Application Phobia

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Application Phobia
A Critical Evaluation of "The Passion Driven Sermon"

In his book, Preaching that Changes Lives, Michael Fabarez argues that the key to life-changing preaching is to heavily weigh the sermon with applications. In his book, The Passion Driven Sermon, Jim Shaddix proposes the opposite. According to Shaddix, an overemphasis on “practical” and “relevant” preaching has caused preachers to abandon authentic gospel preaching.

Strangely enough, as different as both books are, both authors claim their method is biblical and the necessary key to church renewal. Even more odd is the fact that John MacArthur has placed his imprimatur on both books. This is curious when one realizes that many of the statements Shaddix makes concerning his contention that the Bible “gives no specific and practical help for the life situations some of our people are facing” (64) run directly counter to MacArthur’s embrace of nouthetic counseling – a philosophy that argues that since the Scriptures are sufficient for all life situations any integration of psychological insights with the Bible is a faithless compromise. In other words, Shaddix's claim that there are numerous "life situations" for which the Bible gives "no specific and practical help" runs counter to the nouthetic philosophy that the Bible addresses every life issue - and, in fact, is the only tool necessary for authentic biblical counseling.


The Triumph and Tragedy of “Relevance”

Shaddix’s book is born out of his wrestling with the popular idea of “relevance.” While attending a preaching conference, Shaddix heard a popular Baptist speaker (not a pastor) relate a personal story concerning how a recent sermon he heard contained no practical relevance concerning how to raise his teenage boys. This caused Shaddix to question whether the Bible was able to provide what the Baptist speaker desired: “Do we have a definitive word from God about how to raise teenagers?” (2) This provoked further thoughts concerning the nature and importance of “relevance.” “While my heart resonated with the need for preaching to be relevant in our day, I struggled intensely with the inference that the driving force behind it ought to be the quest to answer all the questions people are asking” (2).

Shaddix concluded that the speaker’s problem was that “he was looking for specific and practical principles. But when you stop and think about it, the Bible really doesn’t give us much information on the subject of raising teens. Does the Bible – the only source from which the preacher speaks with divine authority – address with specific and practical guidance all of the possible struggles plaguing us today? If not, where does the preacher get a definitive and authoritative word on these matters?” (2-3)

Shaddix’s solution to this is simple. The Bible does not specifically address many relevant issues that contemporary listeners raise. Therefore, a biblical preacher should not make an effort to address in sermons most of the concerns his or her listeners face. To do so is to compromise biblical preaching. Gospel preachers must admit that there are many times “when the Bible gives no specific and practical help for the life situations some of our people are facing” (64). Shaddix’s words for those who refuse to admit this are strong. Preachers who devote significant attention to these issues have rejected biblical preaching – they have forsaken the gospel for the idols of contemporary humankind.

As many shepherds pay homage to the idols of felt needs, seeker-sensitivity, and western individualism, the concept of application has evolved into a perverted albatross… While preaching may have once erred on the side of weighty exegesis with no connection to the real world, its contemporary crime is in reverse. Today, application is the sermon and exegesis is the servant. This tragic reversal, which short-circuits preachings’ supernatural power, beckons us to reconsider the issue. Actually, what’s needed is for Christian preachers and listeners to reform this element from the humanism that invaded the pulpit in the last century. (101)

The reform he desires revolves around rediscovering “passion driven preaching.” Authentic biblical “preaching should be driven by a passion for the glory of God” (3). How is this kind of preaching accomplished? By rightly exposing “the mind of the Holy Spirit in every given text of Scripture” (4, italics his). And, apparently, according to Shaddix, the mind of the Spirit has little to do with most of the major issues of life.

Shaddix offers at least three major reasons that preachers should refrain from emphasizing practical and relevant applications. First, it is a futile effort because it is endless in possibilities. When one begins down the path of relevant, practical preaching, one soon discovers that the road is neverending. “Trying to provide pragmatic solutions to all of life’s problems and attempting to offer pat answers to all of life’s questions is incredibly unrealistic!” (44)

Secondly, Shaddix fears the intrusion of human wisdom in formulating practical applications. Including a large amount of practical, relevant information is a sure sign that “human” wisdom from “extrabiblical sources” has polluted the message:

One of the most deceptively subtle forms of human wisdom today is the amount of extrabiblical information that fills contemporary sermons. While it is certainly not wrong for a preacher to utilize information from outside the Bible to support, illustrate, or apply the truth of God’s Word, a line is crossed when the observations and assertions of some other preacher, psychologist, researcher, or futurist become the primary content of sermons. (38)

He laments how this style of preaching is propagated by preachers and their listeners:

Contemporary preachers are being told that if they are to be true biblical and gospel preachers, they must give their listeners specific, practical instructions for applying the eternal truths of the text. But in order to offer such practical advice, they find themselves drawing from extrabiblical sources that address practical living. (53)

Thirdly, integrating human wisdom with biblical revelation causes hearers to lose confidence in the scriptures. Incorporating human wisdom in sermons is especially destructive to listeners. If the practical principals are embraced as “the Word of God” then God is blamed when they don’t “work” (55).

One gets the idea, in light of such a quote, that Shaddix would prefer that preachers primarily read their Bibles in the pulpit accompanied by brief statements of abstract truth. He is concerned to preserve this abstract dimension of preaching since “discussions about relevance in preaching are almost without exception limited to the concrete… But what about the abstract relevance of biblical truth?” (103)

In order to keep from polluting biblical messages with human wisdom from extrabiblical sources stemming from the publics’ demand for relevant and practical messages, pastors must change their mindset: “Pastors must realize, and be OK with the fact that God never intended Scripture to address every issue in life or to answer every question that man may raise” (130).


