Putting Scripture in Their Hands

Ron Meznar was retiring as a veteran missionary. Over many years of service, he had developed a strong testimony as a New Testament scholar and Greek professor. He was also instrumental in planting many churches in South America. The last church he pastored was full of high class, well educated, professional people, some being the richest in Brazil.

A friend of mine, also a missionary, spent some time with Ron a few days before he retired from the field, asking him several questions. The question I would like to highlight follows. “After all these years of experience, what one thing would you go back and change about your ministry?”

Ron answered in this way:

For the last few weeks I have been going through my message files, deciding which ones to take back to the United States and which ones to throw away. In doing so, I realized that the trash can was filling up with messages that had failed to transform lives.clip_image001In fact, I ended up throwing most of the messages away, keeping only a few of them. As I pondered this, I realized that the messages I threw away really hadn’t provided a personal application to the people. I naively had assumed that, because I ministered to well educated people, I could give them an expositional treatise of the passage that they would go home and make personal applications for themselves. As I reflected on the lives of the people in our church, I realized that, over the years, very few of them actually did this. This was despite the fact that my sermons were expositional and exegetically correct.

I normally preached 30 minute messages, each involving 25 minutes of thorough study to enable full comprehension of the passage. I followed this with a 5 minute generic exhortation to go home and find ways to apply this message in a personal way. After all these years I have concluded that 15 minutes of exposition followed by 15 minutes of specific application would have been a better model.”

Now, allow me to share a personal testimony. During my own undergraduate training, I preached a message in Homiletics class. Afterward my instructor evaluated the message in class. The evaluation seemed to go well:

  • Clever title? Check
  • Strong proposition statement? Check
  • Scripted introduction? Check
  • Careful exegetical work? Check
  • Clear explanation? Check
  • Appropriate argumentation? Check
  • Helpful, tasteful illustrations? Check
  • Scripted conclusion? Check
  • Restatement of the proposition? Check

By this point in the evaluation I was feeling pretty good about myself, wrestling with a swelling sense of amateur pride. But my instructor popped the bubble when he leaned back in his chair and told me that the sermon didn’t help him at all. Why? Because I never told him what to do with it. I didn’t offer any reasonable, specific applications of the scripture to his life.

Perhaps we can learn something from Ron’s testimony and from my Homiletics instructor. In the effort to preach sermons that present scripture in an accurate, honest way, we cannot neglect the importance of personal application. The people sitting in the pew or behind the desk need us to articulate some specific ways that they can put the scripture to use in their lives. We want them to take the sermon home with them—not just in their head and their heart, but in their hands also.

Thank you to David Bennett, director of Silent Word Ministries International, for affirming the details of his discussion with Ron. Thank you also to his son Josh, who shared Ron’s testimony with me for the first time when we were classmates together in Bible college.

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