The Question No One Wants to Ask…


If any post ever posted on Cerulean Sanctum runs the risk of alienating more people, this is the post. I hope you will all stay with me and think hard about the issues raised here. I don’t want you to come to easy answers that maintain the status quo. I want you to think about what you see in your church and others like it. I want you to be honest with yourself before God like you’ve never been so honest before in your entire life.

I was outside walking my property, thinking about life, when it struck me—hard. And the more I thought about it, the harder it was to escape the question or dodge what it might mean for us.

The question:

Is pulpit preaching ineffective at creating disciples?

Told you it would be a stunner.

I ask that question as part of an examination of my own life. Walking around my property, I tried to remember great sermons I’d heard preached from the pulpit. I reached back over thirty years of being a born-again believer and strained to think of the thousands of sermons I’ve heard preached in my life, sermons preached by some of the most famous preachers in the United States, sermons preached by regional church leaders, and sermons preached by preachers known only to their congregation. Sermons that were expository, topical, or narrative-based. Sermons carefully crafted. Sermons that came out of nowhere. Sermons of all styles, methods, and lengths. And the more I thought about all those sermons, the more I couldn’t escape the truth that collectively they’d had little effect on my growth in Christ.

How is that possible?

Well some of you might be thinking that I’m one of those hard soils where the sowed seed of the Word wound up gobbled by birds. I can’t argue against that entirely. Soak it up, baby!I don’t think any of us can say with all certainty that we’re immune to losing some of what we hear. Let’s be honest: Can you remember three points in detail from a sermon your pastor preached three months ago? Didn’t think so. In fact, I would guess that many of you can’t even recall with absolute certainty the topic your pastor preached on just a month ago! I know that my pastor, an anointed preacher, preached on love this last Sunday, but apart from a few points about Jesus saying that loving God and loving my neighbor sums up the commandments, most of that message is a blur to me.

In fact, if I examined thirty years of fine preaching I’ve heard, both in church and in conference settings, I can only think of two or three messages that have stuck with me to any extent. And even those are hazy beyond one or two main points.

The second comeback to my assertion would state that the reason I don’t remember those sermons is because they weren’t preached by the power of the Holy Spirit by men who take preaching seriously. If that’s what you think, well, I have no other comment for you than to say you’re utterly wrong. In fact, if we excluded some of the great preachers I’ve heard whose messages I’ve now forgotten, we’d have to knock out every nationally known preacher. And yes, the preachers you swear fealty to. Even the ones with the screaming fanboys. Yep, forgotten. (Scary, isn’t it? Like I said, let’s not lie to ourselves.)

A third comeback would say that I actually do remember all those pulpit-preached sermons, but I’ve so internalized the little bits and pieces of them over the years that they’ve become indistinguishable from the sum total of my discipleship experience. That may, in fact, be true. Perhaps it’s the nature of hearing sermons preached from the pulpit or the conference hall floor to insinuate themselves into your soul and blend in with all the other good stuff that accumulates there over the years.

But I don’t believe that’s entirely the case, either, and I’ll tell you why.

In my thirty years as a Christian, I can say without hesitation that I do remember some messages with crystal clarity. And each of those lasting messages possessed characteristics not found in today’s pulpit preaching.

As a fourteen-year old in eighth grade, I remember the retreat to Lutheran Memorial Camp that ended in my salvation. Like it was yesterday. I distinctly remember Fred, the old gentleman who sat down in a circle with fifteen of us, as he looked each one of us in the eye and spoke. I can recall the flannel shirt he wore. He preached about Jesus and why He had to come, and what His coming meant to lost people. Even now, I hear the love in that man’s voice. The words he spoke still burn. I remember he cared deeply about each person there. Thirty years later, I can still feel the intimacy of the moment.

As a nineteen-year old college student, I remember The Relationship Seminar, where Charlie, the leader of the campus ministry at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, spoke about what it meant to love others as Christ loves us. I can still hear his calm voice telling of the lessons he learned about loving unconditionally as he bathed a profoundly retarded man who could not control his bowels and bladder. I remember him speaking of the woman whose husband cheated on her while overseas in the war, of the no-fault divorce he secured, of his subsequent cancer, and how (after he died) that spited Christian wife loved unconditionally and took into her home the children of his adultery and the woman who replaced her in her former husband’s life. In my head, I see the dozen people who gathered in Charlie’s modest house to eat a simple meal together before he spoke. I remember how blessed we all felt to be crammed together in his tiny family room, and the graciousness of his wife as she cooked for us. Even now, I sense the blessedness of hanging around afterward, ruminating on what we had just heard.

As a 33-year old, I remember the Bible study I led at Phil’s place. I remember how much the half-dozen of us guys wrangled over the meaning of the words of God in Hebrews. I remember seeing the lights come on as we preached the truth of Hebrews to each other. I can recall in detail our discussion over the reality of the mirror images of heaven and earth. I can still feel the passion we felt over opening up the Scriptures and finding truths that smacked us in the face. Stuff we’d read before, but only now did it make sense because we all wanted it to make sense, and we were telling each other that it made sense.

There are other times in my life like those above that the truth of God rang so true that no one could miss the pealing of its bell. In those times, the message didn’t just bounce off my hide and roll away. The preaching stuck.

When I think about the spiritual inertness that defines so much of American Christianity, when I think about all those pulpit-preached messages that will pump up the crowd today and be forgotten tomorrow, I can’t help but think that perhaps pulpit-preached messages are missing some key ingredients that make them capable of changing lives forever.

Those missing ingredients, as I see them:

1. Intimacy – I think the way we’ve structured our churches has built too much distance (real and figurative) between the speaker and the hearer. We know that he’s not really speaking to us man to man, so we automatically throw up an inner defense. But when you and I are face-to-face with the preacher, and it’s just a handful of people gathered ’round, God sets the world on fire. Why? Because we live in a disconnected age dominated by barriers between people. When those barriers come down, the Gospel gets through and among us.

2. Relationship – When we’re in that intimate environment, when we love the people around us not just with the typical “love” we say we possess, but a holy love that makes us willing to die for the person beside us, the Gospel penetrates our hearts. The reason you can’t be a Lone Ranger Christian is because God designed the Church to be a Body. And the tighter-knit that Body, the more powerful its ability to absorb what it needs to hear.

3. Holy moments – When we cultivate an environment of intimacy and relationship, we allow for holy moments that create an atmosphere where people dying to be fed will be. And that’s powerful. Holy moments sink in. They aren’t forgotten because the Holy Spirit broods over us in those precious times.

4. Discussion – The kind of preaching that sticks necessitates that we discuss what we have heard. We talk about it afterwards as friends gathered in an intimate place amid a holy moment. We wrestle with the implications of what we’ve heard and share them among the group. And those implications stick because we are struggling through them together.

These are the reasons I believe that pulpit-based preaching today may be less than effective at making disciples. What I believe has changed since the days when pulpit-preached messages made a more profound impact is that all of us are simply dying inside for those four missing ingredients. The true Church in previous times did possess those traits, enabling pulpit-preached messages to sink in. But we don’t have those four ingredients to the extent that we need them today. And that drastically limits the effectiveness of pulpit-preached messages.

I’ll add one more truth I’ve discovered about my life that makes preached messages stick in my own heart so that I grow.

One other major reasons that preaching fails to build disciples today is that we’ve forgotten that doing the Gospel is as powerful as preaching it. For the unbeliever who does not act on the truth of the Gospel, who has never even heard it before, perhaps a man preaching Christ from a pulpit has power. But for those of us who already know Christ, I would contend that doing what we already know of the Gospel is the best way for it to find a root in our lives and grow fruit.

For every sermon that I’ve forgotten, I can remember thousands of instances where I acted on what I already knew of the Gospel and saw that knowledge flourish in my life in a new way. Be doers of the word, not hearers only deceiving yourselves, right? I know it’s an enormous cliché, but the older I get the more I believe this: Preach the Good News; at times use words.

This is not to denigrate the spoken word at all, but in an age where nearly everyone in the America has easy access to the Bible, I suspect the person who best exemplifies discipleship and growth is the one who reads the Scriptures, believes them, and goes out and does them without a second thought.

