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why I don’t do (much) application – jonathan robinson


The post is a response to Steve Worsley’s post last month. Steve’s post made me feel a bit defensive (I don’t know Steve personally so assume he wasn’t aiming it at me) but I am very lazy when it comes to application and so I thought I would take Steve’s provocation to explain why. I deliberately take a polemical tone to encourage debate, not because I believe Steve to be guilty of the extremes I warn against.

1. Everyone benefits from getting to know the bible better; application can seldom be universal – meaning more weight on exegesis benefits more of the congregation.

2. Application that is too direct can create defensiveness and resistance to the message, however get people to accept the principle and then when the penny drops and the spirit convicts it has more force to change their actions as well.

3. The sermon is not for telling people what to do but to lead them into a new way of thinking in the possibilities of the new creation. Transformation of the mind is the goal not information. We are shepherds who lead people to the green pastures of biblical imagination not dictators who control every step. Over-emphasis on application creates a sense of legalism – doing what the preacher says, rather than transformation as the mind is renewed by the Spirit.

4. The more time spent on application (i.e. considering how individuals in the congregation ought to respond to the sermon) means people are more likely to feel got at. I think it is important to avoid using the privileged knowledge of a pastor to preach into situations you know are happening in the church. If you’ve got something to say to someone you need to say it to their face not in front of x number of people. That way the sermon is for God to speak, not for the pastor.

5. Leaving work for the listener encourages engagement with the message and principles; spoon feeding them makes them rely on your insight into their lives to make application. You will not intend it but they will take it as exhaustive. Leaving it open ended allows for application far beyond the preacher’s limited insight and imagination. At a previous church we would leave application for the weekly small groups, so the preacher could lay out the Bible passage and its message but leave it to the small groups to discuss what that should look like in their own lives – I think that is a good way to do it in theory at least.


Example 1 In Steve’s account in his post he (internally) screamed at the preacher for not applying the sermon to his own life, but surely the good teacher is interested in getting the learners to work things out for themselves. Steve is still thinking about how to apply the sermon now, but with a selection of answers provided at the end he may well have been happy to close the book on that sermon and not think of it again. I’d say the sermon was a success.

Example 2 Recently while I was preaching on the Ten Lepers (Luke 17) I made reference to the prejudices that can blind us to what God is doing (e.g. with a Samaritan). I know that some in the church hold strong prejudice against, for example, homosexuals, the Roman Catholic Church and political Maori. If I named those groups in application I would have been mistaken for advocating for those groups and immediately had my point rejected. By allowing them to accept the point in abstract without attacking their personal views they may come to their own conclusions which will be far more powerful than having my conclusions thrust upon them.

Sometimes the text has to be applied specifically and directly and I am not an absolutist by any stretch. I also have to admit that people do appreciate direct and forceful application when I do it and I do get criticised from time to time for not doing enough of it. But you’ve heard my reasoning for doing it not much, what do you think?


  1. Ryan Bond says:

    Thanks for this Jonathan. I have a similar view to you. The key comment from my point of view was
    I agree, and suggest that the way transformation happens is by us and the congregation reflecting on how incredible God is. This means that as preachers, God and his wonder (person and work) needs to be the focus of the sermon. When this happens, people’s hearts are transformed, and actions follow on from that. We can’t just change actions, because outward behaviour is not the problem; the heart is.

  2. Ryan Bond says:

    whoops my html skills were not up to scratch. The comment I was trying to quote was: Transformation of the mind is the goal not information.

  3. Dale says:

    I think it was Sean du Toit’s post years ago that argued for ‘implication’ over ‘application’. I think a good way to do implication (or application) is to explicitly give space in the sermon (or somewhere in the service) for all of us to open our minds/hearts to listen for what issues the Spirit would speak to us individually (or corporately) about. Certainly this guards against the routine assumption that people will apply it at home group or in their prayer times through the week.

