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Many preachers today seem to be reasonably adept at exhortation, telling their listeners what they should do, must do, need to do, etc. That is a key element in the preaching task (in fact, exhortation is a gift of the Spirit, according to Romans 12:8). 

But exhortation alone isn't enough. 

Exhortation without identification, inspiration and application is unlikely to produce life change in the listener. And, of course, that is the goal (or should be) of all preaching. Let me explain what I mean by each of those terms. 

Identification

Preacher, in the first few minutes of your sermon your listener needs a compelling reason to pay attention, and there is no more compelling reason than for you to identify with his or her need. What John Watson (pen name: Ian MacLaren) wrote is true of churchgoers, too: "Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

They enter your church with many needs, some of them huge: a faltering marriage, a wayward child, unemployment, a scary diagnosis, etc. The preacher's earliest task is to identify with a person's need in such a way that holds out a promise that he or she may just be better off in some way by the time the preacher concludes. 

Inspiration

Another often neglected task in contemporary preaching is inspiration. That is, the preacher neglects to touch my emotions. It is good to smile or laugh, but it is better to feel my eyes water, my heart leap or my soul shout. I'm not talking about emotionalism, but inspiration. The former is empty; the latter is critical for the preacher who wants to see lives changed. 

Application

Finally, preacher, please give your listeners a helpful, practical way to put your exhortation into action. If you preached on loving one's neighbor, challenge me to show that love in some practical way today or this week — perhaps by learning my neighbor's name or mowing a neighbor's lawn. If you preached on prayer, invite me to pray for ten minutes each morning this week.

If you preached on baptism, have the baptismal full and ready for a response. Urge an action on me. Give me a tool to live out your message through the coming week. Call it homework. Call it life application. Call it whatever you like, but please don't let me leave church without having at least one answer to the question, "What am I supposed to do with this information?"

Bob Hostetler is a writer, editor and speaker from southeastern Ohio. His 30 books, which include Quit Going to Church and the novel The Bone Box, have sold over three million copies. He has coauthored a dozen books with Josh McDowell. Bob is a frequent speaker at churches, conferences and retreats. He has been a disc jockey, pastor, magazine editor, freelance book editor and, with his wife Robin, a foster parent to 10 boys (though not all at once).

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Jonathan Hughes

commented on Jun 18, 2013

A practical way to love ones neighber is to not trap ones neighber not saying AH - Ha to ones neighber if you happen to find out that they are a sexuality name you don't call yourself. A practical way of loving ones neighber is to see them as being better than you are. People that arrest do not do that.

Keith B

commented on Jun 18, 2013

Umm.....Jonathan.....What??

Gail Surrago

commented on Jun 18, 2013

I agree, exhortation is an empty pep-talk if not Scripturally sound and the preacher displays knowledge of what he is talking about. One of the main problems with Pastors today is they have an unabashed and pretentious display of hunger for "big " Ministry with all the glory and none of the responsibility. I found that pastors only lent a sympathetic ear to someone's need if it fit their agenda. It is the main reason I stuck with Evangelism and aid to poor and needy and stayed clear of a Pastoral role. I just didn't want to get caught up in it.

Gail Surrago

commented on Jun 18, 2013

I agree, exhortation is an empty pep-talk if not Scripturally sound and the preacher displays knowledge of what he is talking about. One of the main problems with Pastors today is they have an unabashed and pretentious display of hunger for "big " Ministry with all the glory and none of the responsibility. I found that pastors only lent a sympathetic ear to someone's need if it fit their agenda. It is the main reason I stuck with Evangelism and aid to poor and needy and stayed clear of a Pastoral role. I just didn't want to get caught up in it.

Gail Surrago

commented on Jun 18, 2013

I agree, exhortation is an empty pep-talk if not Scripturally sound and the preacher displays knowledge of what he is talking about. One of the main problems with Pastors today is they have an unabashed and pretentious display of hunger for "big " Ministry with all the glory and none of the responsibility. I found that pastors only lent a sympathetic ear to someone's need if it fit their agenda. It is the main reason I stuck with Evangelism and aid to poor and needy and stayed clear of a Pastoral role. I just didn't want to get caught up in it.

Derrick Tuper

commented on Jun 18, 2013

I agree with these four componants being the goal of all our sermons. We should seek to not only exhort but to make sure we are making connections, inspiring and motivating people to apply what the scriptures command us to do.

Charles Ingwe

commented on Jun 19, 2013

This is right article. I only wish to add by stating that on point one of identifying the need of the listener, it is always important that a pastor need not get into being troubled of tracing the exact needs of the congregants but as one is led into preparing by the guidance of the spirit, one scripture dealing with hard times in the life of a believer is able to deal with many souls at the same time. For the word of God is sharper than a double edged sword. It is able to strike into many directions at the same time in deeper dealings.

Tracy Irvin

commented on Jun 20, 2013

I agree that preaching is more than exhortation, but we must be careful. 1. "Preacher, in the first few minutes of your sermon your listener needs a compelling reason to pay attention, and there is no more compelling reason than for you to identify with his or her need. What John Watson (pen name: Ian MacLaren) wrote is true of churchgoers, too: "Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." What people need to hear is how Christ has conquered that battle in their place. That will kill pride, as when one thinks he is doing ok in that area, but also kill despair, for the one who is struggling in that area. People need to know their identity in Christ - as conqueror - which will lead to the other two. 2. "Another often neglected task in contemporary preaching is inspiration. That is, the preacher neglects to touch my emotions. " Shouldn't the knowledge that Christ has conquered the "battle" in my place lead to joy, conviction, humility, and praise - all emotions? 3 "Give me a tool to live out your message through the coming week. Call it homework. Call it life application. Call it whatever you like, but please don't let me leave church without having at least one answer to the question, "What am I supposed to do with this information?" I agree, application is important, but for reasons stated above, we must be careful that people don't equate their righteousness with their ability to "check off" the pastor's points of application; or their sense of despair because they are unable to "do" with the information as well as others. We point people to the gospel of Christ - their righteosness - AND the motivation for their good deeds. Any preaching that fails to point them to their identity in Christ, no matter how comforting, motivational, inspirational, or applicable, fails to glorify God and sanctify God's people.

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