Application Overload

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Application Overload
A Critical Evaluation of "Preaching That Changes Lives"

Michael Fabarez believes that the key to life-transforming preaching is an emphasis on application of biblical truth. He argues that preachers must assist “people in becoming ‘doers of the word” so that they “are not just presenting biblical information or simply lecturing about the Bible” (xiii). An “effective sermon” results in people “grasping truth and putting it into action!” (xi, emphasis his).

Fabarez assumes that his readers “already possess a general knowledge of the principles of sermon preparation” (xiv). He clearly states that he is not attempting to write “a homiletics text” or “a guide to exegesis or sermon construction” (xiv). Instead, his goal is to challenge preachers to “reevaluate and consider” their “current practice of preaching through the matrix of application” (xiv) in order to better equip their congregations to be doers of the word. In order to accomplish this, Fabarez directs his readers to give prominent “attention to life-changing applications in three primary areas of your ministry: your preparation, your preaching, and your follow-through” (xv).

Fabarez begins his book with the usual accusations against the usual suspects. He condemns short sermons, the seeker-sensitive movement, and the emergent church (4). He argues that these things have contributed to the contemporary downfall of the church. His evaluation leads to the conclusion that the problem with the church is poor preaching. The solution is better preaching, namely, the kind of preaching Fabarez advocates – preaching heavily weighted on application.

As proof of its effectiveness, Fabarez offers a personal anecdote concerning his switch to application-focused preaching: “I watched my own mediocre preaching gifts being voraciously consumed, first by hundreds, then by thousands of people who were hungry – really hungry!” (11) Although Fabarez condemns pragmatism and market-driven churches, his anecdote about his own success smells like a “sell job.”

His method to give prominent attention to life-changing applications is simple. It involves a “simple shift from outlining a text’s content to outlining its application” (58). Instead of preaching from an outline developed from an exegesis of biblical content, Fabarez argues that preachers should develop their outline from application of the biblical content. In other words, the call to action should have at least equal weight with the meaning of the passage.

This is done by starting “with ‘the proposition,’ ‘the big idea,’ or ‘the telic purpose’ of the sermon” (60). Instead of outlining three or four ways to state the big idea, Fabarez argues that our outline should focus on three or four ways to put the big idea into action.

Having stated the core message of the book, I now proceed to list some concerns I have with its basic theses and the way it is developed. I will conclude by highlighting the positive contributions I received from this book.


Critical Concerns

Fabarez’s emphasis on putting truth into action is not without merit. Certainly, the Scriptures call us to respond. However, Fabarez’s audience primarily consists of evangelical Christians who, if they are not infected with apathy, are already activist-oriented by nature. Evangelicalism has little room for “the interior life” as it is. Where is the interior life in Fabarez’s formula? What place does reflection, contemplation, and self-examination have in his system? Where does intention, motivation, and purpose enter into his scheme? His emphasis on action – and not just any action, but exterior, observable, concrete action – detracts from the development of an “active” interior life.

Although I am sure this is not intentional, there is a subtle pragmatism that underlies most of what Fabarez advocates. This is demonstrable in one of the most troubling statements in the book – made even more troubling because of the force with which he delivers it:

Throwing down this gauntlet means we can no longer evaluate our sermons solely on the basis of theological or exegetical soundness… Instead, we must purpose to evaluate every sermon we preach in light of the biblical change it brings about in the lives of our congregations! (9-10, emphasis his)

Could this standard be applied to Jesus’ sermons to the crowds? If Jesus’ disciples weren’t significantly changed by the Sermon on the Mount – and it does not appear that they initially were – was the Sermon then a failure in spite of its theological and exegetical soundness? If few Athenians responded to Paul’s message in Acts 17:22-34, does this imply that his message should be evaluated in a negative light? If Fabarez’s point was limited to minimizing a preacher’s obsession over producing a memorable outline or speaking with perfect articulation, then I share his concern. But the urgency and force of his statements, combined with his constant emphasis on external visible action, warrants critical concerns.

I agree that we should call people to respond, but I do not think this always entails “putting it into action” – especially in a way that is always observable to others. God’s constant call is that we would enter his kingdom, share his heart, participate in his salvation, indwell his Spirit, embody his truth, deny ourselves, and embrace God’s life. Participation, indwelling, embodying, embracing – these are active words, but they are not necessarily activist terms. They call for an active engagement with God that encompasses the entire being – mind, affections, will. This is the “significance” (the term I prefer over “application”) of every passage in the Bible – to bring us to greater union, communion, and participation in God through Christ in the Spirit. I prefer these words to Fabarez’s simplistic (and thus, potentially misleading) emphasis on “putting it into action!”

