“Why do I spend all this time on these sermons if people forget almost everything I say by the time they’re halfway home?!? Sermons are so ineffective!”
Jared was a little worked up. He’s a pastor, and he was realizing that what he put the most ministry effort into (his sermons) was bearing very little tangible fruit in the lives of the people of his congregation.
Jared’s dilemma is pretty common. I’ve been there. Maybe you have, too?
You can’t make disciples by preaching alone
When leaders start participating in our coaching, one of the disheartening realizations many have is how little their sermons seem to matter in the day-to-day discipleship and transformation of the people in their congregations.
These leaders learn they can’t make disciples from the pulpit alone. People don’t automatically become more like Jesus simply by listening to sermons and taking notes. So why keep preaching?
If we want to take discipleship and mission seriously, does preaching even make sense anymore? At best, sermons seem antiquated and unnecessary, and at worst they can actually work against discipleship and mission.
So why preach?
It’s true that you can’t make disciples by merely preaching sermons. So why preach at all? Maybe the sermon is an old relic we can discard once we’ve undergone a “missional revolution” in our churches?
Actually, no. Sermons are still crucial for empowering and equipping the people of God for mission. But not all sermons are created equal. It depends a lot on what you’re doing when you’re preaching, and what you put in your sermons.
To adapt a Eugene Peterson quote, I contend that preaching is more important for discipleship than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.
In other words, the problem might not be that you’re preaching, but how you’re preaching. Perhaps you don’t need to stop preaching per se, but instead transform your preaching so that it supports and undergirds your disciple-making efforts.
Because the way you preach can support discipleship and mission, but it can also hinder discipleship and mission!
Preaching that hinders discipleship
The fact is that there is such a thing as bad preaching that actually works against your best disciple-making intentions. Here are 4 examples of sermons that can cripple discipleship in your church.
1. The Doctoral Thesis
The Doctoral Thesis is the sermon that seeks to convey correct information, as if forgetting is the main problem people have (“Oh, that’s right, God loves me! I totally forgot”).
In at attempt to make sure everyone knows the right facts to believe, this sermon exhaustively exegetes every aspect of the passage. It’s almost never shorter than 45 minutes.
Under the guise of “in-depth Bible teaching,” it only succeeds in making everyone feel impressed with themselves at how much they know about the Bible.
“Sermon-as-doctoral-thesis” cripples your discipleship efforts because it inoculates people against putting anything into actual practice in their lives. It ends up being the kind of knowledge that only succeeds in “puffing up” instead of actually “building up” (1 Cor 8:1).
2. The Guilt Trip
The Guilt Trip sermon tries to get people to modify their behavior by making them feel bad. Toxic fear, guilt, and shame are heaped on people’s shoulders to make them stop sinning.
Pastors who preach The Guilt Trip are often admired for being “serious about discipleship,” but they’re trying to do God’s work with the devil’s tools.
It works against discipleship and mission because God doesn’t use fear, guilt, or shame to get his people to behave. God’s kindness leads us to repentance. Love is the new law for those in Christ.
As Dallas Willard said, “Guilt is never a profitable motivation in the kingdom of God.” It’s also not a profitable motivator in the kingdom of God.
3. The Pep Rally
After people get tired of Guilt Trip preaching, they often end up at a church that preaches The Pep Rally. This sermon is verbal Chicken Soup for the Soul.
The Pep Rally is filled with nice, encouraging, therapeutic platitudes that attempt to help people feel a little less stressed out when they come to church. It’s a little weekend “pick-me-up” after a tough week of life.
It’s a kitten poster telling you to “Hang In There, Baby!” Its main goal is to make you feel better, to inspire you, to “fill you up” for the week to come.
But it doesn’t help you make disciples because medicating or dismissing our negative emotions doesn’t help us become more like Jesus.
4. The TED Talk
Finally, The TED Talk is a sermon that attempts to dazzle the congregation with something they’ve never thought of before.
Usually it tries to unearth some obscure meaning from the original language and amaze everyone with its original and profound insight.
The basic goal is that people would be blown away. Every sermon must leave people amazed, posting “Mind. Blown.” on their social media accounts afterward.
But this sermon cripples your discipleship efforts as well, because disciples don’t need more AMAZING CONTENT to quell their boredom, they need the steadiness and consistency of learning to pay attention to what God is already doing.
Preaching that supports discipleship
So where does that leave us? Admittedly, the sermons above are caricatures, but they’re not that exaggerated from the sermons you’ll hear in many churches.
So what is preaching for? And what kind of preaching would support discipleship and mission?
Because here’s the deal: people don’t remember your sermons. But this is OK, actually. Why? Because the goal of preaching is not that people would remember the sermon and apply it to their lives.
Instead, the goal of preaching is that, as the Body of Christ, we would hear the good news of the kingdom of God and respond to it, right then and there, as a community.
There’s a LOT there that I can’t unpack fully in this brief article (including the fact the gospel is WAY more than “going to heaven when you die”), but discipleship is essentially about learning to pay attention to and participate in the ways God is at work in and around you.
Preaching that supports discipleship, then, is preaching that proclaims the good news of what God is doing now, and invites us all to respond to the good news by repenting and believing (which means something different than what most assume).
And you don’t respond later this week when you pull out your sermon notes and think about how to “apply the message.” (Spoiler alert: nobody does this.)
No, we respond right now! Why? Because God is speaking right now!
Preaching that supports discipleship is a proclamation of the good news that God has opened the way for us to participate in his life and invites us to respond now that gospel.
Preaching can’t be good advice, a TED talk, a pep rally, a guilt trip, or doctoral thesis. It must be a contextualized proclamation of good news that calls people to respond now.
How to preach for discipleship and mission
So how do we learn to do this? How do we learn to trust the gospel of the kingdom enough to simply proclaim it as an announcement of good news, and invite people to respond?
There’s a LOT to say about this, so we created a free webinar to discuss some of what we’ve learned over the past 15 years about preaching for a culture of discipleship and mission. You can watch the replay by filling out the form below.
Sign up for this free webinar recording to hear a discussion on the kind of preaching that can actually support disciple-making and missional living in the local church.
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Allan Bruce says
Amazing, loved it, took down notes and could only think of application, responding, because God is speaking to me now
This is so powerful, and right to the point. I have no idea how to share this with my friend, my pastor, who preaches with all his heart. Doctoral thesis is the number one approach.
He would be crushed. That’s what he believes is calling us.
Hello guys. Always enjoy your thought-provoking discussions and links to helpful sites. What I continue to struggle with is where continually preaching to believers is even a New Testament concept. What I do see is that all believers should be encouraged and inclined to participate in edifying one another in their meetings. “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
Colossians 3:16 NIV
In fact a few years ago I was in Zimbabwe doing a youth retreat for teenage orphans. I don’t know why then and why there but the Holy Spirit asked me a question that has changed my approach to discipleship and teaching and preaching altogether. He asked me, “Why do you so all your seed in the barn?“ It may not be entirely about what kind of sermon we preach. We may need to more intentionally examine the context or environment in which the word is sown.