Even now, disgruntled readers of this post are sharpening their two-edged swords ready to unleash a Scriptural onslaught to tell me why preaching the Gospel is the epitome of the Christian walk. But you know what? I agree that speaking the truth of God to each other is about as important as it gets. However, I am simply not convinced that pulpit-based preaching is the best means to get the message out anymore. An honest assessment of the American Church MUST lead to that conclusion. Despite thousands of sermons preached on Sunday mornings in thousands of churches across the country, we Christians here are losing ground by every measure.

There has to be a better way. We need to start adding back those missing ingredients and reconsider the methods by which we encourage and build each other through the proclamation of the Truth of Christ. Perhaps then the message will sink in and transform us into who God meant us to be.

105 thoughts on “The Question No One Wants to Ask…

  1. David

    Yes. It is ineffective by itself. But it thank God it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Church needs elders. Call them Priests or Teachers, Pastors or Ministers. The Church needs older (in spiritual years not necessarily age of life) Christians who exhibit Christ in their lives and attract disciples by that exhibition.

    Orators are a dime a dozen and only produce attendants, not disciples.

    Younger Christians need to seek out these elders and lift them up (support their ministry, pray for them and also speak of them to others who need elders in their lives). The Word of God isn’t a collection of “words” on paper we call the Bible (though those are “words of God”), the Word, or Logos is Christ. People become disciples because of that Word they hear in the lives of such elder Christians.

    • David,

      When I was younger, the cry I heard off the lips of just about every young male Christian I knew was “I’m praying for a mentor!” And you know what? Almost none of them found one, myself included.

      But we need those kind of close relationships of wise, older Christians with eager, green ones if the Church is going to reach its potential.

      A couple years ago, when my wife and I were looking for another church, we visited one that had the opposite problem. Mentors were looking for “mentees” and not finding anyone willing to take them up on the proposition. I found that amazingly sad.

      Still, I think for me that conversations with fellow believers and good books that allowed me to really ponder what I read made the biggest difference for me on the whole. Pulpit preaching had the effect of getting me jazzed about something for a day or two, but it almost never lasted.

  2. lodebar

    Acts 2 is an example of good preaching followed by the four ingredients. Peter spoke to the people and then in verse 40 the four ingredients were added. Sounds like a pretty effective combination to me. Thanks for the thought provoking post. God Bless

    • Lodebar,

      Yes, those missing ingredients make a big difference.

      I’m not certain what preachers today expect. I think some have too high and expectation and some too low. I think just about all are overlooking ways that they can be more effective.

      I also wonder if preaching from a pulpit was ever designed to be the best way to reach people. I don’t think it is, and its track record today seems to prove that, especially when missing those four ingredients. I know that’s blasphemy to some people, but an honest soul-searching here can’t turn up any other conclusion. It’s simply not making a difference like we are told it should.

  3. You might want to check this out:

    We need preachers like Jonathan Edwards who would know their hell as well as their heaven. Edwards would even take pains writing letters to advice young converts, like this one he wrote to a young lady:

    For instance, I would have appreciate someone telling me this at my conversion:

    “Remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ. It was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building. It is the most difficult to root out, and it is the most hidden, secret, and deceitful of all lust, and it often creeps in, insensibly, into the midst of religion and sometimes under the disguise of humility.”

    …how true.

    Finally, this one proves how ‘proper and profitable’ Edwards taught small groups would be for us -not a SS invention, btw:

    “If you would set up religious meetings of young women by yourselves, to be attended once in a while, besides the other meetings that you attend, I should think it would be very proper and profitable.”


    “Pray much for the church of God and especially that he would carry on his glorious work that he has now begun. Be much in prayer for the ministers of Christ”

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  5. You asked: “Is pulpit preaching ineffective at creating disciples?”

    My question is: Is it suppose to?

    We are all called to go into the world and spread the Gospel. Though many do come to be saved through the preaching in pulpits, I have always thought this type of preaching on Sunday mornings by the Pastor was more to the edifying, strengthening and feeding of the Saints.

    Just the opinion from an ‘old Granny’ but what is missing today is the continuing one-on-one disciple-ing which was once done by the Spiritually mature fathers and mothers within the Churches in by-gone days. The mature (in Christ) men would take young male ‘student’ converts under their wings as would the more spiritually mature women take the spiritually new women converts. Teaching them to pray, about Holiness, the Kingdom of God, etc. etc.. And were always available to help explain scripture or just to ‘talk’ with and/or give a word of encouragement…. or to pray with.

    The new convert didn’t seek them out at first…the more mature believers sought them out…its just the way it was done.

    Today people do not seem to have the desire, nor want to take the time and effort it requires to disciple a young believer. Its time consuming work, but a labor of love. But there is no greater blessing then to be a part of disciple-ing ‘young’ converts. Today most converts are either left on their own or pushed into some huge impersonal group.

    Good question by the way!

    • PJ,

      Your comeback question is a good one.

      I think a lot of Godbloggers make pulpit preaching the pinnacle of Christian expression. I have never quite understood this. I suspect they all go to churches where everything centers around the sermon. I would suspect, though, that MOST churches structure their entire meeting around the sermon. I sometimes wonder if we’ve overemphasized what the sermon is supposed to do for us to the detriment of other means of expressing the Gospel.

      As I noted in my post, my own experience has led me to believe that while a pulpit-preached message has value, it’s not been the most valuable part of my discipleship and growth, not by a longshot.

      And in those cases where I do remember the sermon, I tend to remember stories and narratives far more than some theological point (on that issue, I tend to agree with what some are saying in the Emerging Church ranks about the power of story, as opposed to “dry facts”).

      But as to your question, if the sermon isn’t intended to make disciples, what then is it good for? I’d like to hear what you have to say in reply.

  6. Mark H

    Well. I’m not North American. I’m from the UK. And I agree with you. The preacher wrestles with scripture for many hours every week and is mightily blessed by doing so, yet we then deny our friends the same opportunity when we stand and merely present our conclusions. (I realise it’s not really like that, but it’s worth thinking about.)

    I’ve been asking myself the same questions for a year or so and starting to make changes in our own small church. It’s definitely easier to make adjustments and to experiment in a smaller church. I can’t imagine how you’d try this kind of thing out in a mega-church for example.

    But we’re starting to see the fruit, and it’s pretty much how you posit in your post. Intimacy. Discussion. Prayer. Breaking bread with greater purpose. Starting to “be” the good news to others, instead of merely internalising it. Truth that really transforms. Discipleship. Preaching to one another, instead of merely a monologue.

    There are still times that it seems appropriate to address in the style of a pulpit sermon. But more and more, the right thing to do seems to be sit in close proximity to one another and discuss, explore, and wrestle together.

    It’s initially difficult for everybody. It’s difficult for the fellowship who are more used to being the audience. And it’s difficult for the preacher who is used to not being questioned. It’s a form of control for both. But it doesn’t seem to be that kind of self-control that is a fruit of the Spirit 😉

    Thanks for opening up such a difficult question. I feel encouraged.

    • Mark H,

      Maybe our churches don’t work well when they’re mega!

      I hope you can contribute more in the future about how your church is doing with “back and forth” style of preaching. We’re not used to that style in the West, but I know that in my own life that dialog is how I learn, especially when I’m in the presence of experts who can take apart my propositions or give me ammo to strengthen them just by my asking the right questions.

      • Mark H

        I think you’ve hit a nail squarely on the head there Dan. There can be a misunderstanding that preaching means monologue and that discussion is not anointed with the presence of the Spirit.

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  8. John Baw

    Like my friend Mark above, I’m not North American either, I’m from Gibraltar.

    I do agree with the four points that you propose should be present in church life. As someone else has said the crucial points that I see as necessary are the Acts 2:42 ingredients of devoting ourselves (all of us) to Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. Like Mark, I am also pastoring a small church and seeking to integrate these essential ingredients into our church life.

    What I do not necessarily agree with is your angle on equating lack of remembering sermons to lack of usefulness thereof. In my opinion sermons are a little like spiritual meals. I may remember specific meals that I have had in my lifetime, but I do not remember everything that I ate in the past week, or month. I must have had 3 meals a day for the past 34 years of my life – that would be approximately 37,230 meals in my lifetime. I can remember the specifics of only a handful of those, however each and every one of those meals has contributed to my nutrition and wellbeing.

