Practical application often has a bad rap among Christians.
Some people read the Bible and believe they’ve done the work of applying it if they come away with a list of truths about God. “But that’s not practical,” many object. “When does the truth get out of your head and into your life?”
Others read the Bible and believe they’ve done the work of applying it if they come away with a list of behaviors to carry out the next day. “But you can’t reduce the knowledge of God to 10 easy steps,” the first group objects. “It doesn’t matter what we do if it’s not grounded in the truth of the gospel.”
And both groups are right, after a fashion.
What is Application?
Applying is believing. John wrote his Gospel with one purpose: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). Have you studied that book lately? You may find each chapter pretty repetitive, and fresh or innovative application will seem like a long-lost dream until you move to another book. I once had a guy stop coming to a Bible study in John for this very reason.
Applying is doing. James wrote his epistle to highlight the “doing” life of the scattered people of God. “Be steadfast under trial.” “Be doers of the word.” “Show no partiality.” “Do not speak evil against one another.” And so on. Theology is not absent from James, but it covers itself in thick layers of action and imperative.
Let us not forget, however, that applying is also loving and cherishing. We can know the truth and still be far from God (James 2:19). We can do all the right things and yet not come to the only one who can give us life (John 5:39-40).
As we lead Bible studies, we do well if we help people to believe and do. But we must not neglect the opportunity we have week in and week out to help them deepen their love for God and be conformed to the image of his Son. Our application should target the heart.
How to Target the Heart in Bible Study Discussions
It’s not rocket science, but it does need forethought and intention.
1. Show them how to do it. “Follow the leader” isn’t merely a game for preschoolers. Your group members play it every week. You must apply the Bible to your heart, and you must do so publicly with your group. Only then will they see how it’s done and that it’s not so scary (Heb 13:7, Phil 4:9, 1 Cor 11:1). Figure out why vulnerability is so hard for you, and repent.
2. Ask about obstacles or hindrances. When we hit a good, solid “do” application from the text, I find it helpful also to ask people, “what keeps us from doing this thing God wants us to do?” When people answer that question honestly, they’re usually cracking open the door to their heart. It often reveals what they value more than obedience, or more than the Lord himself.
3. Suggest options. Getting to the heart is not as complicated as some may think. We love something other than God, and good leaders can expose those loves and offer more godly alternatives. Are you concerned with what people think of you? What would happen if you didn’t get that [promotion, mobile device, spouse, child] you want?
4. Celebrate progress. We get more of what we reward, and we foster micro-cultures in the process. So when someone gets it and identifies character deficiencies or expresses desires for deep-seated change, I’m all over it. If I give more air time to those folks than to the folks who want to discuss their third cousin’s upcoming surgery, the latter folks learn quickly how to target their own hearts as well.