The No. 1 Problem With Preaching in America

Teaching without application is dangerous. (Charisma Leader archives)

I believe the No. 1 problem with preaching in America is its lack of application. Too many pastors use an academic model in which they simply lecture their congregations. As a result, people often walk out of worship services with their lives unchanged.

The lack of application in preaching has led to half-empty, financially strapped churches around the country. Many of the moral issues that plague our society are consequences of this lack of personal application. We're teaching doctrine and knowledge without ever making the point of how it applies to the lives of people.

In the first 15 years of Saddleback, we had no building. In fact, we used 79 different buildings throughout those 15 years. We even worshipped in a tent for a few years. We would freeze in the winter, get soaked in the spring, burn up in the summer and blow away in the fall. Despite those disruptions, our church kept growing. People will put up with a lot of adversity if God is changing their lives through the teaching and preaching.

Next Sunday, in churches all around the world, thousands of messages will be taught. Although preachers will speak a lot of words, far too many Christians will do little with what they hear.

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The result? Churches and society will continue to struggle because people aren't applying God's Word to their lives.

So why don't more pastors build applications into their sermons?

—We assume people will make their own connections to the applications. We think that if we teach people the Bible and interpret it for them, they can figure out the application. But they typically don't. It requires hard work to apply God's Word to our lives; most people won't even try.

We leave the application to the Holy Spirit. Here's the problem with that kind of thinking: You're the Holy Spirit's tool for making this happen! He will speak through you, but you need to explain the application to people.

The application is too convicting and makes people feel uncomfortable. We're afraid that if we preach the application of Scripture, people will say we're meddling and should mind our own business.

It takes more time and effort. We spend so much time interpreting the Bible that we run out of time before we get to the application. It takes time to think about and process biblical application.

We're afraid to be labeled "simplistic." You have to care more about God changing lives in your church than impressing other pastors or denominational leaders.

I don't care what the reasons are. It's dangerous—to you and your church—to preach information without application, and here's why.

Knowledge Without Application Produces Pride

The Bible says, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1, CSB). Some of the most carnal, cantankerous people I know are storehouses of Bible knowledge. They can quote the Bible frontward and backward, but they use it to hammer on people. They can explain any passage and defend any doctrine, but they're unloving.

The Bible says, "If I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2, MEV).

Without application, Bible knowledge doesn't help anyone. It just produces pride, which destroys all that it touches, just as Proverbs 16:18 teaches.

Knowledge Without Application Brings Judgment

James 4:17 says, "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, it is sin." Deeper knowledge brings deeper responsibility. Most people in our churches know a lot more of the Bible than they're actually living out. Whenever we teach people the Bible and they don't apply what they've learned, we're increasing the judgment upon our church. That should scare us.

Pastor, you're a bridge-builder. Every time you preach, you're building a bridge between the timeless truth of God's Word and the contemporary world. We preach the "faith which was once delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). We don't have the authority to change the message, but the application and delivery must change for every generation.

We should never forget that there are dramatic consequences for not teaching people how to apply God's Word to their lives.

We need pastors who, like the men of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12:32, understand the times in which they live and challenge their congregations to live out the truth of the Bible.

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church, one of America's largest and most influential churches. He is the author of the New York Times' bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life. His book The Purpose Driven Church was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th century. Pastor Rick started The PEACE Plan to show the local church how God works through ordinary people to address the five global giants of spiritual emptiness, self-serving leadership, poverty, disease and illiteracy. You can listen to Daily Hope, Pastor Rick's daily 25-minute audio teaching, or sign up for his free daily devotionals at He is also the founder of, a global online community created to encourage pastors.

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