the shape of leadership

What Do You Want Me to Do?

Why preachers should prepare their sermons with application in mind

Tiffany Allison Wood on January 7, 2022

When my husband and I traveled to Israel several years ago, our tour guide offered a never-ending stream of information about the sites we visited. As the stream flowed day after day, it became a river. We couldn’t handle all the information.

A fellow tourist mentioned feeling overwhelmed, and the guide said, “Learning about the Holy Land is like drinking water out of a fire hose.”

I turned to my husband and asked, “Isn’t it the tour guide’s job to put a nozzle on the hose?”

Preaching is a nozzle, too.

Your job as a preacher is to channel all the water gushing from both the Word of God and your sermon preparation into a stream from which your listeners can drink.

Experience God and Change

What does a drinkable stream look like in preaching?

I’m not a preacher, although I’m married to one. And while I’ve spoken at a few women’s ministry events across the country, I’m not a professional public speaker either. What I am, however, is a good listener and an eager learner.

When I go to church on Sunday morning or watch a sermon online, I have a simple, personal goal in mind: I want to experience God and change as a result. You can see this expectation in Scripture.

Take Jesus’ first sermon, for example: “The time has come … . The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). The God-component of Jesus’ sermon is the approaching Kingdom. The change-component is repentance and faith.

A good sermon always contains both components — theological and practical. Christ wants us to experience God and to change.

Sermons that are theological but not practical leave listeners wondering whether God is relevant to their lives. They’re merely academic lectures.

I am not opposed to theological sermons. If the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37), sermons need to be thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Yet sermons that are practical but not theological are just self-help advice with Bible verses tacked on. If I can get the same advice from Glennon Doyle or Dr. Phil, why would I listen to a preacher?

Good sermons combine theology and practice. More than that, they move from theology to practice. In other words, what we believe about God points to how we should live. To paraphrase Jesus’ first sermon, “Repent and believe because God’s kingdom is near!”

A sermon should always bring listeners to a point of change.

Preaching means swapping out false, life-deforming ideas that are running rampant in our culture for true, life-giving ones.

Three Kinds of Change

Sermons that have impacted me deeply affected my ideas, feelings and relationships — my head, heart and hands, respectively.

Head. Here, the point of change is swapping out bad ideas, especially about God, for better ones.

“Now wait a minute!” I hear you saying. “I thought you didn’t want an academic lecture. Now you’re telling me you want an idea-focused sermon. Isn’t that contradictory?”

No, it isn’t, as long as you remember that the idea must be relevant to daily life.

Consider John 9. Jesus’ disciples saw a blind man and asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (verse 2). They believed disability resulted from sin.

This belief placed the blind man and his parents under a load of false guilt. It gave the disciples a false sense of moral superiority. And it indicated a false direction for ministry: calling for repentance rather than praying for healing.

Jesus cut through all this falseness when He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (verse 3).

Preaching means swapping out false, life-deforming ideas that are running rampant in our culture for true, life-giving ones. What wrong ideas about God or His ways do people believe? Your sermon ought to change their minds.

Heart. Here, the point of change is dealing constructively with emotions, especially negative ones.

A few years back, I was feeling emotionally depleted after going through the process of adopting our two daughters. I sought a Christian counselor, and the first thing he did was give me permission to feel strong negative emotions.

I was raised fundamentalist Baptist, and we were taught always to look on the bright side. For years, I had internalized the false notion that if I loved God more, I wouldn’t feel “bad” emotions.

The counselor also helped me formulate a sustainable plan for dealing with my emotions. At one point, I said, “I wish pastors would offer this kind of hope from the pulpit. After three counseling sessions, I’ve found real emotional help that is inspiring me to lean in to God and encouraging me to change.”

The more I read Scripture, the more I see emotional health as a crucial component of Christian living. This is especially true amid a pandemic that has left many feeling lonely, anxious, depressed and worried.

Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6:25). Do your sermons help people deal constructively with the strong negative emotions they are feeling? Are you validating those emotions or just glossing over them with clichés?

Hands. Here, the point of change is forming healthy, life-giving relationships.

Have you noticed how polarized our society has become? Online and in real life, people are ending relationships with family members and friends over political and ideological disagreements.

I’m not making an argument against orthodoxy. Bad ideas about God deform our lives and ministries.

By the same token, though, we can’t let orthodoxy become an excuse for unloving attitudes and actions. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

I don’t know anyone today whose first thought about Christians in America is, “They are such loving people!” How are we supposed to disciple people when our reputation is not what Jesus said it should be?

Your sermons should help people understand how to love others — whether inside or outside the Church — regardless of disagreements with them. Truly experiencing God means we are wrapped in His love and challenged to change not only ourselves, but also the world around us.

What we’ve learned about God should change our hearts and move to our hands as we reach out with compassion to the world around us.

Get Help

Early in our marriage, my husband asked me what I thought about a particular Sunday sermon he had just preached.

There was nothing wrong with his delivery, but the content was more like a graduate-school lecture than a sermon. I chose my words carefully: “What exactly did you want me to do with that?”

His face fell. That wasn’t the reply he expected. After that, however, my husband began talking about his sermons with me and other people before he gave them. By doing so, he was able to focus the theological and practical components for greatest impact.

So that’s my final piece of advice: Talk about your Sunday message to your spouse or a sermon team before you step into the pulpit. Usually, the best honest feedback you can receive is found in close relationships with those you trust. You, too, need to experience God and be willing to change and grow.

By combining theology and practice, then focusing on how Scripture changes head, heart, and hands, you help church members get a good drink from the Word of God every week.

And pastor, we are thirsty.


This article appears in the winter 2022 issue of Influence magazine.

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