Implementation: the Missing Ingredient
“Are you reading your Bibles?,” the preacher asks his congregation with probing seriousness. “Last week, how many days did you neglect spending time in the Word,” he asks again causing most of his congregation to cringe with conviction and guilt. “You need to read your Bibles!” the preacher exhorts, waving his Bible in the air for emphasis as he concludes his exposition of Psalm 19:7-14. By the end of the sermon his congregation has been pierced through with conviction. They know he is telling them the truth. They realize they need to spend more time reading their Bibles. After the service many leave with a weight of guilt hanging on them like a load of wet bricks. They want to be right with God. They want to have the Scriptures richly dwelling within them. They want to be faithful students of the Word. But if the truth were told and usually it is not, especially to the preacher, they feel defeated and exasperated. Why? Because they don’t know how to go about reading their Bible, at least not in a meaningful way! It may seem so simple and obvious to us, but for many it complex and difficult.
One of the things I tell my preaching students over and over again is, “If you convict someone with the truth of God’s Word, you must give them a way out. You must make sure that when they leave church after being convicted by the Word, they know how to relieve the guilt through obedience. They need to know how to put the truth into practice. The fact is, most Christians approach the Bible like any other book instead of reading it as God’s instruction book for their lives . They start at the beginning in Genesis, carry on into Exodus where they lose a little traction towards the end of that book, and plow into Leviticus, only to get stuck in the mud-hole of the Levitical sacrificial system.
They have no idea why Leviticus is good for them except as a cure for insomnia. They may understand that “all Scriptures is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16), but their experience doesn’t seem to line up with what they know in their minds is true. They agree with you that they need to read their Bible, but they frankly don’t know how. “Maybe,” they think to themselves, “it’s because there is something wrong with me.”
Yet the blame is often to be laid at the feet of the preacher. Preachers often assume their congregations only need to be convicted by the truth. They assume that people will figure out how to live out the truth on their own after they are convicted. Preachers like this may have never stopped to consider the difference between principles, application, and implementation. They may be excellent exegetes, engaging expositors, convicting communicators and yet fail to give their people practical how to instruction. Their congregation leaves Sunday after Sunday feeling guilty, but not knowing what to do. This is why you must stop and consider the difference between principle, application, and implementation.
Biblical principles are truths which apply to Christians of any culture and any time. The preacher, using sound Bible study principles, studies the text so that he can interpret it accurately. Then he extracts Biblical principles from the interpretation which apply to Christians of any culture and time. Using Psalm 19:7-14 as an example, one of the obvious principles which comes from this portion of Scripture is, the Word of God is powerful to sanctify the believer. This principle applies to all believers of any culture and any time. There are no exceptions. If you are going to grow in sanctification, it is going to be through the Word of God. And most preachers do a pretty good job at getting principles out of the text. But too often they never move on to application.
Application is how the principles of the text might be obeyed. In the case of Psalm 19:7-14, one of the applications is, “Read your Bible!” This is what must be done. People know what reading is, and they know what the Bible is, and they understand the concept of reading the Bible. No problem so far. But for many, the very simple exhortation, “Read your Bible,” is like saying, “Go rebuild a car engine.” Rebuilding a car engine is also an easy concept to understand. The problem is not with the concept, the problem is with the implementation of the concept. Just how do you go about rebuilding an engine? If you don’t know anything about engine rebuilding, how would you find out how to do so? For a trained mechanic rebuilding a car engine is not a problem, for the rest of us, it is very complex and difficult. Well, in the same way, the seminary trained pastor has no problem reading the Bible, but for those who do not have specialized training in Bible reading, it is a very complicated process. People need more than just the bottom line application, “Read your Bible!” They need to know how to implement the truth, how specifically does a person go about reading the Bible for profit.
Implementation is the missing ingredient. The next step after application is the practical instruction of how one might go about putting into practice the application of a text. To provide implementation is to give concrete methods, techniques, and procedures one might use for living out the application e.g., reading the Bible. Implementation also seeks to bring people to the place where they say, “I am going to apply this truth to my life this week by doing. . .” If implementation is not achieved in the lives of your congregation, preaching loses its purpose because the purpose of preaching is to change the way people live before a holy God.
It is for this reason you must help them. You’re the expert, you are the one with the seminary training, you know the issues that must be faced when the Bible is read, so tell them what you know! Don’t just heap a bunch of conviction on them and send them out of church every Sunday loaded down to the axle with guilt. This will surely lead to their exasperation.
So in the adapted words of the Philippian jailer, “What must you do to help your congregation implement the text?” Let’s say you are preaching from Psalm 19:7-14 and you discover in that text that the Word of God is powerful to sanctify a believer. You give your congregation the application, “You need to read your Bibles!” Now it’s implementation time. It is time for you, with your greater understanding of the complexities of Bible reading, to help them out. You might give them examples of how someone might go about learning to read their Bible. Most people assume, unless someone teaches them differently, that you read the Bible like any other book, start at the beginning and read to the end. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but the fact is, most people don’t make it through the book of Leviticus and they don’t know how to get application for their lives from the text.
You need to put yourself into the place of a new believer and consider what will help them. Most people do not have the books of the Bible memorized let alone understand the many complexities of how to read the Bible for the most spiritual profit. The complexities of Bible reading are clear to you, but often very unclear to your congregation. Christians thirst for the knowledge of God, but when they read the Bible it is often like trying to suck water out of a block of damp wood. They get a little moisture but not enough to survive. This is why you need to help them implement the truth of God’s Word.
For instance, you might recommend some good resources on how to study Bible or tell them to attend a class that you will be teaching on Bible reading. Tell them to try reading five Psalms a day so that in a month they will have read through the entire book of Psalms. Tell them that there are thirty-one chapters in the book of Proverbs and tell them they might try reading whatever chapter of proverbs corresponds to the day of the month. Suggest that they might want to alternate reading books from the Old Testament and the New, or schedule for reading through the Bible in a year. But don’t stop there!
Speak to them directly in the second person and say, “Right now, before the Lord, when are you going to set aside time to read your Bible? How are you going to read your Bible tomorrow? If you don’t know how to read the Bible in a profitable way, what are you going to do about it this week?” Now they have no excuse. You have interpreted the text for them, drawn out principles from the interpretation, given them application, and clear ideas of how to implement the text. They may still leave feeling guilty, but now they will know what they can do to apply the text to their lives. This is what you want, this is what they want, and this is what God wants!
Guard against exhortation without implementation for it leads to exasperation. Recently, I preached through Luke 3:1-15. In that section of Luke’s gospel John the Baptist is calling sinners to repentance and threatening judgment for those who will not turn from their sin. The crowds are convicted of their sin and they realize they do need to repent. The concept is easy for them to understand but what they don’t understand is what repentance will look like in their lives. This causes them to ask John the Baptist, “Then what shall we do?” Then John gives them five practical ways to implement true repentance in their lives (Luke 3:11-15). People need to know how to implement the truth of the text.
Try this. For the next month, make sure that every sermon you preach gives practical ways people can implement the truth. Give specific examples, steps, procedures and instruction for applying the text and see what kind of feedback you get. Your congregation will love you for it and become spiritually fat sheep who know how to live the truth. Christians want to obey, but they need help – so help them implement the truth!
 Article originally submitted to The Journal of Modern Ministry, Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2004, http://jofmm.com.