Listening to Experiential Sermons Well

Over the course of a Christian’s life, they will engage with hundreds, if not thousands, of sermons. For many, the expectation of a Sunday is that the preacher will include something novel in their explanation of the text. Their hope is to walk away thinking “I learned something new today, an insight I was unaware of previously.” This deficient view of absorbing a sermon is unfortunately shared by many preachers and congregants alike. Pastors develop sermons with the ideal of contributing something of intellectual stimulation, and congregants play their part in judging sermons according to how much their mind has been stretched.

While I am very slow to judge other pastors or preachers for their work, I have come a deep conviction that one of the greatest needs of the modern Church, is pastors who preach experientially, and congregants who hunger for application. Experiential Preaching is a vision of preaching that has largely been lost over the last century. The idea is that the text being studied is to be “experienced,” not just in the mind, but in the life of the congregant. The preacher’s responsibility is to teach the depth of the doctrine of the text while demonstrating in many ways how a life that believes that doctrine ought to look practically. Congregants, at nearly every turn, should be forced to put themselves on trial before the text in order to determine if there be any deception within them, any unholy area of their life.

One aspect of an experiential preaching that deeply separates it from most modern preaching, is the amount of application it utilizes. It was only four of five years ago that I structured my sermons with about 3% application. The final sentences were often some simple application that had been repeated from my pulpit many times before. “Read the Bible more. Pray. Support this ministry.” The problem with this preaching is that it doesn’t actually form holiness. It often tickles the mind, but leaves the listener off the hook in terms of living out their holiness in light of the text. I have therefore shifted my application from 3% of my sermon to sometimes 40% of my sermon. At every turn, I want to be challenged to “test myself” as to whether or not I really believe the doctrine to be true. I want my applications rigorously thought out and applicable to the many varied faces of my congregation.

“Effective expository preaching takes place when biblical faithfulness and insightful application are inextricably bound together. One is neither substituted for, nor overshadowed by, the other.”

Experiential Preaching like this is violent. It is violent because it causes the preacher and the congregation alike to constantly disrupt their expectations. Sunday is no longer a place for the mind to be stretched with some new slick way of saying an old truth. Sunday becomes the training ground where new skills are learned, new paths are charted, new tools are practiced, and old sins are cast aside. Most Christians are unprepared for such a Sunday.

Of course, experiential preaching can be taken in a twisted shadowy way in which the Pastor becomes the drill sergeant that constantly belittles the congregation for their failure to live up to the high standard of Christ. This kind of preaching is not only exhausting, but fails to infuse sermons with the love and affection of a shepherd. The pulpit is neither the platform of a drill sergeants nor is it the couch of a therapist’s office. Pastors are to be soul-physicians. As a physician is an expert in Anatomy, so is a soul-physician an expert in Systematic Theology. Pastors must carefully navigate the frailty of the human soul with doctrinal precision and care, using their tools to bind up wounds, set bones straight, and see the healing fully through. These sermons are aimed at holiness! A holy walk with God that does not settle for one stone unturned in our daily habits and lifestyle! Over the course of a year, our whole life ought to be carefully examined for any shade of faithlessness, and ever and always drawn back to the grace of the gospel that empowers us for holy living unto God!

If this is the aim of an Experiential Sermon, how ought a congregant make the most of these sermons? Books can be written on how to listen to a sermon well, but I offer a few simple applications to begin (I suppose this is a rather experiential blog post too!)

Pray for Transformation in the Room: First, when you come into the Church on Sunday, know that this kind of preaching has the potential to bring about great change in people’s lives. All around you, are folks who are experiencing conviction on one level or another. One particular application may not personally challenge you, but know that across the room many might be experiencing a conviction of the Spirit in that very moment. Pray that God would use the preaching of God’s Word to impact soul’s for Christ. To draw the unconverted into salvation. To develop the immature into mature saints of Christ.

Prepare to be Confronted Personally: Second, prepare to be confronted personally. I heard a preacher say recently, “My job is to make you angry at me.” It was said tongue-in-cheek, but the essence was on target. An experiential sermon is going to reveal under-developed aspects of your relationship with God and push to “put on” areas of faith and holiness that you have yet to step into. If the preacher is honest, it has already done had this same effect upon him in his own study. Permit these challenges of our faith, to open up new pathways of possibilities with Christ, new outlets of holy living, new hopes for spiritual maturity.

Anticipate Self-Reflection: An experiential sermon should be highly self-reflective. As was stated earlier, we want to constantly “put ourselves on trial” before the text. It is one thing to know doctrinally that God is sovereign. It is another to be asked a series of questions that reveal whether or not your heart agrees with your mind that God is sovereign.
  • When things go unexpected according to your plans, do you tend to grow frustrated, or do you tend to turn to Christ and trust in his providential hand?
  • When in unexpected traffic, and running late, do you grow agitated?
  • When considering the politics of your city, or your state, or your nation, do you tend to spiral into doom-and-gloom? Or do find yourself regularly taking solace in the providential hand of God?

These questions obviously require some thought and reflection. Some of them are so simple they’re nearly silly. And yet I suspect that many have never made the connection between these questions and the doctrine of the sovereignty. Questions like these should prompt to us to really evaluate what our responses say about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. We should leave this moment saying, “Hmmm… I hadn’t thought about how my responses in traffic are connected to my doctrine of sovereignty.”

Cling to Christ When Weakness is Discovered: Fourth, in all of our weakness, cherish the gospel that has declared you righteous with the righteousness of Christ. An experiential sermon, if done well, ought to cause two very different experiences. The unconverted and the hypocrite, ought to be troubled by their self-reflection. As the weight of the law of holiness is placed before them, they ought to see their need of a Savior with greater clarity, and in that moment when Christ is offered, they, Lord willing, embrace the grace of Christ. The converted on the other hand have a wildly different experience. They too experience conviction. The conviction may be some area of unholiness, or lack of discipline, or ungodly affection previously unthought of. But rather than experiencing the weight of the law pushing them into shame, the converted ought to experience the weight of grace that stands forgiving them in full. Conviction, in a believer’s life, ought to lead to a joyful response of the gospel! “Jesus forgave me for that too.” And then, through the gospel, to new grounds of holy living unto God.

May we strive for holiness together. The Gospel not only sets us free from the weight of sin, but sets us free to live lives of joyful obedience to God. To joy of being in Christ is intricately connected and overlapped with the joy of walking in holiness. Our experience of one ought to spur on our growth in the other.
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