The Youth Ministry Problem, Part 3


In the prior two installments (Part 1, Part 2)  of this limited series, we examined the problems facing ministry to youth. Today, I want to unpack some further issues and provide answers to why we continue to lose kids and how we can not only stem that tide but reverse it.

Rather than have some great build up, I’ll head right into my thoughts:

1. Encapsulating the Gospel and then preaching it is our highest calling.

When the Church no longer knows what the Gospel is, it can’t transmit that Gospel to the next generation. How scary is it that many of the most learned and vocal Christians out there, the ones often in leadership roles, can’t articulate what the Gospel is?

We can only fool kids for so long. Today’s teens are experts at analyzing sales pitches. They are far more savvy consumers than even their parents, and they recognize when they’re being manipulated. So an attractional youth ministry model that has no genuine Gospel meat on its bones won’t be a tempting meal for them.

We also fail when we do not show consistently how the Gospel destroys all competing worldviews. Instead, by failing to understand competing worldviews, we allow people in our churches to synthesize Christianity with social Darwinism, pragmatism. American Dreamism, and any of a thousand other -isms that stand against the true Gospel.

Every Christian must understand the world in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We must try all competing worldviews and reveal how each sets itself up against the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

If we don’t start fixing this lack of instilling a Gospel-based worldview, nothing else that follows will do any good.

2. A complete cradle-to-grave educational plan for people in our churches is essential.

Increasingly, I believe this is the single most devastating systemic problem in our churches. No church has a handle on a complete educational philosophy. A church can have 10 pastors and not a single one is devoted to ensuring that people of all ages learn the fundamentals of the faith. That’s a genuine scandal.

In my radio interview in July, I mentioned that we need to ask our church leaders about their cradle-to-grave educational plan and ask for point-by-point, and age-by-age details. Listen to the response; it will be the most telling thing we hear about our church.

I also believe that every age group within a church should be hearing the same message, only geared for the appropriate age group. If the pastor preaches on John 1, then every instructional group in the church receives teaching on John 1, from the nursery kids in Sunday School to the mid-week adult small groups. Millions of pages of Bible learning and commentary exist, so it’s not as if the source material is so paper-thin that we can’t mine it for all its worth in a given week.

The mishmash, every-class-does-its-own-thing disaster that is the educational plan at most churches explains much of the state of the Church in the West. It’s one reason why parents give up on their children’s spiritual educations. The church splits the family the second it hits the lobby on Sunday, with everyone going his or her way. Then when the family reconvenes, each person has been schooled in disconnected topics, which makes it impossible for parents to discuss those topics with their kids.

But with everyone learning the same basic topic, conversation opens up. Parents don’t spend all their time trying to tease out what the kids studied. They know because they studied the same topic.

The lack of a comprehensive educational plan (and the church leadership’s lack of constant selling of such a plan to the people in the seats) is one of the reasons why its so hard to get people to volunteer to teach in a church. No one gets a complete vision of the direction for growth. If the goal is vague, why would anyone sign on?

Another scandal in this regard is that our churches spend hand over fist for stupid programming that has no lasting value, but we can’t see the need to pay someone to coordinate and enact the educational vision for the church. One of the worst trends in the last 50 years in our churches is the wholesale elimination of  paid Christian education staff in favor of volunteers. The results are obvious, though, and we need to get serious about the horrendous state of Christian education in our churches.  Most seminarians and pastors never got the training to coordinate the educational direction of a church that we believe they did. So, pay a trained Christian educator to do the job and stop grousing about it. Otherwise, keep the status quo and continue to reap the whirlwind.

3. A youth ministry model based on young men moving from the farm to the factory is passé and must be replaced by a model that meets modern needs.

How many of you, before you read the first two parts of this series, knew the genesis of youth ministry as a response to a shift from rural agrarianism to urban industrialism in the first half of the 19th century in England? Now that you understand this, how appropriate does our contemporary youth ministry model, which is nothing more than an outgrowth of that change, seem?

The model no longer applies, folks. It’s time we replace it it with something better. Acknowledging that broken model is the first step toward a more biblical and relevant one.

4. The youth minister’s job should be to work himself out of a youth-only job.

I do believe that we still need youth ministers. However, their job responsibilities must be completely rethought.

For millennia the most effective youth ministry model involved parents teaching their own children the faith. This has indirect and direct benefits:

1) Parents had to know what they were talking about. It meant they had to understand the faith too. Plus, they exercised valuable teaching and communications skills usable in other situations at church or in life.

2) Kids got their information from the one source most important in their lives, both in terms of total time spent together and in authority. The faith had greater meaning because they saw it modeled by their parents rather than by “professionals.”

