People commonly ask (or even demand) that all sermons and Bible classes be practical and relevant. Preaching and teaching, they believe, should have practical advice for the upcoming week.
I understand this. People’s lives are difficult. They are looking for something to uplift them and provide them guidance in all the difficult and uncertain predicaments and moral decisions with which they are faced. So it’s sensible to want something that will provide that direction. For those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then it makes sense to get the practical advice from the Bible.
However, a few days ago, I was drinking coffee with a friend who complained about people demanding that each Bible passage be practically connected with their lives. Or, more precisely, people who believe that every sermon and Bible study should have been applied directly to their lives.
I’ll admit that when he said what he said, I was a little taken aback. I have long been inclined not to like the demand for immediately practical teaching. But nearly every Christian I know seeks this. When I write Bible sermons and lessons, I feel pressured to give people practical and specific ways they should change their lives in light of the Bible study. It’s a belief that has shaped my teaching even though I don’t have the belief.
I’ve spent the last few days thinking about this. Why do I find it so misguided to demand that every, or even most, sermons and bible studies be immediately practical?
A (Hopefully) Illuminating Illustration
My best explanation uses an illustration — perhaps a silly one — to push against this common demand.
Imagine a couple who have been dating for a few weeks. They are getting more serious about each other, and their relationship is growing. While they are eating supper, the woman begins to tell the guy about some part of her life that she finds interesting. She launches into a story, trying to remember details and laughing along the way.
Halfway through the conversation, the guy interrupts and says, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I really want to be a better boyfriend. So, while your story is interesting and helps me learn more about you and what you’ve done throughout your life, I don’t need your story. I need something more relevant. I need you to tell me something — a thought, a story, a request, whatever — that has a clear message about how I should change this week. Something practical. Something applicable to where I am.”
How would you think the woman would respond? I imagine that most people in that situation — man or woman — would be put off by such a response. Why? Because the guy in this story doesn’t understand relationships. No matter how well-intentioned his response it, it’s not a good reply.
The Guy’s Mistake
What’s wrong with the guy’s approach? He wants their conversation to be relevant, and he wants the conversation to help him become a better boyfriend tomorrow, to give him practical advice for the next day or two.
Yet, this guy is mistaken. What he is doing, though motivated by a desire to practically be a better boyfriend, is counterproductive. If he asked us what was the point of listening to his girlfriend recount memories from years ago, we would tell him that few things could be more important than listening to his girlfriend and learning more about her past. Part of being in love, part of being infatuated with another person, is that you want to learn more about them, what their past was like and what’s currently happening.
And learning more about the person you are in love with drastically changes you. It changes your outlook on them, your love for them, your outlook on the world is shaped by it, and so on.
In other words, part of a relationship growing, and part of better understanding the one you love, is having your life and your outlook on the world reshaped by the person you love. Loving someone compels you to learn more about them, and the more you know, the more you are changed by the relationship.
The Bible as Transformative
Returning to our main discussion, it’s not that sermons and Bible studies should never be immediately practical. It’s not that some lessons should propel you into the next week with new insights into life. But much of what the study of the Word of God does is transform us. It changes our outlook on the world, it increases our affections for God, and it helps us grow spiritually.
(By the way, I think this also applies to those of us who demand that every lesson be “deep” and provide a new and challenging intellectual insight.)
To demand that every half hour of time spent with the Word of God be reduced to a pithy, practical advice is flawed, not because it demands too much, but because it demands too little. We don’t just need another mantra to guide us, but we need to be transformed. As time with one’s beloved changes and inspires you in ways beyond reducing to a practical statement, so the Word of God changes and inspires us.
Notice what happens, though: our approach to the following days and weeks is changed, not because we have an immediately applicable insight, but because we are a different person after our time spent in God’s Word. (This is similar to the way that prayer and praise transforms us: typically not by new insights, but by a renewed heart.)
Two Examples: One Personal, Another Historical
I’m reminded of two examples, one personal and the other historical.
I’ve had countless conversations with people who enormously impacted my life: my father, my mother, my campus minister, some of my professors. I can remember only a fraction of what I was told. Most of those conversations did not have a practical insight for the next week. But they were transformative; they shaped who I am today.
A historical example: I’m reading John Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. It’s a fantastic book, and I fully encourage you to read it. But I was shocked at one thing that Thomas Jefferson had to say about Patrick Henry: after Henry’s speeches, it was difficult to know what his point was. In other words, the power of Patrick Henry’s oratory wasn’t in the clear and practical points he made, or in the depth of intellectual insight. Rather, he speeches changed and motivated the people listening. It transformed them; that was their power. (Here’s a website that quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Lee on this.)
Teaching That Changes Us
And, often, that is how good preaching and teaching changes us.
No, we shouldn’t abandon any practical teaching; how could one not give practical insight when teaching through the Sermon on the Mount or James? But we should not be so restrictive in how we view the Bible’s helpfulness. Let’s not clamor for the immediately practical. Instead, as we slowly and patiently study the Word of God, let’s allow the Bible transform and teach us.
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