Over the course of your life, how many sermons have you heard?
Let’s say, for example, that you’re 35 years old and started attending church at age 20. Over that time you’ve gone to church an average of three times a month. Your rough estimate is that you’ll have heard about 540 sermons.
Now for a tougher question: Over the course of your life, how many sermons have you applied?
Application is one of the primary purposes of sermons, so why don’t we have an intentional approach for applying them?
If you’re like most Christians, the number of sermons you’ve intentionally applied in your life is significantly less than the number of sermons you’ve heard. Application is one of the primary purposes of sermons, so why don’t we have an intentional approach for applying them?
Purpose of Sermon Application
The preferred type of preaching in evangelical churches is expository preaching, in which the main points of the text are the main points of the preacher’s message. The practical purpose of expository preaching, as Jack Hughes says, is to show how the text of Scripture is to be applied in the believer’s life. Application answers the question, “How does what we read transform our thoughts (head), our desires (heart), and/or our actions (hands)?”
The Holy Spirit convicts us about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8) and guides us into all truth (John 16:13). But we still have a duty to take a more active role in applying sermons to our lives.
How can we do that? A surprisingly effective method can be learned from a maker of cars.
What We Can Learn from Toyota
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Toyota Motor Corporation was famously able to do something that seemed out of reach for most other automotive companies—mass produce reliable cars.
There are dozens of reasons why American cars tended during that era to be of poorer quality, but a primary obstacle was the method of production. To maximize efficiencies of scale, the assembly lines at car production plants would run nonstop. If a worker noticed a defect on a vehicle, he didn’t have time to fix it before the next car came down the production line. He relied on the defect being noticed and corrected before the car left the plant. But as happened all too often, defective cars were sold to consumers before anyone noticed the problem.
Toyota took a different approach. At every workstation on the production line was a rope cord that any worker could pull to stop the entire assembly process. If a worker spotted a problem, she’d pull the cord, stop the process, and the whole team would work on it to prevent it from happening again. The more this occurred, the more problems were identified and fixed, causing the number of errors to drop dramatically and the quality of their cars to increase significantly.
This practice was a subset of the Toyota production process known as kaizen, which in English means “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” At Toyota, the word refers to the “culture and philosophy of continuously improving any department or functional process.”
Here’s how we can take a similar approach to sermon application.
Step #1: Identify and make note of the application points.
Most sermons include one to three points of application. Yet we tend to let them pass by us without acting on them directly. Like a 1970s autoworker, we know another sermon and another set of applications will be coming along next Sunday, so we let the lessons for today go by without giving them due attention. We need to instead take the approach of a Toyota worker: pull the rope cord, pause the process, and find a way to apply the sermons we hear.
To do this we can commit to writing down, every week, at least one point of application. Put them in your favorite note-taking application (whether a paper or digital version) where you’ll be able to track them in the future. Write down the date of the sermon, the application, and any information that will help you remember and make sense of it (such as the name of the preacher or an illustration he gave).
Step #2: Set a time to review and categorize the application point.
Many of us already write down the main points on a bulletin, in a journal, or in our Bible. But then we forget the points or forget to read our notes. Make an appointment to review your notes by setting a regular time during the week (10–15 minutes should be enough) when you’re going to review the point of application.
Next, classify the application within the “head, heart, hands” framework. Is the point of the application to affect how you think, affect what you believe, or affect what you do? Then consider how you can apply the point in your life to directly improve your discipleship or sanctification.
Step #3: Commit to applying the application point before next Sunday.
This coming Sunday you’ll be receiving some new applications. So take the time this week to integrate into your life the application point from last Sunday’s sermon. If it’s a “head” application, you can spend a few minutes meditating on the principle and saying to yourself, “I know this is true.” If it’s a “heart” application, take a moment to think about how you need to change your desires to align with this truth. If it’s a “hands” application, look for ways to engage in that behavior right away.
Step #4: Commit to continuous improvement and apply spaced repetition.
What makes this a kaizen approach is that you’re committing to doing this for your continuous improvement. This means you need to commit not only to continue with this process but also to continuously apply what you’ve learned from past sermons over an extended period of time.
Continuously apply what you’ve learned from past sermons over an extended period of time.
One way to do this is to incorporate a learning technique known as spaced repetition. Once you’ve been using this process for a couple of months, you should have a list of 12 or more applications. Make a habit each week of choosing at least one application from a previous sermon (such as from a sermon four to six weeks earlier), considering how successful you were at incorporating it into your life, and then renewing your effort to reapply what you learned.
If you follow these steps, over the course of a year you’ll have reviewed and applied about a hundred application points.
Is it worth all this effort? It depends. Are you going to keep listening to sermons?
Think ahead to how many sermons you’ll likely hear during the rest of your life. If you’re age 35, live to age 80, and attend church regularly, you’ll have heard between 2,000 and 6,000 sermon application points. Imagine how the Holy Spirit could use this method of sermon application to change your life. With a little effort and a commitment to continuous improvement, we can make substantial progress in our efforts toward Christlikeness.