Preaching with “Uses”


Some years ago Doug Pagitt, whom I was surprised to find is still a minor thing, caused something of a stir with the quote “Preaching doesn’t work.” The larger context was his book Preaching Re-Imagined which brought about a flurry of rebuttals. My favorite being Matt Chandlers delivered as a sermon at an Acts 29 Conference. 

Pagitts premise was to call preaching speaching, bringing to mind a rather shrill old school Billy Sunday or a dyed in the wool frozen chosen drone. Then push his new concept of progressional dialogue. Where he says something that causes someone to say something followed by another person saying something that has occurred to them due to the first two thoughts etc. “In a real way the conversation has moved forward.” Pagitt says. “From nowhere, to nowhere.” Was Chandlers witty reply. The most fun to come out of this for me was a published paper* from Master Seminary that was forced to admit (though this was relegated to a footnote) that the best living example of a preacher who proved Pagitt wrong was Mark Driscoll. All this is dated and a little inside I know, so let me get to the point.

Pagitt’s damage was done. While the emergent church has all but died or rebranded as the woke church; some of their stupid ideas continue to infect churches that are otherwise striving to be reformed. Just as the work and thinking of Driscoll has and continues to influence me. So The work of Rob Bells, Doug Pagitt, and Brian McLaren echo down the halls of evangelicalism. Like all heretics none of those three started out to become apostate. They like Pelagius before them were not mustachioed twirling villains laughing into their sleeve while throwing orphans out into the snow. They genuinely believe what they say, bone headed as it is. And that passion affects those who learned under them for a long time. That influence then is handed down to the disciples of their disciples, often in a weird form. But the vapors of stupid still linger.

I think one example of Pagitts particular brand of stupid is for preachers to try and have the congregation talk back to them. In the worst case scenarios I have seen this happen and the preacher consider that to have been the application of the text. Which is horrific. The rest of this piece is going to be an exhortation to preach, to preach effectively. To preach in a way and with an authority that would make Doug Pagitts head spin.

Stirring the Affections

There is a legitimate charge to be leveled at some preachers that they are emotional. Either in that they personally are too emotional. Like Rev. Green from Clarence Day’s God and My Father who would tear up in every sermon until Father stood up mid sermon shouting “Oh Damn!” and stormed out of the church. Or pastors who use such flowery language and insipid language trying to move the emotions of the congregation. Like a bastardized Spurgeon. Plucking the heartstrings gets the sermon only as far as the parking lot then the tears are dried and the point is forgotten. Instead preaching should be so clear and forthright that pastors should long to be criticized as J.C. Ryle was: “I came to hear a bishop speak, and I could understand every word that man said!” Preaching is to be clear but lest we fall into the category of the dull we must also listen to our Puritans. They were the doctors of the soul, they looked to stir the affections 

“Puritan sermons placed immense demands on the intellect, but this emphasis on the rational understanding of truth was balanced by an appeal the the heart and will. The Puritan sermon was affective: it aimed to affect the listener…The affective preaching resided, not in the manipulation of the audience by the preacher, but in the action of the Holy Spirit.” Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints

“As man is not so prone to live according to the truth he knows excepth it do deeply affect him, so neither doth his soul enjoy its sweetness, except speculation do pass to affection. The understanding is not the whole soul, and therefore cannot do the whole work… The understanding must take in truths, and prepare the for the will and it must receive them and commend them to the affections:… the affection are, as it were, the bottom of the soul.” – Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory

Puritans were so good at this that in her history of John Winthrop and the Boston Puritans atheist and comedic historian Sara Vowell, in her brilliant Wordy Shipmates, had to concede that while she set out to mock them their preaching stirred even her.

“I am a reasonably happy-go-lucky person with a serviceable sense of humor and a nice-enough apartment in New York, the most exciting city in the world. Once I decided to devote years of my life to deciphering the thoughts and feelings of the dreary religious fanatics who founded New England nearly four hundred years ago, I was often asked at parties by my fellow New Yorkers the obvious question, ‘What are you working on?’ When I would tell them a book about Puritans, they would often take a swig of the beer or bourbon in their hands and reply with either a sarcastic ‘Fun!’ or a disdainful ‘why?’

