Preaching with Personalized How-To

I have become increasingly concerned about the poor quality of preaching that I hear today. I am convinced that the streams flowing into this muddy river are numerous (and varied), and in the articles of this blog I have been trying to row our way up a number of them.

Elsewhere I have already spoken about the problems of form and content, but I have said all too little about a kindred matter: the important place of application (or, better, personalized how-to) in the sermon. Let me try to correct that deficiency here and now by setting forth something helpful in this area.

The average conscientious conservative preacher (I say this from years of close observation and study) spends 95 to 100 percent of his time on content—mastering the historical and grammatical aspects of his passage. His concern is exegesis, though he more often than not lacks concern for the telic note in this study. While I have no desire to see him do less exegetical work (indeed, any number need to do much more), I believe he must not stop there (I have discussed ways and means of finding the time in an earlier blog). In fact, in my opinion, exegetical work forms but half of his task in preparing a message. The other half ought to be divided equally between the development of form (that fits the content, the occasion, and the congregation) and applicatory, personal, how-to materials that give direction to doctrine and put feet on facts.

It is about that last quarter of the task that I wish to speak.

When one thinks of application alone, he may think of colorful illustrations of biblical truth, examples of the point being made—all calculated to show that the issue has relevance to the congregation addressed. So far, so good. That is necessary since, as Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 and 9:9, 10 indicate, there are many who must have this fact spelled large for them. But, for most, so far as application goes, that’s just about as far as application goes. That is why I have spoken not so much of application as of personalized how-to.

The word personalized means what I have just referred to in the previous paragraph—the truncated view of application that has as its concern making clear that what the passage says has to do with (1) people today and (2) the very people who are being addressed. To do this adequately, one must learn something of audience analysis, but I shall say more about that in a later blog. (The principles used are similar in a number of respects to the principles of data gathering used in counseling; for more on that, see my book, The Christian Counselor’s Manual.)

The other side of the phrase that I have used to describe a fuller notion of application is how-to.

In any number of places I have mentioned the need for how-to help in counseling, but I have said very little about how-to in preaching. But how-to in preaching is needed no less than in counseling.

In my book, Update on Christian Counseling, Vol. One (pp. 24–31), I have examined the Sermon on the Mount rather extensively, demonstrating that Jesus used how-to in His preaching. I shall not duplicate that work here, but I may say (by way of summary) that the inescapable conclusion I reached was that Jesus makes no point to which He does not append how-to help.

What do I mean by how-to help? Let me just quote briefly an example or two from my study in Update:

“But what happens when, in this world of sin, they do allow such things to come between them?” someone might ask. Jesus anticipates the situation, and (in very practical how-to—here even step-by-step—terms) He tells us how to handle the situation (Matt. 5:23, 24). The practical how-to comes in the form of a procedure growing out of the priority of reconciliation (p. 27).


In verses 43–48, Jesus continues this basic theme: a Christian must love his enemies. But, unlike many modern preachers, Christ didn’t leave the concept of love hanging in thin air—undefined and amorphous. Rather, He was quite specific: love focuses on the other person; not on one’s self. Therefore (note the specific how-to) a Christian must pray for his enemies. That concrete proposal Paul developed (as we must develop all such suggestions) in Romans 12:14ff (p. 28).

When He condemns praying as the gentiles and the hypocrites do, He not only describes plainly the forbidden practices that He has in mind, but in each instance (as well) tells us what the proper practice in prayer is; in other words, He tells us not only how not to pray, but also how to pray. As a matter of fact, the well-known Lord’s prayer was given as an instance of such how-to help.

Many people in the pews are discouraged because they know a lot of what-to from the Bible, but they have never been given any how-to help; and so they fail. When they fail again and again and again, they become deeply discouraged; some begin to doubt their salvation or God’s power, while others settle back into mediocrity, saying, “Well, Paul may be able to do it, but I’m not Paul.” I have seen many such Christians come alive again when given some how-to.

Well, then, how to do how-to, that is the next question to consider.

How-to is avoided because it takes work and much thought on the part of the preacher. It demands the exercise of a degree of creativity also. Preachers, pressured by demands and pressed for time (even when aware of the need), characteristically omit such work. But to do so is to threaten the value of all the exegesis that one has done. It is cruel to demand of congregations what they are never taught how to perform.

According to Titus 1:1, truth is designed to lead to godliness; it is not simply to be filed away in the memories of the members of the congregation for quick retrieval at the next Sunday school Bible quiz! Truth must be transformed into life and ministry. But that takes how-to.

There are a few persons in a congregation who know how-to turn abstract material into personalized how-to. But most don’t; so the first point is that the preacher must suggest ways and means of implementing every truth that he teaches.

Where does he get such material? From looking at how he himself implements the truth in his own life (perhaps one reason for the failure is our own failure to practice what we preach). He also learns from observing how other growing Christians have done so and from just plain sitting and prayerfully sweating out new ideas about ways and means. I, myself, work best with pen and paper. Even when I have only the merest glimmerings of an idea, I begin to write. After a lot of scribbling over one page, throwing away another, and weighing what I have written on 8 or 10 pages over against one another, invariably I begin to come up with a couple of viable suggestions. But usually, apart from such effort—zilch!

The second point is that how-to material always must grow out of biblical principles and be appropriate to them in every detail. The end never justifies the means (not even in small details); the Bible alone can do so.

Thirdly, it is wise to give at least a couple of suggestions when offering possible how-to help because (1) we must make it clear that such suggestions (unlike the biblical commands which they seek to implement) are not inspired (God has commanded us to read the Bible; though beginning with the Gospel of John may be a wise plan in some cases, it has no such biblical authority); (2) one suggested plan for implementing a biblical principal may appeal to or fit one person and his situation, whereas another may not fit quite so well.

More could be said, but I’d be wrong to end without a how-to suggestion, so here it is. In order to get into the (good) habit of thinking in terms of how-to, why not copy a batch of 8 1/2”x 11” work sheets for use in sermon preparation? On these sheets (mostly consisting of blank yellow space) add, among other things that you want to remember to do (e.g., “What is the telos of this passage?”), this question, “What how-to help may be given for implementing each command?”

You say, “But you suggested giving at least a second idea—have you got one?” Of course, I could give many. But here’s one more. When you’ve arrived at the telos (the Holy Spirit’s purpose in giving the preaching portion—and therefore yours; i.e., what He intends to do to the listener through that passage), tell it to your wife. If you aren’t clear about this, she’ll tell you so (and you will need to get it clear before you can work on implementation). But if you are clear enough, tell her always to ask you: “But how would you suggest that I begin to do this?”

Best wishes to you, your wife, and your congregation!

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