"Good sermons need an ounce of reality, where you talk about your own struggles – revealing where you haven’t quite made it yet but also discussing, as a model of hope, the progress you have made."
We are called to be doers of the Word, and not just listeners, which is why I believe every sermon you deliver should give very specific application. You’re not just trying to inspire your congregation; your aim is to help their transformation into Christlike people on mission for God.
Here are six guidelines for putting more application into your sermons --
1. Always aim for specific action
The greatest weakness I see in most sermons is a fuzzy focus. A strong sermon is like a bullet. You identify the specific action you want as a result of the message. Consider this: you're not ready to preach until you know what you expect people to do after hearing the sermon. You then prepare everything in your message with that end in sight.
2. Model it from your own life
In 1 Corinthians 4:6 Paul shares the reason his ministry was so effective: “Now brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’” Paul says, “I applied it to me and to my friend Apollos and now you watch our example.”
You don’t have to be perfect to be a model. The most helpful models are not those who’ve figured it all out and are perfect (Usually, those people are just discouraging to me). Good sermons need an ounce of reality, where you talk about your own struggles – revealing where you haven’t quite made it yet but also discussing, as a model of hope, the progress you have made.
3. Ask penetrating questions
Jesus constantly asked questions of those who were listening to him.
- In Matthew 17:25 he asked Peter, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes? From their own sons or from others?”
- In Matthew 18:12 he asked his disciples, "What do you think if a man owns 100 sheep and one of them wanders away. Will he not leave the 99 on the hill and look for the one that’s wandered off?”
- In Luke 13 he asked the crowd, "Of those 18 who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
These are just a few examples of one way Jesus choose to communicate. Why is he asking such penetrating questions? Because he’s drawing answers out of the people listening.
This is a powerful way to apply Scripture to people’s lives. One of the ways you can do this is through self-evaluation quizzes. At Saddleback, we’ll often ask people to evaluate themselves at the end of each sermon point. For instance, “Rate yourself from 1 to 5 in this area.” This is one form of a penetrating question.
"Effective sermons answer the ‘Yes, but how?’ question, giving practical steps that listeners can immediately implement. Don’t just tell your congregation what they need to do; help them discover how to do it."
4. Give specific action steps
Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I heard a lot of sermons at conferences and from my own father. As I listened, I’d find myself thinking, This is good; yet, I was constantly writing, next to the verses we were studying, “Yes, but how?” “Be a godly father - Yes, but how?” “Study the Bible - Yes, but how?”
Effective sermons answer the “Yes, but how?” question, giving practical steps that listeners can immediately implement. Don’t just tell your congregation what they need to do; help them discover how to do it. That’s what people are looking for today!
Flooding them with what they ought to do without telling them how to do it doesn’t lead to life change. It only leads to frustration!
5. Give practical examples
If you want your people to share their faith with others, then tell stories about people in your church who are already doing that. If you want people to care for the sick, tell stories about people in your church who care for the sick. If you want people to be friendly to visitors, tell stories about people who were friendly to visitors. Whatever gets rewarded gets repeated. You want to make heroes of the people who are doing what you want done. You treat them the way you want them to be.
6. Offer people hope
People need encouragement to change. If they think something’s hopeless, then they won’t even try. For example, I once did a two-part series on getting out of debt. We had a woman share about how she’d gotten herself $100,000 into credit card debt. She explained how it took several years to pay off, but by applying biblical principles she and her husband were able to do it!
When she finished speaking – and I usually try to fit the testimony right in the middle of a message – I stood up and said, “You may have been discouraged thinking, ‘I'm never getting out of debt. But you can do this! Is there anybody here who’s got more than $100,000 on their credit card? No. You just heard a story of a woman who with the power of God’s Spirit and discipline, and using the biblical principle of putting God first, she got out of debt. You can do this!”
This builds hope in people. They say, “We can do that. We’re not nearly as bad off as that.”