At which point, depending on my mood, I would either mumble something about my fondness for sermons as literature or mention taking my nephew to the Mayflower replica waterslide in a hotel pool in Plymouth. I would never answer with the honest truth. Namely, that in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers her eon the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.” – Sara Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates

Uses or as We would call them, Application

“Application is the skill by which the doctrine which has been properly drawn from Scripture is handled in ways, which are appropriate to the circumstances of the place and time and to the people in the congregation.” – William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying

Fair warning form here I will largely just be directing you, dear reader, to William Perkins. My goal is to whet your appetite for his most excellent book The Art of Prophesying which is available from The Banner of Truth Trust.**

Primarily Puritans referred to uses, which would today be called application in a sermon outline. Uses is a good word because of its basic utilitarian nature. To preach well is to stir the congregation to act, “tomorrow morning when the alarm clock goes off” as the old preacher said. The affections have been stirred, now they must know what to do with this desire to be godly, they must be instructed, in the specifics. 

“The basic principal in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law of gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect stimulates and stirs it up. But provides no remedy for it. However, the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it. When we are regenerated by him we receive the strength we need both to believe the gospel and to do what it commands. The law is, therefore, first in the order of teaching; then comes the gospel.” – William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying

The error that primarily gets made is for a preacher to prefer one over the other. The fire and brimstone preacher who dwells long and hard on the little treadmill of the congregations pet peeves of secular sins and the wrath they store up. Or the Preachers that are all gospel, Jesus meek and mild, a milquetoast savior who carries you across beaches at sunset. I exaggerate but the in-between in also well known. As Doug Wilson is fond of saying the gospel must be preached like Laphroaig straight from the cask*** A gospel with no sin to turn from is a gospel with no direction. 

7 Types

“There are basically seven ways in which application should be made, in keeping with seven different spiritual conditions. 1. Those who are unbelievers and are both ignorant and unteachable. 2. Those who are teachable, but ignorant. 3. Those who have knowledge, but have never been humbled. 4. Those who have been humbled. 5. Those who already believe. We must teach them. 6. Those who have fallen back. 7. Churches with both believers and un believers.” – William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying

I would here prefer to reproduce in it’s entirety but copyright and space will not permit. What is interesting that in all of the above cases Perkins made room for pastoral counsel. Time for people in the congregation to respond with their thoughts and to be catechized. But he never allows for that interaction at the expense of a minister of word and sacrament bringing to the congregation, in force, preaching with direct application delivered. 

In short the modern desire to progressively dialogue, under the guise of feedback or counseling from the pulpit, would have been condemned in the strongest way in a Puritan church. If for no other reason than the congregant who is wrong should not be given a platform to address the whole body incorrectly. Application comes from the study and preparation work of the preacher steeped in the text and in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Even in Perkins list of who application must be made to it should be noted that even the best parishioner is to be taught. Sermons are not conversations, they are not participatory in the way we generally think. 

“The Puritan practice of affective preaching meant that listening to a sermon was not a spectator sport but an active involvement. Critiques of sermons by liturgical advocates, in the Puritan era or today, misunderstand the dynamics of good sermon listening. For the Puritans, listening to a sermon was an active exercise that required the full attention of the listener.” – Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints

These practices included note taking, meditating on the sermon from the notes, and audibly repeating and discussing it with family, again from the copious notes, and these were done thought the week.

“The Purpose of preaching, in other words, was judged not by what went on the the church, but by the the effect of the sermon outside the church.” – Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints

These practices today could be enhanced with congregations being taught to not use digital Bibles, but to turn them off and use bound Scriptures to remove distraction. And throughout the week taking advantage of our digital age and re-listening to the sermon over the course of the week. Short attention spans should not require a preacher to shorten or become more interactive. The role of a pastor is to teach, grow the congregations attention and active listening practices, do not bow to them thus aborting the word preached. 


I hope that at this point is is apparent that a preacher has no time for extracurriculars. We are commanded by Christ through his preacher Paul:

“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.“ – 2 Timothy 4:2

Preaching is not a conversation. It requires uses/applications. Congregations should not be relied upon to make the connections for themselves. A unified church requires a unified thought. Bodies need a singular brain. The Body of Christ requires a singular preacher. 


*Banner Books if you ever want to send me books I will be happy to read, review and in all likelihood plug them shamelessly to all five of my readers. Just saying…

**Aged ten years… It will knock your socks off. Almost enough to convert me from the cult of Ardbeg.

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