Is Great Preaching Killing Discipleship?

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 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 disciplemaking. 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 disciplemaking? 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, but 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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Rick Howerton
Rick has one passion… To see “a biblical small group within walking distance of every person on the planet making disciples that make disciples.” He is presently pursuing this passion as the Small Group and Discipleship Specialist at LifeWay Church Resources. Rick has authored or co-authored multiple books, studies, and leader training resources including A Different Kind of Tribe: Embracing the New Small Group Dynamic, Destination Community: Small Group Ministry Manual, The Gospel and the Truth: Living the Message of Jesus, Small Group Life Ministry Manual: A New Approach to Small Groups, Redeeming the Tears: a Journey Through Grief and Loss, Small Group Life: Kingdom, Small Group Kickoff Retreat: Experiential Training for Small Group Leaders, and Great Beginnings: Your First Small Group Study, Disciples Path: A Practical Guide to Disciple Making. Rick’s varied ministry experiences as an collegiate minister, small group pastor, teaching pastor, elder, full-time trainer and church consultant, as well as having been a successful church planter gives him a perspective of church life that is all-encompassing and multi-dimensional. Rick is a highly sought after communicator and trainer.