    I do not necessarily think that you should substitute pulpit preaching with the four points mentioned in your post. I think that rather than being an either-or proposition the question should be how do I bring-in the four practices/elements into our church life and corporate experience.

    thank you for being brave enough to open such a topic up 🙂

    • John,

      Thanks for writing. I don’t think I’ve ever interacted with someone from Gibraltar before! I suspect it’s pretty spectacular living in such a picturesque place.

      To your point on sermons being like meals, I’m not sure that I agree with your illustration. Discipleship involves change, and meals don’t change people. Also, those examples of when I was changed stayed with me when a “meal” would not.

      If what we’re doing doesn’t transform people into disciples, then we need to re-evaluate what we’re doing and how.


      • John Baw


        The point I tried to make is that when we try to identify the “experience” that changed us we risk not seeing the wood for the trees. In many occasions in my life transformation has been a progressive thing only observable at a distance and over time. I believe sermons do play a part in that process. Are they the be-all-and-end-all for spiritual growth? Heavens no! That is where your four points come neatly in and are crucial. I do however think that there is a place for anointed “pulpit” preaching so long as it is not done in isolation – and I would not be able to point to a message, however anointed, and say that “it” was the one that changed me.

        Thanks and Bless you for the opportunity to have this discussion.

      • Laura

        Hi Dan, John, others,

        Thank you for this important discussion, Dan.

        I admit I have not read the length of this discussion and so perhaps I am adding some thoughts that have already been touched on. I apologize if this is so.

        I would like to chime in to agree with the helpfulness of our brother John’s analogy.

        Of course meals change us!
        The lack of meals make us die.
        Healthy meals make us fit.
        Sacchrine, fatty meals make us sick.

        Change and meals go together.

        If the analogy of meals and nutrition is unsuitable to discipleship, why would Paul use it in 1 Cor 3, or Peter in 1Peter 2 or the Hebrews author in Heb 5 or Jesus himself in
        John 4?

        If meals are not resonate of inner transformation, why is one of our sacraments a meal?

        The Spirit is wedded to his Word. The Word is living and active. I believe transformation can happen every time this Word is preached. “Faith comes through hearing and hearing through the preaching of the Word.” Rom 10

        Do not fault the means of grace found in the proclamation of the word because of our hard hearts and blocked ears. (Lord, chisel out my ears! Isaiah 50:4-5)

        Jesus preached in the synagouges and houses, in the temple and on the roads. He showed that disciples made both through the spoken Word and the incarnated Word. That is how disciples are still made.

        Was it empty talk when God promises His Word never returns to Him empty? (Isaiah 55; Matt 13.) Yes, just sitting there in a pew is not the be-all and end-all of discipleship. But don’t throw the pulpit out with the pew warmers! We need to constantly rehearse, remember who we are in a corporate setting, coming under the grace of the preached Word. We need to take it in, like a meal, and feed on it, and let change our thinking and our action.

        Well, I’ve written too much.

        Grace and peace to you all…


  9. I noticed the comments above about what is a sermon good for if it’s not good at making disciples… I also was wondering about that, too, when I had my discussion with my father in law. Because if it’s not even good at reaching brothers and sisters in Christ, it is rare that it is good at being used by the Holy Spirit to convert the lost. And, for those who go deep into Greek and theology and sometimes yell or talk down to the congregation, well, I think most unbelievers would be completely turned off by such. Those who have been believers and “churched” for many years have a hard time remembering what it might be like to walk into a church without the love of God in us. Think about listening to some sermons in that condition…

    • Bryan,

      I’ll reply to you on this comment rather than the previous one.

      You’re right in saying that if the spiritually alive aren’t responding, then the spiritually dead won’t, either.

      I think part of our problem is that we’ve become numb to the style of delivering truth through a sermon. The reason we’re numb is we’re missing the four ingredients I listed. We’re also numb because we don’t see how any of it applies because we’re not doing what we’re hearing in the messages. All that adds up to a giant force field around us.

      I’m also suspicious of the whole pulpit preaching style as its practiced today. We’ve enshrined it as the way of delivering truth, but was it supposed it be that way or some other way we’ve let expire? I know that I am more blessed by hanging around a small group of Christians talking about life over a basket of chicken wings than I am sitting in a pew on Sunday. I’m also more affected by talking with a group where the people in that group are a mix of strong and weak believers. That allows me to help the weak and strengthens in me what is true. I can’t get that impassively listening to a sermon.

  10. David Riggins

    Well, I go back to the reactions of those who listened to Jesus. His preaching gained Him followers who came and went. His disciples where those He individually called out of the crowds and spent time with. His followers fell away, whether because of disagreements with what He said, or because of fear, but when He asked His disciples if they were going to leave as well, the reply was “Where would we go? You are the truth.”

    I don’t understand the phenomena of the “Sermon” in the body. “Church” is believers. In essence, every sermon is “preaching to the choir.” Sermons should be for those outside the body to introduce the topic of salvation through grace and to encourage a thirst for the kingdom. A sermon should be made to unbelievers.

    What we often get instead is a 15 to 45 minute repeat of remedial Christianity. Our time in Sundays and Wednesdays should not be aimed at the lowest common denominator, but rather be something that causes us to stretch and grow. It should be challenging, encouraging, structured, focused, personal, and long-term. Apprenticeship, to Journeyman, to Master, and often, back to Apprentice. And it ends when we pick up our crown at the gate, not at “retirement”.

    • David Riggins

      BTW, in terms of ingredients, I would move things around a bit

      1) Discussion-Common bonds come from common interests which are found in discussion. Discussion happens with hands and feet as well. Doing things together creates…
      2) Relationships-Relationships come from aforementioned discussion, but commonality and familiarity deepens and broadens the discussion, and allows movement towards…
      3) Intimacy-Intimacy comes from a sustained relationship that transcends common interests and moves into a commonality that is based upon the things of the Spirit. “They had all things in common” has to do more with the things of God than the things of man. Intimacy allows words and action to move into those areas that we would normally hide from others. It allows for confession, forgiveness, and grace which leads to…
      4) Holy Moments-“Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe” Wonder, as reflected in the response of the disciples response to Christs winsome question, binds people together with the fetters of heaven.

      If I might get really, really daring, I compare it with the marriage relationship as it should be not as it often is: getting to know someone, discovering that that someone is a person you long for and desire to know more of, realizing that that person has become such a part of you that you can’t imagine being seperated, and those moments; in bed, at the dinner table, in the yard, even merely glancing at one another, when heaven is reached, where absolutely anything is achievable.

  11. So many good things said already, so in summary I will “amen” the following points.

    1. Thanks for asking the hard questions. We can’t discount this out of hand.

    2. I agree with your point–preaching isn’t the end all and be all of disciple-making.

    3. It isn’t either/or it is both/and (Preaching vs. the four points). One without the other will be detrimental.

    4. Preaching alone does not make disciples–that expectation is unrealistic, yet preaching does something that small groups and one-on-one discipleship don’t do. The soul-stirring effect of Spirit-filled preaching can’t be duplicated.

    • Don,

      A couple months ago, I featured this quote from actor Kirk Cameron to preachers at the SBC conference:

      Can I speak to you from my heart for a moment? I realize that, theologically, I’m not worthy to wash your socks. But imagine this scenario with me, if you will: Imagine I’m a “seeker- I’m a non-Christian, sitting in your church week after week after week listening to you. Am I ever going to hear the message that will save my soul from Hell? Will you ever tell me the truth clearly enough so that I realize that my sin has made me an enemy of God: that I am currently on the path that leads to destruction, with the wrath of God dwelling upon me, and that unless I repent and put my faith in the Savior, I will perish? Or have you decided that it’s better to simply entertain me, and on Sundays I can come to have my “felt needs met with good music and good advice? Pastor, while I would appreciate that, it’s the ultimate betrayal of my trust in you if you don’t tell me the truth. Will I ever hear the words “repent, “surrender, “turn to the Savior, “be born again? If you don’t tell me those things, how will I ever know to do it? Please don’t leave it up to the Wednesday night small-group leader. They’re taking their cues from you. You’re leading the flock.

