Thursdays Are for Thinking Out Loud: Is Great Preaching Killing Discipleship?

empty-pulpit

There are things about church leadership that I find myself mulling over, perplexities that I haven’t come to a conclusion about but am wrestling with. Sometimes on Thursdays I reveal those to all who would read about them and sometimes gain understanding from the responses I get.

Over the last few months I’ve been doing mental gymnastics about the preaching event and how it may be affecting disciple making. I’d be grateful for your opinion.

Here’s the deal… Great preaching and great preachers are everywhere. This shouldn’t surprise us. Illustrations and theological understandings that took hours to find when preparing sermons in the past can be found in a few minutes via the internet and Bible programs that are composed of enough books to fill any pastor’s library. A quick search will get a sermonizer great content in seconds. Not only that, today’s preachers can hear the greatest communicators any time they like via youtube and when they do, they can learn to use mannerisms effectively as well as voice inflections, hear the tempo of great orators, and learn creative ways to make a point. To top it all off, most preachers in past decades had to preach three times a week. Today the preachers who lead great churches preach one sermon weekly and have multiple staff members to handle the administrative duties of the church and most if not all of the counseling. Great preachers and sermons are easy to come by!

Are these great sermonizers hindering disciple making? I’m asking myself this question. The list below is just a few of the thoughts that are running through my head.

  • Celebrity preachers are sometimes made into idols. A celebrity preacher is anyone who is dangerously revered by the congregation they preach to. A church will know if they have or have created in their own minds a celebrity preacher if, when speaking of what is taking place at their church, they talk about their preacher and how great his sermons are rather than speaking of Jesus and what He’s doing in the lives of the people at the church and in their own lives. It’s impossible to grow spiritually if idol worship is taking place.
  • The preaching event is perceived as the primary time when revelation occurs. God reveals Himself through His Word in various times and places. One of those is during the weekly sermon. These sermons normally last 30 to 45 minutes. But, if someone is going to grow to full spiritual maturity they need to spend time in God’s Word at least this amount of time on an ongoing, perhaps daily, basis. During these private study times the Holy Spirit is the teacher. When a pastor believes that their sermon is the primary time that God reveals Himself, they may inadvertently downplay the importance of daily time alone in God’s Word and in so doing keep spiritual babes sucking on the ecclesiastical baby bottle for a lifetime.
  • Some sermon based small group ministries aren’t studying the Bible, they’re discussing the sermon. Learning to study the Bible is a key component to spiritual growth. We learn to process the Bible privately by seeing passages processed during a small group meeting. When a sermon based Bible study is written it is almost always conversational. The question is, is the group studying/conversing about passages of Scripture, God’s words, or clichés that the preacher voiced during the sermon. The great preachers tend to be the ones who lead their church to do sermon based Bible studies. Why? Because people love the sermons, love their pastor, and, due to this, enjoy sermon based Bible studies. Also… in many sermon based studies Jesus plays second fiddle to the senior pastor. I once attended a sermon based Bible study that was flabbergasting. During that conversation the pastor was praised six times by name, the name of Jesus wasn’t voiced once.
  • Great preachers may inadvertently lead people to believe they can’t study the Bible on their own. When great preachers tell the congregation what the Hebrew or Greek says and use theological terminology that is beyond the knowledge base of the average church attender, they may lead the people in the pew to believe they will never have enough knowledge to study God’s Word in their prayer closet.
  • Many preachers have been led to believe that preaching great sermons is the key to the spiritual growth of the church membership. Some seminaries have done away with much of the team that trains education ministers and groups pastors. In these seminaries it is believed that meaningful and deep theological sermons are the key to transformation. This may be the reason the sermon is getting so much press and individual spiritual disciplines so little.

Is anyone else grappling with these kinds of perplexities? If so, what are you thinking?

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7 comments

  1. Rick, the sacred cows are going to start hating Thursdays if you keep this up,…

    1) No other church furnishing is more ego satisfying than the pulpit.
    2) ‘Merican evangelicals want fast and easy, so we can move on to a real meal at the restaurant before the rest of the church crowd arrives.
    3) Hearing a good, entertaining sermon is what going to church is all about, right?

    I’m thinking, you’ve struck a nerve here and I’m looking forward to next Thursday.

  2. Thursdays are indeed good for thinking out loud. I look at the situation you describe in a slightly different way. I’m extremely encouraged that there are so many excellent teaching pastors – especially all the dynamic young guys really expounding on God’s Word. To do what they do in obedience to Paul’s “trustworthy statement” in 1 Timothy 4:9-16 is a blessing.

    If the only voices were a bunch of old guys like some of us, the future of the church might be in real trouble. All these young, dynamic preachers are themselves disciples. How did that happen? They have been discipled by God using someone in their lives. So it’s evident that discipleship is not dead.

    I do agree with your concerns, however, that if church leaders become more interested in putting on a good show during that worship time and squeezing the time of teaching God’s Word into smaller and smaller slots, we may be “training” our congregations to be shoppers and consumers of fun experiences or concert-style environments.

    Church attenders who are more interested in “feeling good” after the service or small group meeting might be more of a cause for the demise of discipleship in the corporate church.

    I think that in this age of an over abundance of choice in all the churches around us. An emphasis on helping people find those great Bible teaching, small group emphasizing, and Great Commission focused churches could be used by God to grow a healthy, discipling church.

    But hey… by next Thursday I might be thinking about something else!

    Love the blog – May God continue to put His good hand on you. Ezra 7:9.10.

  3. Hi Len, We’re on the same page. Didn’t meant to demean great preaching. Just wondering if the emphasis on the pulpit is taking away from the necessity of doing more than just hearing great sermons.

  4. Great thoughts Rick….thank you for being a voice for the church body. I’ve been in the “Celebrity Pastor” environment. You nailed it perfectly. And I thank you for putting thoughts out there that need to be communicated. Sheep will follow the leaders of the church and when Pastor’s forget who they are supposed to be pointing people to its heartbreaking and scary!

  5. Depends on whether the preacher/pastor understands and champions discipleship. There are excellent communicators i.e. Saddleback, NorthPoint, Highlands, to name a few who understand that preaching changes the way a person thinks but discipleship systems are crucial to changing the way a person lives.

  6. Totally agree with your post. This has been an observation of mine for 20 years. One problem is “How do you speak critically about what is perceived to be the only expression of the ‘ministry of the Word’?” You have done this very well. Thank you!
    Great preaching does not always work against life-on-life discipleship, but anything that can be viewed as more legitimate than spending time with a small group of people committed to applying the Word must be shown for what it can become — a foolish substitute. (Matthew 7:26)

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