It is said that humorist Will Rogers once gave a perfectly simple solution for dealing with the threat of German U-boats during World War I.
“You boil the ocean. The U-boats will turn pink and pop to the surface. Then you pick them off one-by-one.”
When asked how, exactly, does one go about boiling the ocean, Rogers replied, “It’s your job to work out the details!”
How this applies to preaching
When preaching application, we need to make sure that we’re not just telling our listeners to “boil the ocean” — that we’re not offering up a simplistic solution beyond the realm of possibility.
Like telling a depressed person to snap out of it.
Or an addict to stop being addicted.
Or a person struggling with besetting sin to just be obedient.
Rick Warren tells about listening to sermons as a young believer, taking notes and frequently writing YBH — meaning: Yes, but how?
In our sermons, we need to give enough “but how” details that our listeners know which step to take next. Otherwise, we’re just telling them the boil the ocean.
At this point, your response could well be: “Yes, but how do you answer the ‘yes but how’ question?”
Here are a couple of things to consider.
1. The best strategy is to speak from experience. How were you able to do what you’re challenging your listeners to do? Which steps did you take to overcome sin, or to deal with discouragement, or to experience victory, or to grow in your faith? Teach your listeners, then, to take the same steps.
Which leads me to say…
2. Break your application into pieces. When your application includes something as out of reach as heating the entire ocean to 212° Fahrenheit, the flaw will become obvious when you try to break it into steps.
Also, keep in mind that some actions need to be taken a step at a time — and step two can’t be done until step one is complete.
For example, if you want to lead the league in stolen bases, you first have to know something about getting on base.
I’m saying, then: Make sure your listeners understand how to get to first before you start sending them to second. Break your application into as many pieces — as many steps — as necessary for them to be able to do what you’re challenging them to do.
It was kind of funny when Will Rogers told the US Army to boil the ocean. But when preachers give their listeners the same vague, impractical, ultimately impossible advice, it leaves them frustrated and discouraged.
Your listeners need to hear the but how. The greater the challenge, the greater the need for a clear and concise step-by-step explanation. This helps them become more than mere hearers; it helps them become doers of the Word.