      At the time, I thought Cameron’s comments were better suited to evangelists than the average pastor preaching on a Sunday.

      But as I think about the post I wrote, I wonder if we’re missing the point altogether. Isn’t the real role of telling other people about Jesus better served in this country by a personal, one-on-one conversation between a “lay person” and the one he or she is witnessing to? Is preaching from a pulpit the best way to reach the lost today? Or the saved? I don’t think it is, especially if we’re missing the four ingredients I mentioned.

      Someone commented earlier that we need a definition of preaching (especially as to distinguish it from teaching). How would you define it? What do you think we should do to rethink the role of preaching, especially from a pulpit preaching style?

      • There are many definitions of preaching offered and admittedly I believe it is hard to define. But here is a very good definition given by Steve Lawson in “Famine in the Land.” I offer it as food for thought.

        “[Preaching is] the man of God opening the Word of God and expounding its truths so that the voice of God may be heard, the glory of God seen, and the will of God obeyed.”

  12. Dan, I’m in international missions, too, and it strikes me that where the church imitates American churchianity, it typically revolves around the personality of a single pastor. Where it is based on a home church type model, it is much more intimate, living, and interactive. I’m not trying to promote home church with that statement, but that has been what I’ve seen.

    What you said about being in mixed groupings (weak and strong believers as one example) is also very good. When you interact and worship with believers from various countries, ethnicities, social and economic status, and the like it really adds to the growth curve.

    I also find it interesting that we’ve built a model of church that doesn’t fit our way of learning. We struggle to pay attention for more than five minutes at a time, but we expect people to listen to meaty sermons that last 30 minutes to an hour.

    Yes, I like your four missing ingredients.

  13. I’d add that by asking this question you really have to ask what is “preaching”? Because clearly the Word talks about people hearing in that way. But is what we do today really preaching? And, even if it is, is it effective preaching?

    • Bryan,

      You’re right that we need to define preaching. I would use a very basic definition and say that it is the expounding of the message of God, typically for exhortation. That general definition opens up possibilities that we in the modern Western Church have summarily closed off without much discussion. I think that’s a shame. I think that a half dozen friends sitting around a table at a bar & grill downing some cold drinks can just as easily preach to each other as their pastor can from the pulpit on Sunday. It may even be more effective that way, too.

      But then I’m a nut, so what do I know!

  14. This has become a rather large topic. Since I have begun seeing it in so many different places I began wondering what the common lay person can do to change things. I certainly can’t change our churches methods of doing things.

    Then, last Sunday night when my pastor came away from his pulpit and decided to teach in a more up close “Sunday School” format, I hesitated then did exactly as I normally would for Sunday School. I stood up, and I moved over to the section with the most people, closest to where he was teaching at. It’s a small church, so that left my entire side of the church empty except for an older couple that I would never have expected to move.
    But, after I moved, moments later they followed behind.

    It literally started my heart racing that they were willing to move and that something I had done had motivated it.

    I have power.

    So when I began to get frustrated while reading your post, thinking that there was nothing I could do, I realized I don’t have to get prior agreement, sign people up for certian services, or get so many people on board. I just have to do it.
    If I approach someone after church with an open bible and an open heart, and just sit down. Maybe they’ll sit down. If I talk about what I heard, maybe they’ll talk back. Maybe, over time, someone else nearby will join in and say something.

    I once wrote a post on waiting for the next big thing. And I realize I fell into that trap here. I read your post thinking my church should change. And now I remember, I should change. And maybe that will start the snowball rolling.

    Sorry this is so long, but “In conclusion” 😉 Thank you for this post.

  15. George

    Lots of observations presented here to agree with — Amen!

    Sermons alone are not effective for discipleship, but discipleship without sermons might be ineffective, too. It is helpful to have a coherently schooled individual speak centrally to a body of believers.

    I recall when I attended mega-church Willow Creek years ago, Sunday mornings was Christianity 101 aimed first at the seekers, brought in by regular attendees. Evening services were Christianity 401, aimed at disciples. Today where I live, in a less churched area, few people would be up for a second weekly service.

    We do, tho, use small groups meeting throughout the week. Often we use the sermons as a discussion topic in those small groups as a vehicle for getting Christ, or at least the bible, focused in our lives. In this environment, the relationship, intimacy, and discussion may take place. And I hear that holy moments occur sometimes, too.

    The single service/small group model seems to be pretty common around here. Theoretically it could work.

    For me, the weak link is not the plenary sermon preached by a pastor, but rather the contribution of elders. In my experience, elders typically manage business affairs, affirm priorities, and teach an occasional class, but rarely do they lead a systematic discipling process. As small group leaders, they — again, from my observation — lean toward relationships and away from Christian intimacy.

    One elder told me the reason intimacy is not encouraged is because members, by and large, haven’t signed on for that. And in my experience as a leader attempting to develop intimacy, that elder was right. Most evangelicals, it seems, have joined on the premise of once I’m saved I’m set.

    Years ago a governor of Georgia made significant efforts in prison reform, and he accomplished a lot of positive change. After a while, tho, he said he’d done all he could. For prisons to be any better, he said, “we’ll need a better class of prisoner.”

    Where the Spirit works only in people when allowed, for discipleship we’re simply going to need a better class of prisoner.

    • George,

      How would you distinguish between preaching and teaching?

      I went to Willow Creek in the early 1990s and I would say that the Sunday morning service was more preaching while the night services were teaching.

    • I like the “prisoner” part. I found this description for “prisoner”.

      One deprived of freedom of expression or action

      Sounds like Sunday morning to me….:-)

  16. Becca

    Amen, Dan,

    You’ve asked the same question I’ve been wrestling with lately. The opinion of Christians around me seems to be if we just get the people into the church building to sit under a few sermons all will be well. But what is really in the church to attract them or make me happy to invite them? There are more intimate conversations that build relationships and memorable discussion at the ballpark or bar. So why would a non-believer want to come into the church?

    This pulpit attitude also puts most all the responsibility of training new believers on the preacher, and the pastor cannot be everything to every church member. The church body has to step in and get real honest and open with each other, discipling face-to-face in small groups.

    Thanks for your post.

    • Becca,

      Almost everything you said is right on the money, but I’m not sure that small groups are always the answer. I’ve written on this before, but small groups tends toward a Hegelian dialectic, especially when it comes to Bible passage interpretation. Most of this can be overcome by having small group leaders who are trained exceptionally well in exegesis and teaching. But most small groups lack that kind of highly trained person, so things go awry.

      How does your church handle this issue?

      • Becca

        I guess by “small groups” I wasn’t necessarily thinking of a structured church program. I’m just saying that we need to meet in more intimate groupings without an agenda and just talk about real life and how to be a Christian in the trenches. One-on-one mentoring would be good, though I’ve never experienced that beyond what I get from my godly mother. LOL I remember her sermons more than any preachers’.

        Our church doesn’t do any small gatherings beyond the SS format. We lack discipleship and even very close friendships within the body.

  17. Terri

    “”You’re right in saying that if the spiritually alive aren’t responding, then the spiritually dead won’t, either.”

    At age 36, I saw the bridge illustration for the first time while hearing the “classic” scripture passages about sin and being born again DURING a sermon. I saw Jesus for the first time later that day, so I have to disagree strongly with your statement above. God will use His word and His people to speak for His glory in all circumstances.

    And: “I think part of our problem is that we’ve become numb to the style of delivering truth through a sermon….”

    Becoming numb to a style of delivery may also say something about how we are/are not open to “the unfolding” of the Holy Spirit and, of course, about whether God’s Word is even utilized from the pulpit.

    Maybe I need correction, but I don’t find many discussions of style in scripture.

    “12For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews)


    • Terri,

      I’m not saying that God doesn’t use sermons. The question here is whether sermons are the most effective way to grow people in the faith. Some people claim they are. I’m not so certain.

      What’s sad, as I see it, is that no one ever sat down with you one-on-one and shared the Bridge with you. THAT’S more the standard, if you ask me, especially in an age when most people have heard the name of Jesus but have not responded to what they’ve heard.

