In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll teaches how to apply principles drawn from a Bible passage’s interpretation to the unique circumstances of your hearers.
By the time I have completed my digging—observing the passage, examining the original language, considering the history, culture, and issues surrounding the original writing, and then deriving timeless principles—my theological understanding, personal life experience, and knowledge of the audience converge to yield specific applications. Those applications then become my target when building the message (title, introduction, and body). Beginning with the end in mind helps me keep the message lean and focused.
When I’m ready to nail down specific applications, I glance back at the pad with my early ideas for anything that might be usable. Then, I push everything aside, lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and use my imagination to put myself in other people’s shoes. I try to see life through their eyes as I consider several different categories.
What Might My Audience Need?
First, I think about what my audience might need. When I was invited to go overseas to minister to missionaries, I took some time to recall what it felt like to be on Okinawa [when I was in the Marine Corps], cut off from everything familiar and everyone meaningful to me. Earlier, I had asked a friend what need he thought I should address and he responded with one word: encouragement. I recalled how discouraged I became, especially around holidays, and how difficult it was to have no one to lean on. I let my mind linger in the world of the missionary as I knew it, reflected on past conversations with missionaries, and thought about what might encourage me if I were in their shoes.
What Challenges Does My Audience Face?
I also think in terms of challenges. I ask myself, “What challenges, trials, or difficulties will my audience face, and how can I equip them to succeed?” When asked to speak to a group of Ryder Truck leaders, I recalled what it was like to be out of town, alone in a hotel, feeling lonely and tired hundreds of miles from accountability—a perfect setup for a moral tumble. I remember having to be proactive in guarding my purity and the practical steps I took to remain above reproach. So, when the group convened . . . in Las Vegas . . . I spoke on integrity. The applications in my message addressed some sensitive areas, but because I spoke as a sympathetic fellow struggler, they received my practical suggestions without becoming defensive.
What Reproof Might Be Appropriate?
I wonder what reproof might be appropriate, although I tend to go easy with my tone. I don’t want to condescend or sound like I’m scolding. I did a lot of that when I was younger, but I’ve since learned to phrase reproofs as warnings and that the right choice of pronouns can make all the difference. I would say, for example, “All of us need to be warned about . . .” and then state the danger or call out the sinful behavior. That way, I don’t presume everyone in the audience is guilty, yet those who are blameworthy get the point. Also, by including myself in the reproof, I avoid talking down to my audience.
Shaping the Application Statements
As I think through the needs, challenges, and reproofs appropriate to my audience, I imagine how the timeless principles derived from the passage might address them. And then I spell out the applications as specific as possible. In the process, I tailor my notes to build toward those principles and applications. I make sure illustrations don’t sidetrack the audience or divert them from a head-on collision with their need to implement the Lord’s instructions. I shape my message like a funnel to capture as much of the congregation as possible and then guide them all to the same destination: a personal encounter with the mind of God.