Read Part 1.
Why did God choose to use preaching and teaching in the life of the church? Having given us the Scriptures, why did He not simply command us to read them together? After all, the only words uttered in a church gathering that are guaranteed to be perfect every time are those read straight from Holy Writ.
The answer has multiple parts. For one, preaching and teaching ministry is—like all other ministries in the church—an opportunity to be part of what God is doing among His people. For another, the ministry of the Word communicates what is written through the vehicle of a person and a life. He is speaking in the context of that life and also in the context of his relationship to his hearers.
But one huge reason we preach and teach rather than simply read Scripture is application. God’s people are edified by the connections we teachers help them make between what is written and the choices they face in life every day.
So, we need to get application right. We need to avoid the most common ineffective applications. Along with the hobby horse application, the “spiritualized” application, and the just plain wrong, application, we should excise three others from our teaching patterns.
4. The irrelevant application
The word “relevance” has been much abused in evangelical Christianity in recent years. Advocates of relevance seem to mean everything from “what people want to hear” to “what looks and sounds cool at this moment in our culture.” This is really not relevance. It’s marketing.
Application truly has a relevance problem when it doesn’t address the needs of the people in the room. Relevance problems occur in a variety of forms, such as these:
- In-grouping. The application is all about Us vs. Them and criticism of the unbelieving or disobedient Them who are not in the room. The only application to Us is that we’re better than Them and should stay as we are. (There’s a need for the occasional “stay the course” application, but a steady diet of “don’t change” is antithetical the call to grow, which, after all, requires change!)
- Missed train. The application mostly references concerns that were common years ago, but aren’t much now. The most glaring form of this is “fad bashing” in reference to long-dead fads. An example might be a rant on hoola hoops or Dungeons and Dragons.
- Mistaken identity. The application is excellent for a particular demographic, but that demographic is not in the room. Examples: A “raising godly children” application delivered to a mostly Senior Saints audience, a “don’t steal cookies from the cookie jar” application delievered to a teen Bible study, a “don’t overvalue knowledge” application delivered to a group that is already desperately lacking in knowledge (see Isa. 5:13, Hos. 4:6).
- YNISA. (You’re Not In Seminary Anymore!) The application concerns issues that are only of interest to seminary students and other academics—or application assumes background unlikely to exist outside of seminary. Examples: An application (in rural Wisconsin) about separating from groups that endorse or tolerate Open Theism, without ever explaining what Open Theism is and why it matters. Example 2: A application about infralapsarianism vs. supralapsarianism—pretty much anywhere!
5. The wrong-text application
This happens when a topic we feel strongly about encounters a text that seems to sort of resemble it. Our position is biblical and important but has nothing to do with the walls of Jericho, or Baalam’s donkey, or Elisha’s floating axe head. See the “spiritualized application” above.
Avoiding wrong-text applications is important for several reasons:
- Our teaching goals should include helping students learn to interpret Scripture well for themselves. Using the wrong passage works against that goal.
- An application that has a clear and strong relationship to the text is more persuasive to the people who need it most: people who are not already convinced.
- An application with a clear and strong relationship to the passage is far less likely to be a product of our own misguided thinking. See the “just plain wrong application” above.
6. The mumbo-jumbo application
Application characterized by special terminology or vague (but spiritual sounding) phrases may sound impressive but it doesn’t edify. Spiritually healthy audiences are wanting to know, “What exactly should I do?” So why not tell them? In some cases, the phrases and terms are biblical enough in themselves, but teachers assume their meaning is clear rather than explaining them in plain language.
- “Rely on God and not on your own strength.” What does that even mean? What strength do we have that was not given to us? (1 Cor. 4:7, James 1:17, Acts 17:18, Col. 1:17). Perhaps what we mean is, “Be mindful that all we are and have is provided by God” or “Live with a constant awareness of how dependent we are on God’s gifts.”
- “What God’s people really need is revival.” Perhaps so, but what does the Bible mean when it uses the term “revive”? It may be quite different from what hearers associate with the term.
- “The problem is you’re not walking with the Lord.” Why not talk about what that looks like in some specific way? (In the New Testament, “walk” is a metaphor meaning simply “live.”)
- “You can live a victorious life.” As a percentage, how often do we have to “win” to consider ourselves “victorious,” and what are we defeating, exactly?
- “Personal Savior.” If we mean “the Savior you personally trust,” why not just say that?
- “Testimony.” What those who use this term apparently usually mean is “reputation.” So what’s wrong with the word “reputation”?
Other times, we’re using words we’ve completely made up:
There’s no harm in the occasional neologism when it’s truly helpful. After all, the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible either. But whenever we have a variety of perfectly good biblical words and phrases available, why not use those? And why not use all of them? Our hearers are far more likely to be attentive and edified if we avoid unnecessarily repeating the same terms. If God has gone to the trouble to express a truth to us a dozen different ways, do we really have any excuse for making applications that keep repeating the same two or three?
As example consider just a few ways of asking the overused question, “Are you saved?”
- Have you received Christ? (John 1:12)
- Do you know today whether you are in Christ? (Rom. 8:1, 16:3, 16:7, 16:9 and so many more!)
- Have you passed from death to life? (John 5:24)
- Have you been born again? (John 3:3)
- Do you know if you have eternal ife? (John 3:36)
- Have you been made alive? (Colos. 2:13)
- Does Christ know you? (Matt. 7:23)
Many other overused expresses have numerous biblical alternatives. Teachers who go to the trouble to find and use these not only better help their hearers but they solve another problem: getting bored with listening to themselves! (Yes, I have experienced that problem!)
A good application is one that has a strong, clear, connection to a correctly interpreted passage; communicates clearly in plain language; and helps the people who are actually in the room discover how they should believe, desire, or do differently for the glory of God.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement electronic library service.