      Discussions of style of communicating the message of Christ are all over the Scriptures. Sometimes that message comes from a lone individual to a crowd, sometimes to a small group, sometimes between fellow believers, and on and on. We also need to understand that our methods of communication have greatly expanded since the days of the early Church. They had spoken and printed words, though most people could not read. They also had much tighter communities, whereas ours are tenuously linked. All that makes a difference.

  18. George

    Dan wrote: How would you distinguish between preaching and teaching? I went to Willow Creek in the early 1990s and I would say that the Sunday morning service was more preaching while the night services were teaching.

    I would agree — preaching is evangelistic: God wants you! And teaching is: This is God, here’s how He’s interacted with people previously, and here’s what the covenant is/means for us.

    Dan’s response to Becca re small groups matches my own experience. While I agree with Becca that small groups are an essential part of the model, they can get Hegelian or democratic, with the members reaching for a consensus interpretation based on what they prefer. Yes, few leaders are equipped to teach, but then the expectation is often that we’re there to build relationships, not to be seminarians, as one pastor put it.

  19. Two (okay, three) thoughts:
    Whever I think over a question like you’ve posted, Dan, I get confused. So I always go back to the life and ministry of Jesus. It always helps me sift through the flood of opinions and thoughts. I think it’s worth considering His ministry style here; it was clearly a mix of sermons to large audiences, small group ministry, and one-on-one discipleship. I don’t know if anyone’s studied the ratio, but it seems to be pretty much balanced between those three…..

    Next, I’m not sure what your opinion is on Andy Stanley, but his “Communicating for a Change” puts forth his preaching method, which boils down to making one strong point, rather than three or four. Hard to do well, but effective. I’ve only seen him on video, but his messages do tend to stick with me.

    Last, could it be, when considering the ineffectiveness of most sermons, that it’s an audience problem? Perhaps we’re not interacting with, meditating on, and living out the material in our daily lives. Is it us, not the sermon, that’s at fault? I’m just wondering about this in my own life.

    Very thought provoking. Thank you.

    • Susan,

      I think Stanley may be onto something. I think most people can only process one solid truth at a time, but they get overloaded in church with multiple points.

      One pastor I know started his sermon by saying, “Love people; tolerate broccoli.” And that stuck because it was not only true, but clever. His entire message was built around that idea and it stuck well.

      Still, I think the best retention occurs when the four ingredients I listed make it into the mix.

  20. Hi Dan,

    If we want preaching to be effective, we will need a lot less of it. And the question that will probably follow this, will be the following. “If we have little or no preaching left, WHAT REMAINS?” . What do we have in a congregation if there is no preaching? Whate else is there?

    Take Sunday morning completely away. What have we left? What else is there? How will we grow? Is Sunday mornings the “Christian life?”

    I’ve listened to sermons that were mind blowing. People come out of those sermons and say “What a sermon!!” and that’s where it ends. Sermons have a practical side to them, that the church have forgotten or buried or killed. And until we discover the reality of a Jesus that meets us in practical life, preaching will always be a cloud in the sky.

    You’ve mentioned discipleship. Discipleship is always practical and that is why we struggle so much. We have no answer for discipleship because we jump around in never-never land, and have the false hope that “when we talk about God”, He will be so impressed by it, that He will leave us alone to live our lives, our way.

    Yesterday, I wrote about discipleship on my blog. Perhaps, when you have time, read it. I would like to know what you think.


  21. abmo wrote: Discipleship is always practical and that is why we struggle so much. We have no answer for discipleship because we jump around in never-never land, and have the false hope that “when we talk about God, He will be so impressed by it, that He will leave us alone to live our lives, our way.

    Boy, is that ever on the mark! Yes, I think that many of us believe that talking about what we’re supposed to be doing equals actually doing it.

  22. Dan,
    Wow! What a post. I’ve wondered about this same question myself so often, but being a preacher professionally, it has not been without fear of what the answer may be.

    I’ve recently posted about the preachers that have meant so much to my life as a disciple and and a minister, but to tell you the truth, I can remember very little specifically that any of them preached. Some had tremendous pulpiteering skills, but it was the one on one or the small group encounters, and their example, that really made a difference.

    A few years ago, I noticed that my own preaching seemed to be received OK while I was preaching, but like small hail bouncing off a windshield, had little impact on the memory past the point of contact. We started having discussions about the sermons on Sunday evenings around tables downstairs, over pizza. It seemed to help for a while, and then the same hardened path syndrome set in. I think familiarity in routine is an enemy in our culture, even more so than hardened hearts. Small groups in homes, gathered around the kitchen table with coffee in hand, seems to have been the most effective as far as groups are concerned, but the best results have come from informal one to one encounters repeated over time. Wash, rinse, repeat, I suppose.

    I was once told by a presbyter to do my counselling from the pulpit, but experience tells me that’s not where to do my discipling.

    • SLW,

      I think the intimate, relational group makes a big difference, at least for me. It seems the larger and less connected the group I’m hearing the sermon in is, the less retention I have.

      Kudos for trying to work through this issue in a practical way.

  23. Dan,

    Good question.

    When Paul griped out the Galatians, he said that Christ had been openly portrayed as crucified “before their very eyes” and that by the hearing of faith they had experientially received the Spirit. With Paul, there was no doubt as to what they had heard, as to what he expected them to remember and consciously know about Jesus and redemption, or as to what they experienced as a result of believing the message. Paul’s message was succinctly clear- leaving no room for doubt about the facts of redemption and what they meant to the Galatians experientially. That should be the mark of New Testament preaching.

    Anything less brings us right back to your question.

    • Dan, let me add a comment to my comment (I am a lawyer by trade). The NT preaching that I’m talking about doesn’t have to happen from the pulpit (though it can). Jesus was everywhere – from Solomon’s porch to Pharisees’ houses to talking Nicodemus down from a tree. Paul was the same way.

  24. Dan, I asked about definitions of preaching and I like your response… that preaching can occur around a table. I know I’ve experienced it in that setting and think I tend toward it on occasion. I know I’ve been accused of it.

    Now, you also said this in response to Becca:

    Most of this can be overcome by having small group leaders who are trained exceptionally well in exegesis and teaching. But most small groups lack that kind of highly trained person, so things go awry.

    I’m a bit confused by that because I’m wondering about the role of the Holy Spirit in this. If it’s about the skill of the teacher…??

    • Becca

      Good point about training. I believe discipleship is sorely needed, but I also really think we need to help Christians talk more direct from the heart and worry less about preparation and presentation. Non-believers (and even other believers) want to hear that we are “real” about what believe. They don’t want to know what the text book says. They do want to know if what we believe works when applied to ugly, ordinary lives. That’s what we can’t fully get from the pulpit where the pastor stands at a distance under the veil of an authority figure to be heard and not questioned.

    • Bryan,

      I’ve you’ve read this blog long enough, you know that few bloggers talk more than I do about the need for the Holy Spirit’s presence in everything we do.

      That said, not everyone has developed the same ability to tune into the Spirit’s voice. Can we agree on that? With that said, it’s very easy for error to creep in if the more spiritually discerning are asleep at the wheel and let the less spiritually discerning run the show—or even co-opt it some.

      I talk about that more here:

      • Dan, I had started reading your blog some before we left the country for six months. But I have just now begun to circulate again. So, I really don’t know. I believe you. 🙂 I do think that many aren’t listening for the Spirit’s voice.

        I suppose my response to that is that I feel better about someone who is trying to walk by the Spirit leading, even if they may not be the best systematic theologian, than I would an academic all-star theologian who teaches from their brain rather than from the Spirit. In fact, it seems many who are well-trained are the ones who are tempted to rely more on their skills and knowledge than on their spiritual gifts. Those who are growing Christians but who also know they are just human and don’t know much about much are more likely to be crying out to God for help with a little leading time.

        Is that fair or am I just making up facts to support an argument?

  25. Pingback:
  26. This would be a great time for a math and stats wiz. That would not be me, but with just rough numbers I estimate I have heard over 2500 biblically based sermons or teachings in my lifetime. I have preached or taught an additional 500-700 in the past ten years.

    I cannot for the life of me remember one sermon name or even a single point for that matter, but I know that through the years God’s wisdom has somehow changed me. A wee-bit at a time.