    As for the notion of another first-fifteen for application to balance the other one for explanation, my perspective would be that I don’t think equal time is fitting (most of the time) for explanation/inspiration and implication/application; more like 80% explanation/inspiration and 20% implication/application. So a first-fifteen for application/implication would be a bit too much, perhaps – maybe five would be good (as if the point is getting the right number!) 🙂 But that would require switching sports to develop a metaphor… 🙂

  4. Brook says:

    Kia Ora Gents, great post Jonathan. I totally agree – I think a lot of “stripping down” has happened in our churches. Things have become very ‘plastic’ , and don’t inspire much awe or a sense of mystery. Leaving a sermon to be applied allows space for the mystery of the Spirit to do his work but also fits much better with a post-modern culture and worldview. I truly believe the “application” will be different for each listener, so why narrow it to a certain few and thus let the others “off the hook” so to speak?

  5. Hi Jonathon,

    I’d love to meet you now! Wow – you wrote a whole article in response to mine! I love this level of the discussion. I agree with pretty much all your points. There are many traps people can fall into when doing application, and surely there’s nothing worse than badly constructed application! It annoys people. You point out some of these traps really well, and if I were creating a ‘Second Fifteen’, re-reading your post would be a worthy place to start!

    My post may seem to imply we need 50% of our sermon to be application and 50% to be unpacking the text. The best percentage of the sermon spent on each factor no doubt depends on the context we are preaching in to. I’m more interested in quality of application than the quantity of it in any given sermon.

    My years of pastoring have led me to the conclusion (be it fair or unfair) that some people are very good at applying a passage to their own lives and you scarcely even need to hint at application in a sermon; they are doing it already, and continue to chew over it during the week. But I’m not sure everyone in our congregations does that.

    I guess the preachers I have admired most in the Bible and through history have been those with a burning message that just has to get out. But how it comes out can vary. Jesus has some phenomenal application moments in the Sermon on the Mount which are very direct and leave you little room to move. He also used incredibly clever parables that stuck in people’s minds and almost ‘teased’ them towards a more Christlike way of life. I like both these approaches and the variety is good.

    The Senior Pastor I was under for a number of years used to – almost invariably – get part way through his message and then say: ‘So What?’. This was where he moved into application mode. His application was very good and I guess I have become a little like my mentor! However, it really helped me hearing Geoff New’s comment on this when I interviewed him for One Step Ahead Preaching. Geoff said, “Instead of asking ‘So What?’, ask ‘What If?'”. What if you took the truths of this passage seriously? What if you made space in your life for…’ etc. These are much more open questions and have the feeling of possibility about them, as opposed to the stark and direct question, ‘So What?’

    I would say that I see preaching as an incredible opportunity. People sit and listen to us. God can and has used sermons throughout history to change people’s lives. Sometimes one sermon on its own has changed the whole trajectory of a person’s life. I believe that could happen on any Sunday. And so I am frustrated with myself – and yes with others at times – when we don’t make the most of that opportunity. I’ve heard too many sermons that lack the kind of urgency or passion that has made preaching the important thing that it is. Goodness – could we bore people out of the Kingdom of God?

    I would love Mick Duncan to post his thoughts on this topic. I reckon there are plenty of preachers out there that are passionate about good application that is biblically rooted, varied and appropriate to the congregation.

    Finally, I make the same disclaimer that Jonathon did. I haven’t heard Jonathon preach, so none of my thoughts here are written in relation to his preaching.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this!

  6. Oops – when saying in the above post that I became a little like my mentor, I meant that I would make a switch to application in my sermons like he did. I didn’t mean I was a great preacher like him!

  7. Hi Steve, if you are ever in Blockhouse Bay I’ll buy you lunch. 🙂

    Thanks for your response to my response. I totally agree with you about the opportunity for change and I think even if we are light on application we should not be light on challenge. As a pastor my sunday sermon is the only time in the week I have a chance to pastor the whole congregation, during the week i can only manage a handful of folk meeting them one on one. It is the key moment of my ministry week and if it is dull or pointless then that opportunity is wasted.

    I have to reckon with how much I allow my preferred learning style to affect my own delivery of sermons and whether I need to account for other learning styles in the congregation – I probably do need to.

    I also think we need to reckon on how many people can aspire to be the sort of preacher we advocate for, there are so many things to throw into the mix, it is such an array of skills that is required, is it fair or reasonable to expect every pastor to deliver in this area? Oh dear now I am starting another topic. Time to get back to work!


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