Preaching: How do you think through this whole issue of application as you are dealing with the text or the biblical theme? Walk me through that process as you think through how this applies to the lives of people.
Warren: The big thing is building a bridge between then and now. You have interpretation on one side, you have personalization on the other side, and in the middle you have the implication. The key is always finding the implication of the text. The interpretation — commentators tend to live in that world. Personalization — communicators tend to live in this world. It’s a fine line, and you can fall off on either side. It is easy to be biblical without being contemporary or relevant. It is easy to be relevant without being biblical. The test is right there in the middle, walking that fine line.
We don't have to make the Bible relevant — it is — but we have to show its relevance. What is irrelevant, in my opinion, is our style of communicating it. We are tending still to use the style from 50 years back that doesn't match who we are trying to reach today.
When I start with an application, I first start with personal application. Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a book on Bible study methods, on how to apply the Bible. It sold a couple hundred thousand copies. In fact, Billy Graham picked it up and gave it to every evangelist in Amsterdam. In it I talk about a dozen different ways to apply Scripture, so you start with your own life and you make applications there. A lot of it is just simple stuff like: Is there a sin to confess, a promise to claim, an attitude to change, a command to obey, an example to follow, a prayer to pray, an error to avoid, the truth to believe. Is there something to praise God for? So, I start looking at it like that.
I also go back to the paradigm of 2 Timothy 3:16. Doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness is basically these four things: What do I need to believe as a result of this text? What do I not need to believe as a result of this text? What do I need to do as a result of this text? What do I need not to do as a result of this text? That is doctrine for reproof, correction, and instruction of righteousness. So, I use that format. Start with personal application, then you go for the implication — what people need in their lives.
The biggest thing I would say about application is that every pastor eventually gets to application. I'm just saying he needs to start with it, not end with it. A lot of guys need to start where they end their sermon. They will do about 80 to 90 percent explanation and interpretation in background study, and then at the end there is a little 10 minute application. Now, that is OK if you have a highly motivated group of people who just love Bible knowledge, but the Bible says there are a couple of problems with Bible knowledge. In the first place, it says knowledge puffs up but love builds up, and the Bible says increased knowledge without application leads to pride. Some of the most cantankerous Christians I know are veritable storehouses of Bible knowledge, but they have not applied what they know. They can give you facts and quotes, and they can argue doctrine, but they’re angry, very ugly people. The Bible says knowledge without application increases judgment. To him that knows to do good and does it not, it is sin. So, really, to give people knowledge and not get the application is a very dangerous thing.
Here is an interesting thing: Look at the Bible and take the books of the New Testament; find out how much of the Bible is application. It really will change the way you preach. For instance, I once preached through the book of Romans for two-and-a-half years, verse by verse. I do both verse with verse exposition — which I call topical exposition — and I do verse by verse exposition, which is book by book. Two kinds of teaching for two different targets and two different purposes, and they both are needed for a healthy church. To say you only need one, I think is ridiculous. One is far more effective for evangelism, and one is far more effective for edification.
Romans is the most doctrinal book in the New Testament. Yet, how much of Romans is really application? Romans 1, doctrine. Romans 2, doctrine. Romans 3 doctrine. Romans 4, doctrine. Romans 5, doctrine. Romans 6, application. Romans 7, application. Romans 8, application. Romans 9, doctrine. Romans 10, doctrine. Romans 11, doctrine. Romans 12, application. Romans 13, application. Romans 14, Romans 15, Romans 16 — application. So you have a book of 16 chapters and fifty percent is application. Even the most doctrinal book of the Bible is half life application. Then you go to Ephesians 1. Half of the book is doctrine, half is application. Colossians 1, first half of the book is doctrine, the second half is application, fifty percent. You get to a book like James 1 — 100 percent application. Proverbs 1, 100 percent application. Matthew 1, 100 percent application.
So my cry is: Pastors just do more of it. You already know you have got to apply in people's lives; you have just got to do more of it. If that means cutting back … I think sometimes in our preaching we are far more interested in a lot of the details and backgrounds than people are. A guy who spends three weeks on one verse is missing the point of the verse. Truthfully, it’s like looking at Mona Lisa with a microscope. Every single word — God didn't mean for it to be read that way. He is missing the point of it. People who say, “I don't do topical preaching” but then take an entire two weeks for two verses, what are they doing? They are doing topical preaching. They are just using it as a jumping off point.
Preaching: How much of the sermon should be application versus explanation of the text?
Warren: I personally believe 50 percent. I know Bruce Wilkinson once did a study of great preachers. He went back and studied Spurgeon and Moody, Calvin, and Finney, both Calvinists and Arminians. Then he studied contemporaries like Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll. He discovered those guys were anywhere from 50 to 60 percent, some at 70 percent, application.
What we normally do in a structure of a message is interpretation and then application of a point, then the next interpretation and the next application, the next interpretation and the next application. I am suggesting that if you want to reach pagans you actually just reverse that procedure. You still get both — it’s just the way you do it. Instead of getting up and going through a long background on the Sermon on the Mount passage on worry and explaining, I stand up and say, “Isn't it a fact of life that we all deal with worry? Well, today we are going to look at six reasons why Jesus said we shouldn't worry.” Then you make your application the points of your message.
People don't remember much. If you are motivated, you remember about seven bits of information; if you’re not motivated you remember about two. If they are only going to remember one thing, what do I want them to remember? I want them to remember the application, the lessons, not a cute outline of text. The alliterated outline is not going to change their lives. So I say, make your applications your points because the points are all they are going to remember.
It is more important to be clear than it is to be cute. So I’ll say, “Here are the three things you have learned.” Here is the contemporary application and underneath it you go back and cover the background. Here is the point, and you go back and cover the background. It is the exact same thing — it is just the order — and what that does is increase retention and interest.
I am pastoring a church in California where maybe 77 percent of the people were saved and baptized there. Without question, Saddleback is the most evangelistic church in America. We have baptized 7,800 new believers in the last seven years. No church has ever done that – 1,100 baptisms a year. I preached this year at Easter where we set up a 5,000-seat tent with seven services. We had 33,000 for Easter — which is about a typical number — and we had 2,082 adult professions of faith. That is a crusade! To have 2,000 people saved — well, how does that happen? It happens when your focus is preaching for transformation, for changed lives. (Adapted from a Preaching magazine interview with Rick Warren.)