an immediate way of expressing the decisions made.

And keep your invitations both specific and open-ended. Your listeners find it quite embarrassing to be asked to commit themselves to something when they're not exactly sure what it is. Be specific.

On the other hand, what could be more tragic than interfering with the Holy Spirit? You have just preached on problem A. Someone in your congregation has been having trouble deciding about problem B. The Holy Spirit uses your sermon to help him decide about B, but your invitation allows decisions only on A. Don't dictate to the Holy Spirit. Keep the main gist of your invitation specific enough that people know what you are after,' but keep a part of it open-ended enough so that someone needing to make a different decision is free to do so.

Doing is better than deciding. You can conclude your sermon by leading your people to something better than deciding and expressing. You can help them experience or do something. The purpose of preaching is not that people will merely believe something, but that by believing they will do something.

When you preach on joy, aim to do more than discuss it—aim to produce it. Don't preach on forgiveness only so people will believe in forgiveness, but so that by believing they will be forgiven. Your sermon on prayer should ideally end with people praying. Your highest hope for any sermon should be to bring to pass in your listeners' lives that which you are speaking about.

Let's put it all together now. You mean to be a Biblical preacher. But what is Biblical preaching? The preparation of a truly Biblical sermon requires at least three tools: one Bible and two chairs. One chair should be comfortable enough so you will spend considerable time in it. You simply cannot preach well without spending time with the Word. After prayer for the Holy Spirit's leading, you open your Bible. As you study, an idea or lesson comes to you out of the Word. Now you need the other chair. You set it across the desk from yourself and, in your imagination, seat in it representative members of the congregation to whom you plan to preach: someone very young, someone very old; someone very educated, someone very ignorant; a non- Christian who just happens to find himself in church that day, a lifetime Christian who has come to church as long as he can remember; a man, a woman; a husband who has just married a wife, a wife who has just buried a husband. Biblical preaching means both preaching Bible truth and applying it to human needs and life situations as the Bible does.

If you'll do this, what happened to one preacher will happen to you. As he moved from point to point in his sermon, a little boy sat wide-eyed, taking it all in. Finally it just became more than he could keep to himself. Grabbing his mother's arm, he whispered, "Mother, why does he all the time keep talking to me?" That's practical application. That's preaching.


1 Halford E. Luccock, Communicating the Gospel (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954), p. 128.

2 Charles Reynolds Brown, The Art of Preaching (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922), p.

3 H. Orady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), p. 208.

4 Brown, op. cit., p. 6.

5 Edgar N. Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching (Oreat Neck, N.Y.: Channel Press, 1961), p. 24.

6 Leighton Ford, The Christian Persuader (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 124.

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W. Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is associate secretary for continuing education of the Ministerial Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

December 1984

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