    The illustration that may work would be the rock tumbler we have all purchased for our geeky children. A hollow cylinder is filled with water, rough sand and rough rocks. It is then spun slowly by an electric motor. It makes an awful grinding and crashing sound. The sound goes on and on and on for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. Every few weeks you change the sand to a finer grain. The tumbler goes round and round and round and on and on and on. Week after week after week after week. Little by little the sand and water gring away the rough edges and leave a smooth surface….

    Sermons may be the water. I know the sand is the rest of my brothers and sisters. After a long time there is change…

    • Jimmy C,

      I’m not averse to the “changed a fraction at a time by hundreds of collective sermons” idea, only that it seems quite an ineffective way to bring about change. That’s even more true when some settings in which the word of God has been preached have created massive shifts in thinking, like the ones I mentioned in my post. What makes those few so much more effective than the hundreds?

      That’s what this post is about. It also asks if there are more effective means of growing the Christian soul than what we consider “normal” preaching.

      • Let me answer the original question. NO

        Answer to your comment question. YES

        Deep relationship, long conversations, disagreement, finger pointing and pats on the back, gallons of coffee, gallons of beer, a few drams of whiskey, crying, laughing, praying, reading, listening,
        living, dying, joy, sorrow, success, failure, deep relationship.

        God stuff, hard to find.

  27. Sermons preached from the pulpit are to be supplements to our spiritual diet–not the main source of our growth or maturing in Christ. Again just my thoughts, but down through the years we have placed to much of the responsibility of keeping us ‘fat and feed’ upon the local Church Pastor or Preacher. (I sound like a Pastor’s wife, lol, I’m not)

    We’re suppose to feed each other:

    How is it then, brethren? When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. 1Cor.14:26

    Doesn’t this sound wonderful?

    “… we had no pope or hierarchy. We were “brethren. We had no human program. The Lord Himself was leading. We had no priest class, nor priest craft. These things have come in later, with the apostatizing of the movement. We did not even have a platform or pulpit in the beginning. All were on a level. The ministers were servants, according to the true meaning of the word. We did not honor men for their advantage, in means or education, but rather for their God-given “gifts. He set the members in the “Body…..

    There was no pride there. The services ran almost continuously. Seeking souls could be found under the power almost any hour, night and day. The place was never closed nor empty. The people came to meet God. He was always there. Hence a continuous meeting. The meeting did not depend on the human leader. God’s presence became more and more wonderful. In that old building, with its low rafters and bare floors, God took strong men and women to pieces, and put them together again, for His glory. It was a tremendous overhauling process. Pride and self-assertion, self-importance and self-esteem, could not survive there….

    No subjects or sermons were announced ahead of time, and no special speakers for such an hour. No one knew what might be coming, what God would do. All was spontaneous, ordered of the Spirit. We wanted to hear from God, through whoever He might speak. We had no “respect of persons.” The rich and educated were the same as the poor and ignorant, and found a much harder death to die. We only recognized God. All were equal. No flesh might glory in His presence. He could not use the self-only recognized and opinionated. Those were Holy Ghost meetings, led of the Lord. It had to start in the poor surroundings, God. All were equal. No flesh might glory in His presence. He could not use the self-only to keep out the selfish, human element. All came down in humility together, at His feet. They all looked alike, and had all things in common in that sense at least. The rafters were low, the tall must come down….The food was thus placed for the lambs, not for giraffes. All could reach it.”

    You said Dan: “I tend to remember stories and narratives far more than some theological point”

    Me too! Why, because listening to one who has ‘personally lived the Word’ before giving it out, is more important then just hearing doctrinal points alone. When we read Paul’s words, we know we’re reading not only to Holy Spirit inspired words but words he Paul, lived personally.

    I recall a young man from many years back who shortly after being born again told me he wanted to preach….He couldn’t wait to get behind a pulpit. I explained to him that he must first himself, receive any Word, apply it to himself and ‘live it’ before he could ever hope to preach it to others. Many times narratives are just that–they come from first hand experience of living the Word…and finding out God’s Word is true..that He is faithful. Who better to stand before you and testify that Yes, God indeed is faithful to keep us safe through any storm of life, more so then one who has weathered numerous harsh storms? I’m not saying the Word alone is not beneficial but to really know it well enough to feed it to others, one should have first hand knowledge and ‘live it’ first.

    Doctrine alone did not save me or you, neither does it keep us. It takes the Spirit AND the Word working together.

    • PJ,

      All good thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to share them. I wonder if we need to spend more energy in alternative means of building up disciples, even if they look different than the traditional “confession, worship, announcements, sermon” model that we’ve fallen into.

  28. Cheryl

    I very much prefer pulpit preaching. HFG,sunday school etc while great for fellowship,intimacy and counseling for me is not as helpful ,primarily because the person leading doesn’t always have as much training in the delivery of God’s word. I know there is a move with house churches to get away from this but I think it is wrong to not honor someone who is truly called to preach/teach and all the effort that they go through including education to do so.

    Maybe its me but if the message is really good I buy the tapes. I also listen a fair amount to christian radio. I never tire of hearing God’s word. I know it has changed me . Theres NO WAY I would grow as much reading by myself only.

  29. Albert

    Sorry I haven’t read through the whole post and all the comments yet (I’m going to after I ask this question), so I hope you will forgive a guy for maybe jumping the gun a little. But…

    How do you know what has had an effect on your growth in Christ?
    And how do you measure its importance?

    • Albert

      OK. I’ve now read the post and most of the responses (lots of responses!). I think my question still remains. Assuming sermons are to be formative, how would you know when one has had an effect? Does it have to memorable to have had an effect?

      I wonder if it isn’t more like the meal analogy than I’ve thought before. A few are memorable, but the majority are simply porviding long term nutrition for my growth over long periods of time.

      It’s a question that I’d like to hear your thoughts on though.
      How do you know what has had an effect on your growth in Christ?
      And how do you measure its importance?

    • Albert,

      For me, the measure comes down to a few things:

      1. The message permanently alters my thinking.
      2. The message then causes me to change my practice.
      3. The changed practice creates more fruit in my life and in the lives of others.
      4. The summation transforms me into the image of Christ.

      If I had to count the number of messages that have done that in my life, I suspect they only a couple dozen would count. That’s not a great track record for pulpit preaching since almost all those messages have not been preached from the pulpit!

      • Albert

        I understand and agree with your point about preaching being an ineffective sole means of discipleship. Like you, there have been very, very few sermons that have had the kind of impact you describe. I wonder if that is the fault of the sermon mechanism, or the expectation, in the american church particularly, that listening to sermons is the main discipline neccessary to become more like Jesus.

        My questions were more in the vein of not being able to tell what effect small, forgetable, seemingly insignificant things might have on my spiritual formation. My small obediences, failures, the cumulative effect of twenty years forgettable seremons, my sputtering attempts at living out a disciplined life, may in the end prove much more valuable than I can know.

  30. Albert, I think that’s a good question, It is difficult to know that. I think the four points Dan raises are poignant and worthy of discussion, however. Also, I would simply state from my very subjective position that most sermons do not lend themselves well to life-changing applications; rather, they seem to focus on getting “right” theology. That may be a fault of the denominational bent of the church I am a member of. That may be my laziness. That may be me looking for what “I want” out of a sermon. But I would say that generally I do not learn much about the character and nature of God and its impact on my every day life from sermons; I learn that from my personal devotions and time with other men and women who are also seeking to grow more into the image of Jesus.

    I’d be interested in hearing laypeople honestly answering the question of whether they feel like they grew closer to God or more like Jesus after hearing a sermon (and analyzing why or why not) versus hearing preachers talk about its import.

    • We also listen to many sermons. Remember, we are sheep also. I am of the opinion that I can have a vibrant relationship with God without preaching. Lay person or parson, I believe this is a truism.

  31. Cheryl

    In my 30 years thus far following Christ usually people after service-coffee or in SS. Family,friends or co-workers,even my patients.( nurse ) I have attended churches where at HFG mid week you actually study and talk about the pastors message the previous sunday.

