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 church goers 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 10 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?"
The Lord is at work redeeming and sanctifying a people for Himself.