Help One Person Take One Step

When it comes to application and urging for action, smaller is better. If you want people to put into practice at least some facet of what you’re talking about, help them imagine it as a possibility that can feasibly become real for them.

Some possible obstacles to making this happen:

  • Talking in terms that are too big to be useful. I would suggest that you strike “Change the World” from your vocabulary entirely. It’s too much to ask, and too few people actually can. What does the phrase even mean anyway? Is it implying that if you aren’t of Steve Jobs-level renown that your life is somehow of lesser worth?
  • Moving from small to large. “It has to start with you, but you just can’t stop there. What about all your neighbors? What about all the people at the office? What about the city? Jesus says we’re to take the Gospel to all the world. And where are we now? What have we been doing?”
    When you end your application on the broader context, you are moving out of the sphere in which a person can effect real change. Moving from small to large overwhelms.
  • Using only extreme people as examples. This is the problem with comparing everyone and everything to someone like Hitler, Ghandi, or an Olympic athlete. If all your stories of comparison are with people truly incomparable with your audience, they may find the stories interesting, but not replicable in their lives.

Unless you’re actually dying, you don’t have to preach this sermon as if it is your last one.

Remember: The Holy Spirit is at work through the preaching of God’s Word! God does not, nor has God ever depended entirely on the quality or passion of human efforts. The good news is that God delights in using our efforts and is glorified through our efforts. God can do this on God’s own timing.

In general, I suggest the goal is that your listeners might actually work at implementing what you talk about, even if in an incremental way. What this looks like in a good counseling session is that you help people get all their problems out on the table in a big pile. We acknowledge the weight of them, and item by item, we might pick them up and look them over. But the way we end a counseling session is to say, “OK. Obviously, we can’t change or fix everything at once. But is there one aspect of all this that you believe would make a big impact on all the other aspects? What would it look like for you to get started? What does a baby step look like for you that you could and would actually take to work on this? How would it feel to see yourself take this step?”

I have heard some people urge that I ought to preach every sermon as if it is my last one. My experience is that other than on special occasions, this isn’t particularly helpful. Be sincere and passionate? Sure. But I believe we’re more effective when we think of sermons the way we might think of a well-balanced meal or a cool glass of water.

Even if you enjoy American, Italian, Asian, and Mexican foods, you probably don’t want them all in large amounts at the same time. Part of preaching is balancing yourself out over time to give people healthy doses of all that they need. It is ok to do this a little at a time, through different kinds of presentations.

Rather than preaching like this is your last sermon, preach as if you are trying to give them a healthy meal to get them through this week. Make it a kind of sermon, and try to make it an excellent version of this kind of sermon. Aim for base hits rather than home runs. Keep them moving in a good direction. It takes time to grow into a fruitful part of the vine.

In contrast to my list above, here are some things that aid in useful application:

  • Speak in terms manageable enough to be useful. Don’t try to fit a lifetime into an application. If I were to take seriously the call to be a person of hope and courage, what might that look like this afternoon? What single phone call or visit would move me that direction? What is the next step a person like this might take? Your audience can help conceptualize their own next steps, but you should give them permission to think in terms small enough that they can do something about.
  • Move from large to small. Start with the big and unachievable and help them to see the small part they play in this bigger vision. Take courage from the great “cloud of witnesses” and the chain of faithfulness of which we are now a link. But help them to be a good link in the chain without making them feel the need to be the whole chain. You want to see your whole life be dedicated to Christ, but you only get to give life to him one day at a time. What does it look like to do that well tomorrow?
  • Find everyday heroes. Especially if you can talk about someone the people present actually know–with permission–this can be powerful. One of my favorite examples was a widow named Nelly in Arkansas. She couldn’t drive a car. In her late 80s, there were many things she couldn’t do. But she had a powerful ministry both in our church and in her neighborhood using only her phone and her kitchen. She called all of her students each week from the Bible class she taught and let them know how much she loved them and looked forward to seeing them the next week. She called to check on other members in need of prayer. Everyone loved hearing from her. Each week she baked cookies and invited the children on her street to her yard. As they snacked, she told them Bible stories. Don’t tell me you can’t make an impact with something simple like an oven or a phone. Do little things with great faithfulness. God can use that.

If you want to facilitate life change in your listeners, preach as if you are trying to help one person take one step. Over time, the vastness of what this can produce may surprise you.

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Especially consider checking out my interview with Dr. Rob O’Lynn. He says much about good preaching applications.

Cover image showing Dr. Rob O'Lynn as part of the Research Spotlight series
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