Sermons do a lot of things, but sermons don’t make disciples.
Here’s the dilemma: the church’s mission is to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20). If sermons don’t make disciples, then how does the church fulfill its mission? If sermons don’t directly fulfill the church’s mission, then why is so much emphasis placed on the weekend worship service and the sermon?
What Do Sermons Do?
I’m a preacher. I have nothing against preaching. I take exception, however, in depending on preaching to accomplish what it cannot accomplish.
Sermons serve to inspire, inform, and motivate. People can come to Christ as a result of responding to a pastor proclaiming the Word of Truth. Preachers are brokers in hope. They can help people reframe their lives from a context of frustration and despair to embrace hope and God’s love. Sermons anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit are dynamic things that can make an impact. Yet, sermons don’t make disciples.
If discipleship was a uniform process or the mastery of a body of knowledge, then the information delivered in a sermon would certainly add to knowledge acquisition. But, that’s not what discipleship is. Disciples aren’t processed. They’re crafted.
How Do You Make Disciples?
Disciples make disciples. While much of Western Christianity has depended on the definition of a disciple as a student, then placed the student in a class and delivered thorough teaching, it has ended up with very educated, yet disobedient students. Here’s the proof: what they know is not adequately reflected in their attitudes and actions. I’m not building a case for perfectionism. But, I am a believer in the principle that what people truly believe is reflected in what they do. Or, put another way, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).
Now, I realize that some at this point will wonder if I am advocating some works-based approach to Christianity. This is where I’m going: if church-goers have no desire for the things of God, then I would question whether they truly belong to God. As Paul writes to the Philippians, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). We don’t work for our salvation, but we work out our salvation because God is working in us.
If disciples aren’t merely students, then what are they? The word “disciple” is derived from several different words including follow and “to rub off on.” The model Jesus gave us was to spend 75 percent of His time with His disciples and 25 percent with the crowd. How much time is spent on the sermon? How much time is spent making disciples?
Why did Jesus spend such a disproportionate amount of time with a small group of people? Jesus knew how we learn. People learn by imitation, not instruction.
Who has been the most powerful influence in your life? For most people, they would say their parents. You act more like your parents than anyone else. After all, you could read a dozen books written by experts in marriage, yet your default is a marriage that more closely resembles your parents’ marriage than anything presented by the experts. (Depressing thought, huh?) Change requires intentional effort, committed support, and better models to imitate.
Paul challenged his followers to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:9). Imitation requires transparency. Imitation requires time and attention. Disciples make disciples.
Why is the Sermon so Important Then?
Sermons can start something. A presentation of the Gospel can help someone start their relationship with Christ and their journey of discipleship. The sermon can lead a congregation to love their neighbors, to focus on the majesty of God, and to hold on to hope. But, the result of a sermon is not another sermon. The result of a sermon is a next step – make a decision, join a group, lead a mission, serve your neighbor, pray…you get it.
This is why I’m a big believer in alignment series and groups that help church-goers take their weekends into their weeks. The sermon can deliver a challenge, and the group can provide the support and accountability necessary to meet the challenge. The sermon by itself, however, is forgotten usually within 48 hours. If they can’t remember it, how are they supposed to do it? Groups help with this.
On any given weekend, pastors have the opportunity to lead a large portion of their congregations to take a step. The weekend service is the largest things a church does in any given week, but it’s not the most important thing they do. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Disciples make disciples.
For most pastors, whether their churches are 100 people, 1,000 people, or 10,000+ people, would view the sheer scale of disciples making disciples as completely daunting. The key is to start small and multiply. Jesus invested in 12 disciples which multiplied over 2,000 years into some 2 billion people. If pastors invested in just eight people, and then those disciples made disciples within four years the church would have 4,096 disciples making disciples (8x8x8x8). Without disciples making disciples, pastors have audiences for their sermons.
Back in college a speaker challenged us to think about 5 sermons that influenced our lives for Christ. To be honest, most of us couldn’t come up with one – not even the sermon from last Sunday. Then, the speaker asked us to name 5 people who had influenced us for Christ. Those names immediately came to mind.
The key to discipleship is not a process or a proclamation. The key to discipleship is a disciple.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.
Very much agree! If sermons could do it, we would be done already! 🙂
Allen, I agree with you that “sermons start something.” I see sermons as the launching pad and a reference to go back to when needed. Thanks for your posts and always supporting those like me who serve as Small Groups Pastor.
Years ago, I heard Brett Eastman ask, “Is your worship service a catalyst or a container?” It really made me think. Today, I use the statement, “Do you have an audience or an army? Audiences need to be entertained. Armies need their marching orders.” I’m a preacher, so I’m not against preaching, but where are we leading our people through our sermons. How can we start something in the worship service that motivates our members to do something other than come back next week?
The “Concluding Thoughts” recalling the sermons that have shaped us vs. the disciples who have shaped us drove the point home like a Babe Ruth grand slam!
I’ve never heard it put better!
Great article Alan. As a pastor I always felt preaching was not enough and something was missing. When I begin to understand that the key aspect of of the Great Commission was making disciples it changed my whole concept of ministry. Disciples make disciples. Its the act of reproducing yourself in others. I think our evangelical churches need a revival of disciple making. Thanks brother.
I agree with your cautions about preaching becoming the whole deal to some in making disciples. However, I think you miss a couple of key thoughts about how preaching fits or at least should. John 8:31 says, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings.” It our preaching and teaching is done well, it should provide that solid (and practical) basis for how to be a follow.
Perhaps the bigger problem is our preachers and teachers. My experience is that many are still spending more time trying to impress their seminary profs (or whoever) rather than providing practical application to life and oh yes, discipleship. Just a thought.
I agree that preaching definitely should provide the “ought to” of Discipleship and to your point it’s great when the some of the “how to” of Discipleship is also conveyed in a sermon. Then the truly spirit-gifted teachers can selflessly help a disciple-in-the-making apply the “how to” in order to transform their behaviors and thus their life. It’s all God’s plan, isn’t it?