    I only have a small number of friends though that have been saved as long as myself that I talk with in a way that I don’t with others.We’ve all been through the same track if you will of discovery in changes in theology. I have a terrible history in the shepherding movement that I am free from.
    Just yesterday I was emailing a friend over a teaching. I have seminary also. Basically my life is Jesus breakfast lunch and dinner. I teach some in a discipleship class with new christians.

  32. Dave Block

    Another great post, Dan. A few thoughts:
    -Preaching may not be very effective in creating disciples, but it can be quite effective in motivating and helping them to grow in their understanding of the faith.
    -I don’t remember many specific sermons, but thanks to sermons, certain Scriptures and biblical themes (e.g. the vital importance of redemptive community in how God helps mankind, the necessity of seeking to know God as the foundation of everything else in our walk), resonate with me that would not have otherwise. And I do believe they have positive effects even though most are not recalled later. How many dramatically life-altering times do we have in God’s word? Even if we read the Bible just every other day, that’s well over 150 times per year. I don’t recall a lot of dramatic things arising from my times in the Word, but I know they have impacted me.
    -Your blog posts are not unlike sermons. Yes, there are comments and insights added by the readers, but like sermons, your messages are monologues to a large audience. You had a post on self-sufficiency — I don’t remember much about it, but it motivated me to memorize a passage you cited, Jeremiah 17:5-10. Likewise, our pastor gave a sermon that I think it was called “Reclaim and Retain the Awe” — I remember the name but virtually no details, but it motivated me to memorize Isaiah 40. Committing those to memory has been valuable.
    -One-and-one and small group settings are great, and we all have things to teach each other, but there’s a particular benefit to hearing preaching from someone highly trained in the Scriptures who has spent many hours preparing the sermon. I think we can benefit greatly from each of the different settings.
    -For several months now, both of my church’s adult Sunday school classes have been devoted to reviewing and discussing the sermon from the previous week. This helps retention and renews the challenge to apply what has been taught.
    -My pastor’s humility and love for the congregation shines through. He often mentions his own shortcomings and failures. I believe this increases the impact of his sermons.

    Preaching, discipleship, small groups — all used by Jesus, all beneficial, all complementing one another.

      • Dave Block

        Hey Dan,

        Here are some positives that come to mind for pulpit-based preaching:
        -The entire congregation hears preaching from someone with a great background in Scripture and theology
        -The entire congregation hears preaching from someone who prepared many hours for the sermon
        -The entire congregation is moved in the same direction by the spiritual leader of the church since they all heard the same thing
        -The entire congregation has the opportunity to evaluate the preaching for error
        -The entire congregation has the opportunity to discuss the message since they all heard the same thing
        -The preaching can be integrated well into the rest of the worship service, which can make it more effective as hearts are prepared by worship songs and prayer
        -Preaching in the pulpit by a good orator often is highly motivational

  33. This has been a really interesting read. Thanks for asking the question, and I really appreciate the opportunity to read so many different responses from so many diverse perspectives!

    If the ‘narrative’ or personal story is of value, then maybe I can share from my personal experience. Please note, this is simply my personal journey with God, and I wouldn’t expect that God would do the same thing with everyone. He is too creative for one-size-fits-alls.

    After years in the church (I am a second generation Christian), I found that my spiritual hunger and personal passion for a deeper expression of Christianity (than that which I found in the American and Canadian church culture in general) was no longer compatable with the congregational churches in my city. I was starving spiritually, and I couldn’t find those four ingrediants that you mentioned. I had found those four ingrediants within a ministry that I was a part of. A lot of my friends in that ministry had a hard time when I stopped going to church. But they knew me. And they watched. And many of them are leaders who travel extensively, and are aware of what God is doing both within and outside the “traditional” church. Thankfully, they didn’t write me off!

    I prayed into the issue a lot, and finally my husband and I felt God calling us to express our faith and worship of Him in a way that is not necessarily “traditional” in American culture. I personally do believe that how church is “done” in America is largely cultural (based on Greek orator model, same as secular universities) and not exactly matching the descriptions of church and Christianity as found in the New Testament. That being said, God is a creative God and can use a lot of different cultural models to call disciples, transform them and expand His kingdom. So I’m not one of those “Doing church like this is wrong” type of people.

    Just speaking from my experience (which is limited)… I’ve been an out-of-church Christian for several years now and have found that my spiritual maturity has increased by leaps and bounds in those years. Maybe it’s a “wilderness” experience like Paul in the desert for 14 years. Or maybe it’s an “exile” experience like Daniel in the midst of Babylon, learning to hear God and represent Him in a godless environment. I’m not entirely sure yet why God has taken us on this journey the way that He has. But I am sure glad that He has! I now see my worship as a 24/7 thing found in the nitty-gritty of life and the choices for holiness and love and service of others’ needs. I now see my faith as something that has more to do with my actions than “what I believe”. I will always be a disciple, because He is always teaching me more about Himself and His kingdom.

    I have experienced more personal transformation, more death to self, more abundant life, and more of the tangible presence of God in my life without weekly pulpit preaching than with. There are a handful of messages that I could point to as seriously life-changing, turning-point sermons. One was in a large meeting, one in my car as I sat in the garage to finish listening to it via podcast. These two in particular wrecked me and changed me.

    Ultimately, I think we just have to ask God what He wants us to be doing. He may say, “Preach from the pulpit!” to some, but He may say something different to others (like, “Preach at the table of friends, at the table of unbelievers, in the parking lot to the stranger”). Whatever, you see what I mean… it boils down to obediance ultimately. And that’s going to look different for different people…

  34. Dan, thanks for asking the tough questions. You probably already know my answer (yes, pulpit preaching is ineffective in producing disciples).

    But what should we do about it? I think the automobile has ruined us. When a typical “local church” has 150-odd members spread out among an effective 100 mile radius, a single pastor is never going to have a meaningful relationship with them. His only point of influence is that pulpit preaching. If you take that away from him (or say it’s not producing the fruit he wants it to) then he might as well step down, for all he can see.

    I really think a “parish” approach is in order–putting the “local” back into “the local church.” When you not only have a chance to have dinner with your pastor from time to time, but actually get your groceries from the same store. A big part of my own recent “complications” were most likely a result of my pastors expecting a level of trust that I only give to people I’m really close to. I spend 40+ hours per week with a particular group of people (in my office), and I’m just starting to feel like there’s friendships developing there; how can I be expected to be “discipled” by someone who I only see for 45 minutes per week (and that could be done via internet or satellite, for all the interaction there is)?

    Not saying they ever intended anything like this, but our pastors have effectively become like the stereotypical workaholic dad: always missing out on the important events in our lives, they then wonder why they don’t seem to have much influence with us. But even though we live in the same “house,” we felt abandoned by them long ago.

    • (BTW, I do realize this looks different in rural areas than in (sub)urban communities, but I would say that’s largely because you still have a lot of “shared spaces” in Farm Country–where everything is spread out–than you’ll have when there’s a public elementary school every three miles and a different bank on every block.)

    • Travis,

      As you know, we live in the country. We’ve found that accessibility to church leadership is actually easier, even though the countryside spreads people out. Our pastor’s wife has dinner with us once a week (while her husband’s at the elder’s meeting), and I can’t see that happening in another environment. There’s no access problems to any leadership, but then how could there be in a church of about 280 people?

      • And that’s what I meant–it’s not so much the distance as it is what’s packed in that distance. If there’s only two or three television stations that you can tune in with your aerial, it’s more likely that you and your neighbors will share a common “news experience.” Here outside of a metropolitan area, there’s so many different things you can do within thirty miles of your home, and so many people to do them with (or at least around). It’s an “experience overload” that can make it harder to develop close relationships–we sacrifice depth for breadth.

  35. eliyah

    I would like to invite everyone to consider a return to their Hebraic roots and study the Torah together.

    What is Torah? The word Torah means “instructions” as in ‘to point the finger in giving directions”. The new cycle has just begun because the Feast of Tabernacles has just ended. All throughtout the globe thousands of Torah observant believers will begin reading from the 1st chapter of Genesis and will sit and study together. This will continue throughout the entire year until all 5 books of Moses are read (Gen.-Deut.). There is a definate schedule and purpose whereas others who randomly pick a book of the bible to study from definately will glean the riches of the Word they will not GLEAN from the blessings of being in the RYTHM of what our Father is communicating to His people ALL throughout the earth corporately and individually.