Critical Concerns

Though I appreciate Shaddix’s concern, I find his conclusions overstated and ultimately unhelpful.

Shaddix’s view of truth is reduced. He refuses to call anything other than explicit biblical abstract statements “truth.” Furthermore, he completely rejects anything that does not fit his “truth” grid. For example, he writes, “not all good and helpful information is necessarily that which God intended His preachers to report. He has given to us a specific message to deliver, and that message does not always include all things helpful, good, and God-related” (14). He is willing to admit that “all truth is God’s truth. But God has not chosen to put His name on all truth in the way that He has done with the Holy Scriptures” (56). Shaddix’s perspective is a far cry from John Calvin’s holistic perspective of divine truth:

If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.2.15.)

Shaddix admits that the Bible provides everything needed for life and godliness. But if this is true and the Bible is unable to help us with the specifics of life, what is the believer to do?

This exposes the book’s greatest flaw. Shaddix makes no mention of wisdom and discernment and its importance in the Christian life. He also makes no mention of the Spirit’s leading, or the wisdom of community, or the shared heritage of tradition. For him, biblical preaching should largely consist of abstract propositions. For a preacher to share the process of wisely working through an issue with his congregation is evidently not allowed in his system.

In the end, Shaddix is unable to be consistent. He writes,

No preacher will ever be able to scratch the surface of the infinite amount of variables in the application of God’s truth. We could deliver sermons from now until Christ’s coming that are filled with how-to instructions and action-driven tasks, and we would never be able to exhaust the host of life situations that our people will encounter during their days on earth. (117)

If God’s truth can be applied in an “infinite” variety of ways, why then shouldn’t preachers make an effort to do so. If it is God’s truth – it is “the application of God’s truth” he writes of here – why not preach it? What’s wrong with making the effort? Especially if it is helpful to the congregation! And yet, here is the rub with Shaddix’s system – he has excluded the use of anything “helpful, good, [or even] God-related” (14). This is outside the bounds of the “specific” message God wants the preacher to bring –“mere generalizations or secondary applications” are off limits (131).

By attempting to unleash the message, Shaddix shackles it! The preacher is left in a position where he or she is unable to help his or her congregation in the stuff that comprises the vast bulk of their lives.

The issues that haunt us in ministry are closer to home. They are both more real and more relevant to the people who come to hear us preach. I am speaking about matters like raising kids, building marriages, restoring relationships, managing finances, developing leadership skills, and the like. These are the real-life issues with which our people struggle and about which they serve up many questions. And because we are ministers of the gospel we want to help. We want to resource them with answers to their questions and practical help for groping with their problems. And yet the pastor who desires to speak with any divine authority at all must ask the same fundamental question about these topics and any others about which he ventures to preach: Does God talk on this subject in His Word? (131)

Does God’s word address these subjects? Yes! Does God’s word speak exhaustively about these subjects? Of course not. And yet, is it able to provide genuine insights to help us live wisely? Yes. Indeed, the issue could be pressed further: Does God’s word give exhaustive information about any subject – including the abstract doctrines Shaddix prefers? Of course not! We know but in part. And yet, does it provide what we need to wisely live out our Christian faith in the real world? Yes.

I fear that Shaddix’s concern that relevant and practical preaching not overshadow the importance of sound, biblical, Christ-centered, and gospel-rooted preaching has caused him to overstate his position to the point where it is nearly impossible for a preacher to do much more than merely read the Bible from the pulpit.


Positive Contributions

Shaddix is right concerning the preacher’s need to preach truths that are not necessarily deemed “relevant” or “practical” by his or her congregation. It is true that “themes like God’s greatness, holiness, and glory are pertinent to the lives of people, even if they do not show up on surveys listing the felt needs of our listener.” (102).

I also agree with Shaddix that “the lofty concepts of the faith seem to motivate and inspire us more than the concrete principles” (103). I am more motivated by knowing the reason I do something than simply knowing the mechanics of proper techniques.

Even though I believe it is oversimplified, I found great value in Shaddix’s “Application Funnel” (109). He argues that application should proceed in the following direction: from the theological (truths about God and his relationship with people) to the universal (truths applicable to all people of all time) to generational (truths applicable to all people currently residing on planet earth) to cultural (things germane to people within an individual culture) to communal (truths for people bound together in common relationship) to the individual. He suggests that we preach application in this order and not reverse it. I agree with this from the perspective of the gospel – the universal is always the basis for the individual. Shaddix’s reason is more pragmatic. He states that we should apply truth in this order because preaching becomes less relevant when fewer people are addressed. I wonder if he realizes how pragmatic and “relevant” his reasoning sounds. He would have been better off supporting his argument with the gospel!

Finally, I greatly appreciated his emphasis on preaching as worship. “One only has to observe some worshipers standing with raised hands and closed eyes during a segment of musical praise, only to sit restlessly with no Bible in hand during the sermon.” (125) He uses Nehemiah 8 as an illustration of this.

When Ezra prayed and prepared to read the Scriptures, ‘all the people stood up… All the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands… They bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground’ (Neh 8:5-6). When was the last time you or people around you responded that way when the pastor got up to preach a sermon? But here is what’s most interesting. Did you notice that these responses are all ones that we normally associate with musical worship? (135)

Conclusion

Though concerns for “relevance” and “practical application” should not dominate the preacher’s sermon preparation, they also should not be completely excluded. Shaddix’s concern to preserve the importance of doctrine and general principles causes him to completely devalue the need to carefully and wisely apply God’s truth to all of life. Shaddix’s prescription is too strong because his evaluation is too harsh.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2005

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