Our congregations often judge us based on how practical our application is. If it is obvious how the sermon ought to affect one’s life, then it was a good sermon. But if they stroll out to their cars without knowing what one or two behaviors to change, your church will be disappointed.
If you are getting a steady flow of visitors you are trying to retain and assimilate, the pressure to be practical is even greater. Who wants to be labeled “irrelevant” by folks who are church shopping?
In the short term, aiming at practicality might yield ministry “results,” but they will never accomplish lasting change in your people. They fail to penetrate the surface because they focus on mere behavior. They fail to inspire awe because they focus on the individual. They fail to require the sacrifice that accompanies the realization that we are part of something that is bigger than ourselves.
For most people in the Bible, living a holy life was anything but practical. How do you draw practical application from Abraham leaving Ur, the disciples quitting their fishing jobs, or Jesus being crucified? There is nothing practical about that.
Before we continue, let me offer a word about definitions. It could seem like I’m playing with connotations here. It is true that “practical” can have the connotation of “convenient” or “useful,” or it can simply mean a concrete action that can be taken. Theoretically someone could preach inconvenient concrete actions that flow out of the Scriptures, and the good preachers do. But in my experience, preachers who wave the banner of practical applications seek to make being a Christian simpler and easier for their people. In reality, however, Christian obedience is complex and difficult. It requires wisdom and it requires saying “no” to our sinful desires.
Pastors, therefore, need to give their congregations impractical applications. We need to call them to change that may not be concrete, hands-on, or action oriented. We need to put God and His Word on display and call them to work out the steps for themselves, guided by the Holy Spirit. We need to call them to obey even though it may result in uncomfortable consequences.
It is impractical – but necessary – to work at the level of desires
Before an action is taken, it is first prompted by a desire. There are reasons and motives that propel us to do everything we do. The action is only the tip of the iceberg. It provides a small picture of what is going on in the person’s heart.
Working at the level of the heart, where our desires are, doesn’t appear to be very practical. It is difficult to understand what is going on in there because our hearts are deceitful (Jer. 17:9). We will never fully understand why we sin the ways we do because there are desires that are behind other desires that are behind other desires. The roots of sin go deep.
Yet God calls us to wage war against our sinful desires, despite how messy and impractical that may seem. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6). We can thank God and praise Him that part of His work of salvation in us includes changing our desires so that we want to obey Him (Phil. 2:13).
It is impractical – but necessary – to disrupt the current flow of your life
If your suggested applications slide seamlessly into the life of your congregation, you are not challenging them to repent. Repentance disrupts the flow of your day and the flow of your week. Repentance means cultivating new habits and quitting old ones. Repentance means dying to self when you’d rather indulge in sin. Because we are finite and non-omnipotent, this will necessarily make us less productive in other areas of our life.
That is small-scale disruption. Other times, following Jesus may cause a large-scale disruption of our life. Jesus admitted as much when He told the scribe that following him will cost him his security, a disciple that it will cost him his inheritance, and another that there’s no time to bid his family farewell (Luke 9:57-62).
Though it is often impractical (in the short run) to apply the Bible, we must call our people to accept those impracticalities. They may be minor or major, but they will always accompany genuine efforts to live out God’s word.
It is impractical – but necessary – to embrace the relational collateral damage of obedience
When someone starts to apply God’s Word at the level of desires, it will affect his relationships with others, and that’s not always pretty. Spouses pack up and walk out (1 Cor. 7:15). Family members turn into enemies (Matt. 10:34-39). When you are living out the truth around people who are truth-supressors, they may feel the need to suppress you (Rom. 1:18). You may be fired from a job or be dropped from a project.
Those are extreme cases. It could be smaller, like an uncomfortable semester of college with a roommate who thinks you’re no fun anymore.
In whatever form it shows up, be sure of this: some kind of adverse relational consequence will occur for those who want to obey God’s Word. That’s one of Satan’s tactics to get people to fall away (Mark 4:17), and it’s also the cross-bearing that we are called to do as we follow Jesus (Matt. 10:37-39).
Is your preaching impractical enough?
Sermons that end with seven biblical principles to improve some area of your life (sex, finances, relationships, etc.) don’t often integrate biblical principles like these into their application steps. But if we’re going to be honest with the people to whom we teach God’s Word, we must tell that following Jesus can rarely be reduced to a few action items.
This doesn’t mean we never give suggestions for how to apply our sermons. But it does mean that we will avoid neat little shallow bullet points that we think should be simply plugged into someone’s life.
Will impractical application turn people off to your preaching? Yes, for some. But for most, I suspect, it will reinvigorate and revitalize people who are hungry for a challenge, and who know deep down that following Jesus is meant to be marked by suffering.
Eric McKiddie serves as Pastor for Gospel Community at the Chapel Hill Bible Church He helps pastors grow as well-rounded ministers of the gospel at his blog, Pastoralized, and through sermon coaching. Follow him on Twitter: @ericmckiddie.