    Our Father is a CYCLICAL Elohim….His paths are not linear but come to us in cycles. What does that mean? There is always something new He wants us to SEE that we might not have seen the first time. Just as a parent takes a stroll with their young child there is ALWAYS something new that the child will notice even though they take the same path every day.

    The Hebrew language has 4 different levels of interpretation..(this is something that most christians do not understand and unfortunately miss out on the treasure of Yahweh’s Word). There is the peshat level
    (literal, surface level), there is the remez( to hint at), the drash (the prophetic, profound) and the sod (the dark mysteries, the revelatory).

    This is what is so beautiful about studying together, because each individual will bring forth their understanding and see the chapter from a different level. No one is wrong, all see the JEWEL from a different angle. There is not a leader, usually someone will begin the discussion and then it will flow from there.

    This week marks “The beginning”…the title for this weeks torah portion. Our Father wants all of His children to be of one accord to have their spirits heightened to what He is saying and doing in their lives…..for those who have ears to hear what the Spirit is NOW saying they will be quickened to notice the ‘new beginnings’ that are manifesting in their lives. They will KNOW their Creator.

    Our Father is a POWERFUL RIVER….He is not stagnant….and as one studies Torah, they flow in the river of revelation and are blessed with the knowledge of seeing His eternal plan UNFOLD in their lives each day. There is a wonderful sense of peace and comfort knowing that “I’m on the right track”.


  36. mh

    The question no one wants to ask is so worldly. The emergent church today wants candy and no meat. William Booth stated years ago that we will someday be a church without Christ, forgiveness without repentance and it is here.
    All opinions are irrelevant when it goes against the scriptures no matter the outcome. Many today are living by their feelings instead of Faith. Preaching still works!! You may want to get in a church that not only preaches but lives out the words of God. I see it happen all the time. Just this past week 31 people gave their hearts to God and will be baptized and assimilated into the church body. God”s Word is alive and well.

    • mh,

      The emergent church today wants candy and no meat.

      I assure you, I am trying to cut way down on my sugar intake and love meat of all kinds. As a matter of fact, a pork loin is going in the smoker at the moment.

    • mh,

      Thanks for writing. I suspect you are a new reader. I hope you can stick around and lend your experiences to the conversation here.

      All dissenting comments are welcome, but they have the most power when they prop up what they assert. Your comment makes assertions, but doesn’t really address the issue here. If you disagree, it’s best to back up what you say. Please tell me, in context, how pulpit preaching is effective at making disciples (and how it is more effective than other ways to make disciples) and then you’ll be engaging the post. But to call this question worldly without saying specifically why doesn’t help the conversation at all.

      A few other comments:
      1. No one said anything about emerging churches. In fact, perhaps the one place where the least amount of effectiveness of pulpit preaching occurs is within traditional churches. I am no apologist for emerging churches nor all their methods. So please don’t try to poison the well by writing off this post as “emerging.”

      2. I completely agree with your quote from William Booth. However, the question I’m asking has nothing to do with it.

      3. I absolutely agree that all opinions fail should they disagree with Scripture. We’re on the same side here. Again, what does that have to do with the question being asked?

      4. I believe that preaching still works! The questions is whether there are other ways to reach people that are equally scripturally valid that reach people even better than preaching! And if so, why do we put so much emphasis on preaching if those other ways to reach people are more effective?

      5. …and I’m also speaking specifically about PULPIT preaching here. What other ways to preach the Gospel are there that aren’t pulpit preaching? Might they be more effective than pulpit preaching?

      6. That’s awesome that 31 people came to Christ at your church this last week! Did they all do so because of the pulpit-preached message that Sunday, or were there other factors at work?

      7. No one said God’s word was NOT alive and well. I’m just asking if pulpit-based preaching is the best way to get God’s word out there in today’s information-saturated society. I’m also asking if it is the best way to grow disciples once someone has been converted. Might there be better ways to grow disciples?

      If you wish to disagree with this post, then please address the seven issues. If you do so, I think you’ll make a more coherent point that will help us all.


  37. Connie Reagan

    My pastor preached on this very topic today.

    My church puts the sermons on podcast on their website-as soon as this one is up I need to link to it. But the gist of it is we need small groups along with the big meetings. There are some things that a pulpit ministry alone simply cannot do.

    • I don’t know that small groups should be expected to make up for what’s lacking in this area… unless small group leaders are considered pastors. See, that personal interaction and “apprenticeship” between the pastor and the pastored is what’s lacking.

      Now if the small groups are led by pastors, then great! (And actually, this is much closer to “pastoring” than is preaching from a pulpit.) But usually what happens–at least based on my decade of experience, both as a member and as a leader of such groups–is that the “rookie” teachers in the congregation get handed what is essentially the most important (and dangerous) teaching assignment in the church, while the “pros” get out of having to deal with the fallout from their confusing sermons. Small group leaders try really hard to connect the dots, but in many cases, well… there’s a reason they aren’t officially considered pastors.

      My personal take is that in most situations, small groups are like daycare. At best it’s a necessary evil for a weary, overworked pastor. At worst, they’re an excuse for the “parent” not to bother with parenting. They’d be much better if the pastor delivering the sermon was the leader fielding questions and concerns.

      • Connie Reagan

        Actually I think your comment points out something extremely important.

        We have in general a system that says the paid pulpit professional is the one responsible for discipling.

        In actuality the pulpit professional is responsible for making sure the rest of us can do the work of the ministry. Like discipling others.

        The problem is we have in too many cases one grownup up in front trying to keep track of a church full of spiritual infants. The Bible does not teach that there is a divide between “pastors and laity.” It does teach that there are three categories-fathers, “young men” and children. We all need to be growing and ministering to one another.

        • Connie,

          I don’t think you quite captured where I’m coming from: I don’t think the “paid pulpit professional” is necessarily responsible for discipling.

          I do, however, believe that discipling is exactly what is referred to when Paul speaks of “equipping the saints.” Discipling is equipping. “The work of ministry” isn’t teaching; teaching prepares us for “the work of ministry.”

          • Connie Reagan

            I disagree, to a point.

            Regardless, we are ALL called to reach maturity in the faith. That WILL NOT HAPPEN if all we do is sit and listen to one man in the pulpit.

            Mind you, I am not saying that the pulpit ministry is useless and fruitless. Far from it. But it’s only PART of what God plans for his church to have.

            Our church has a pastor who preaches most of the sermons. We have a number of “zone” pastors who do the pastoral care of the congregations (assigned mostly by zip code with some exceptions.) We also have many many small group leaders, who themselves have oversight by zone-type leaders. Through this process no church member need go without personal ministry, personal oversight or training for ministry whether volunteer or fulltime. I would also point out that all our pastors are accessible-they don’t get whisked away by ushers after a service. They hang out and yack with “whosoever will.” And FWIW even our senior pastor participates in a REGULAR small group in which he is not the leader. NO isolation!

          • Travis,

            Agreed that the work of the ministry is NOT teaching, per se.

            The following puts it all in context:

            All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
            —2 Timothy 3:16-17

            The whole reason we learn and absorb the Scriptures is to do good works! Too often that passage is used to justify learning the Scriptures as an end unto themselves. But that’s not the point!

  38. Thank you for this post; I appreciate the thinking it produces.

    I tend to agree with P.J.’s thought here that I’m not convinced that pulpit preaching is supposed to be our main discipleship creating mode.

    I think preaching and the entire corporate worship event can be a great source of encouragement and chance to connect with other believers, but can not be looked at as the end all to develop disciples. However, having said that, we can think of historical situations (such as the above referenced situation in Acts) where public messages were used mightily.

    But I tend to see the discipleship process as PJ talks about here; individual relationships where someone with more maturity can assist a new believer. Or where we, as you describe about that bible study in Hebrews that you remember when you were 33, as Believers sharpen one another.

    Definitely food for thought.

    • Tracy,

      You might not pulpit preaching is the main discipleship-making avenue, but for many people in the Church, it’s not only considered the primary way, but nearly the only way.

      Obviously, I don’t share that “only way” viewpoint.

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