I preached two messages over the weekend, one on Acts 5 (why did the Holy Spirit kill Ananias and Saphira) and one on Genesis 40 (Joseph in the dungeon). I got to musing over how to apply both passages for today and, off the back of that, how applications are received by congregations.
I reckon preachers can do their very best to apply with authenticity to the biblical narrative and relevantly for lives today but for it still to fail to connect if the congregation's expectations of preaching are wrong. What are they expecting a sermon to be?
Imagine yourself back at school in a geography or history class. If you were like me you found the classes interesting, but at an abstract and factual level. I didn't expect to have to do anything as a result of learning about glaciation or the Tudors at school. That wasn't what the class was expected to achieve.
Imagine yourself in a music lesson, learning to play an instrument. You know it is likely to be mostly for your own personal enjoyment. You recognise that a very few elite professionals will go on to wow the world or teach the next generation, but that's not really the reason you are learning. You hope that you might have the chance to provide enjoyment for a few others, but you are unlikely in your turn to teach them to play the instrument. That's not why you are learning.
Imagine yourself in a training college situation. Say, learning to be a chef, or a doctor. This is quite a different learning environment, because you are fully expecting to use what you learn. Just learning your subject isn't the point. The subsequent work is the point, and you learn as comprehensively as possible in order to work as well as possible. And there are real outcomes of whether you learn well or not. If you fail to learn to cook you won't fulfil your ambition to be a chef. If you are shoddy in medical study real lives may be at risk.
With which of these mindsets do congregations receive Bible preaching and teaching? If the fundamental mindset is that preaching falls into the school classroom category of providing interesting information that isn't expected to achieve anything then try as a preacher might, they will not affect life-change, obedience to the Bible or cast a vision for Kigdom growth in which every congregation member takes part.
If the mindset is like the music lesson, a likely outcome is a congregation that is enthusiastic about the trained professional extending the kingdom. They are likely to support and cheer from the sidelines. Someone said to me recently "if I have dental problems I go to a dentist. I don't expect the dentist to teach me how to do his job. In the same way I don't expect the pastor to teach me how to do his job. We employ him for the spiritual stuff."
But our call is to make disciples of Jesus. That is, learners of Jesus. People who are trained by the word to also go and make disciples. The goal is replication and multiplication of discipleship for the worldwide growth of the kingdom. Therefore the goal of Christian preaching and teaching is much more closely akin to the training college than the classroom or the music lesson. In fact if people aren't doing what the word says as a result of preaching, then it hasn't achieved its goal.
In an age where words are cheap and the environment is saturated with broadcast quality messages on all subjects, we not only have to teach the word, we also have to teach people how to receive the word. We can't assume that people know they are in a training environment rather than a merely educational one. The goal is not mere education, nor is it merely the personal growth in ability of the individual. It is everyone doing what the word says for the extension of the Kingdom of God. Might unapplied sermons full of mere information, and congregations who hear but don't do, become a thing of the past because we realise that the teaching of the word is meant to train in discipleship.
"All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." 2 Timothy 3:16-17