Fabarez’s emphasis on action leads him to a quandary concerning the specificity of application. The general meaning of a biblical passage can usually be stated in an economy of words. On the other hand, the general application of the same passage is much harder to state economically. Application, by nature, must be specific. A disproportionate amount of sermon time could be given to fleshing out all the various ways of applying all the specific application possibilities of a passage. Fabarez wrestles with how to balance this reality. An application cannot be “so specific that it only applies to one narrow context of life, but it must be more specific than a general conclusion from Colossians 3:12-14 like, ‘my hearers need to reflect the love of Christ’” (51-52). At the same time, “it should not be so specific that it limits application to one or two specific acts that can be checked off like items on a ‘to do’ list” (54). Perhaps one solution to his problem is to admit that all the specific applications of a passage for all the varieties of life situations in a congregation may be impossible to list. Perhaps the best application will come from individuals who discuss the sermon in conversations in small groups or through more personal individual reflection. This seems to make sense, but it undermines Fabarez’s desire to see the pastor heavily weigh his or her sermons with applications.


Positive Contributions

I found a number of helpful sections in this book. Fabarez’s emphasis on the importance of repetition is refreshing to hear (cf. Rom 15:15; Phil 3:1; 1 Thess. 4:1; Jude 5; 2 Peter 1:12-15; 3:1-2). Not every sermon has to present new material. The congregation needs to be regularly reminded of what they have already heard in the past.

I was greatly encouraged by Fabarez’s bold and blunt call for preachers to accept the fact that preaching is part of their calling. “But sooner or later, all preachers must come to the conclusion that preaching is their job. People may knock it… The simple truth is, if you are called to be a preacher, then you must preach!” (64).

I also found solace in hearing Fabarez articulate the preacher’s unique experience. “There is no way around it – to preach well, you must necessarily sacrifice a ‘normal life.’ Face it. Your schedule is out of sync with your congregation’s – as their week winds down, yours kicks into high gear” (84).

Finally, Fabarez’s challenge to preach at least once a year on how to effectively listen to a sermon is something I will now do. In answer to a parishioner asking him, “How can I get the most out of your sermons each week?” (151), Fabarez determined to train his congregation on how to do just this. “The average congregation… has received little or no training on how to listen to and integrate the sermons they hear each week” (151). Therefore, “[a]s uncomfortable as it may sound, to preach periodically about preaching is one of the best things you can do for your church” (152).

Fabarez provides helpful insights on how to do this. He encourages the pastor to remind the congregation that we are all – pastor and congregation – “working toward the same goal – to encounter the Word as God intended” (152). He then advises that we teach people to personally prepare to receive preaching, to pray to receive it as God intends, to pray for the preacher delivering the sermon, and to schedule life around the preaching event.

Emphasize the importance of weekly attendance, punctuality, and practical planning on Sunday mornings. Challenge them to think counter-culturally about Sunday mornings! While the rest of the world sleeps in and ratchets back on the first day of the week, we need to build in a value that declares Sunday morning the most important time of the week. (155)

People need to be reminded that listening is not passive, but active. To really listen to someone takes great effort, participation, patience, respect, and love. People need to learn to listen, and learn how to listen. The proper posture of possessing a listening heart is the result of active discipline. It does not come without effort.

This is an important truth to emphasize in a time when preaching is considered “a lecture” and listening is decried as “inactive” and “non-participatory.” The contemporary generation needs to be reminded that preaching is just as vital a component of worship as music, prayer, offering, drama, or whatever else we include in sacred gathering. Since preaching is worship, we have a responsibility to be engaged with it, think through it, and remember it (taking notes may help here). Furthermore, if we expect it to impact our lives, we must be prepared to review and reflect upon the sermon, to retell it, and to act upon it.

Fabarez offers some great tips on how to help the congregation chew over the sermon. He suggests providing weekly application questions (178), reading lists (179-180), and audio CDs, cassettes, or mp3s of the sermon. “There is no better way to ‘review’ a message than to hear it again and again” (183).


Conclusion

Though I think Fabarez overstates and oversimplifies the place of application in a sermon, I do share his desire to see people respond positively to the preaching of God’s word. I do not believe that the sermon outline must focus on application rather than biblical content in order to assure that proper emphasis is given to application. Also, I would rather speak of a passage’s significance, rather than its application, in order to keep from emphasizing only external actions. God’s call to his people to enter, participate, indwell, and embrace spiritual realities involves much more than actions visible to the human eye.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2005

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