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John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman, in his essay “University Preaching” said the following:

Talent, logic, learning, words, manner, voice, action, all are required for the perfection of a preacher; but ‘one thing is necessary,’ – an intense perception and appreciation of the end for which (the preacher) preaches, and that is, to be the minister of some definite spiritual good to those who hear…. (bold-face and parenthetical change added, as quoted by John Broadus in his Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 255).

In homiletics textbooks, this idea that sermons should have a “definite spiritual end” is normally labelled the “sermon application.” And in homiletics classrooms, teachers of preaching such as myself often speak about this as the business of making sermons “portable,” giving listeners something that is not only memorable, but motivational – that leads to specific actions, behavior, or to a new persuasion. Application also refers to “bringing home” an idea. Portability means that the message “comes to roost” – – it suddenly becomes about us, in this room, in this local situation and can be taken away with us into our daily lives.

I find Newman’s words helpful – urging us to offer some “definite spiritual good” to the listener. “Definite” means unambiguous, clearly stated, and decided beforehand by the preacher. “Spiritual good” implies that the sermon influences the human spirit in some way for the better.

In a similar fashion, Thomas G. Long, in his much-used basic preaching text The Witness of Preaching encourages preachers to jot down both a “focus statement” and a “function statement” before crafting a sermon. The focus statement summarizes the preacher’s message. The function statement summarizes the preacher’s desired result. For Long, this result should be tethered as closely as possible to the literary or rhetorical thrust of the biblical text preached. He wants us to ask first of all: “What do the words of the biblical text want us to do or become as a result of this sermon? Texts don’t just “mean” things, they try to do things!

At least three aspects of this way of thinking are much debated.

1. Should the preacher always decide beforehand what spiritual good is to be brought home at the sermon’s end? Inductive homiletics, under the tutelage of Fred Craddock, questions this presupposition. Instead of moving from the exposition of a general truth to its “application,” the inductive sermon moves through a range of experiences toward a general truth. In many inductive sermons, the listener is left to complete the picture – drawing conclusions that best fit their own faith experience.

Craddock’s picture of “Inductive logic” (from As One Without Authority)

2. The persuasive element in application-oriented preaching is sometimes called into question. Lucy Rose, in her book Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church, argues that this persuasive and transmissive model of communication is non-dialogical and reinforces a gap between pulpit and pew. It makes the goal of preaching the business of transmitting what the preacher wants to happen into the hearts and minds of rather passive listeners. This tends to disempower listeners – even if and when they nod and articulate their consent, as in call-and-response forms of preaching. In effect, listeners learn to be passive – awaiting the portable golden nugget(s) to arrive each week.

3. Others believe that “applications,” especially when they are too specific, let some people off the hook. If the preacher is too precise in spelling out a particular “pay-off”, people may find wiggle room enough to say, in effect: “That’s not about me.”

Despite these concerns, when interviewed about preaching, sermon listeners indicate that they generally listen for some kind of portable “take home” element in sermons. The Listening to Listeners to Sermons Project, a massive empirical project funded by the Lilly Foundation, contained several findings that point directly to the desire among listeners for some kind of “portable” application in sermons. Three of these, summarized by Ronald J. Allen, who spearheaded this project, point toward sermon portability:

  • The sermon should center in the Bible and make the biblical material come alive for the listener
  • The message needs to relate in a practical way to the lives of the listening communities
  • Congregations are eager for sermons to help them make theological and ethical sense of the range of life‘s issues
  • Ministers ought to be specific in helping congregations draw out the implications of the Bible and their deepest theological convictions

I sometimes draw out the distinction between denotative “applications” of the gospel, and the connotative “implications” of the gospel. This idea is not new. The great mid-twentieth-century homiletician H. Grady Davis, in his book Design for Preaching put it this way:

“…a sermon idea of more than a bare thought. It is a thought plus its overtones and its groundswell of implication and urgency.”

Whereas an application might denote a particular sought-after behavior or attitude, an implication is not always explicitly stated. Implications surround us with images, ideas, questions, angles of vision that “implicate” us in some way. Instead of striking directly, like an arrow, implications absorb us into a sphere of gospel-influence.

Implications should not be wishy washy. They can and should be intentionally pursued by the preacher. They can be honed as carefully sought “spiritual goods” within sermons, and might include such things as being implicated in the gospel’s relentless hope, or its ethical challenge, or its unexpected offer of forgiveness. Preachers still have to decide ahead of time what such implications are, but they do not have to turn them into a highly specific sermon-takaway (or a list of such things).

In the end, it is likely that all sermons have some kind of function (even if it is to put the listener to sleep). Finding that function, whether an “application” or an “implication”, truing it up, refining it, and focusing it on the situation of one’s listeners can be crucial for making a sermon portable in the best sense of the word.