Some parents will research and  slave over a Powerpoint presentation they must give (which no one will remember a week later) before a group of corporate bigwigs (who don’t really matter) as part of their job (which has few eternal benefits), yet they can’t spend five minutes telling their own kids about Jesus—mostly because they haven’t done the research themselves. What terrible priorities we have!

I understand that parents have it rough. Fact is, parents have always had it rough. That we have made things even rougher for ourselves by poor priorities will be addressed later.

But back to that youth minister…

The present-age role for the youth minister should be not as a semi-cult leader for teens but as a resource for parents. The youth minister’s main goal should be not ministering to teens directly but teaching parents to become the primary transmitters of the faith to their own children. And frankly, that needs to start long before the teen years.

Parents don’t teach their kids the faith because

they don’t know it themselves,

they don’t know how to teach,

and they can’t find the time.

Let’s be honest, though; today’s parents can’t shoulder all the blame. As I noted in my prior post in this series, parents have been robbed. They weren’t given the right tools to do this all-important job of transmitting the faith. Sadly, what little they do transmit will be the entirety of what their kids call upon when they have to teach their own children.

And so the great mind-wipe carries on until nothing is left.

The youth minister, in conjunction with other church leaders, is the one to address that issue.

There will always be a need to minister to those kids whose parents are not Christians or who do not attend the church, so yes, someone must coordinate that work. That’s the next step.

5. The entire church is responsible for passing along the faith to the next generation.

Somehow, our churches have devolved into age and affinity group ghettos. We’ve lost the coherence of a family, of being the Body of Christ wherein one organ cannot exist without the others. Instead, we break down everything—and everyone—into their generic components.

That’s wrong.

The church is a family, a community unto itself. And as much as I hate to reference Hillary Clinton, it DOES take a village to raise a child.

We’ve forgotten this, though. Our churches separate the elderly from the youngsters. We put the singles into their group and isolate them. We do everything we can to frustrate the mission of the church as a whole by not seeing the value of all people in the training up of the next generation of Christians.

When we plan our cradle-to-grave educational philosophy, we must begin to incorporate a more holistic view of ministry not just as a collection of nuclear families, with parents teaching their kids, but as a church family, with people of all ages serving as instructors to children.

Our programming should always include all people, if possible, and value their contributions. Tribal people understand this and have maintained their traditions. We, however, have not. We devalue the tribe, and in doing so dilute its traditions.

6. “Tribal” rites of passage in our churches must mark adulthood.

I was blessed to grow up in the Lutheran Church and experience a conscientious confirmation and catechism program. Together, confirmation and catechism provided a gateway into adult life and membership within the church. Once past that mark, we were no longer children but full voting members of the church on which certain responsibilities now rested. We could hold board positions and lead groups.

I cannot stress enough, given the astonishing lack of appropriate rites of passage in our society, how much we need Christian rites of passage. When we wring our hands over teen sex, drinking, drug use, and so on, we have only ourselves to blame. We made those our primary rites of passage into adulthood.

I believe Christians must wholeheartedly counter this societal deficiency. Yet what are the rites of passage from childhood into adulthood in the average church?

Each church or denomination must work to formulate rites of passage for its youth. I believe that all ages, experiences, and marital statuses must be involved in creating adulthood curriculum and teaching it to our kids.

In my Lutheran church, I was grilled by the pastor and lay leader on points of doctrine, my understanding of them, and how I applied them in my own life. If I didn’t answer correctly, I had to try again later. That was hard, but it was also life-changing.

So why aren’t we doing this with our kids? Why do we just naturally assume they should be church members by parent proxy rather than by earning it themselves? Why don’t we promote spiritual understanding and show its value through such rites?

I also believe that we can’t start early enough with our Christian kids on classes in being proper husbands and wives. We also need to teach them how to run a household. This should be part of the passage rite.

And as Protestants, how is it that we have downplayed ceremonies? What better ceremony can there be than to present a young person as a full adult member in the church, a title  earned through hard work and study?

Once those teens have passed the rite, push them. Billy Graham noted long ago that the one thing all teens need today is a challenge. By destroying the agrarian lifestyle, we relegated our young people to purposelessness. With no real need for them to help support the family, teens looked anywhere they could for meaning.

Our churches have to give them that meaning and work to involve our teens in the adult life and purpose of the church. We must stop looking down on the inexperience of teens and instead stoke the mission God is giving to each of them. We need to encourage their gifts and get of the way as they use them. When teens feel needed, they are less likely to drift away. Attractional ministry will only hold teens for so long; instead, they need to be integral to the Great Commission.

Too many Christian parents see getting their kids into some elite college as the be-all rite of passage and the only true mission for their kids. We have to rectify that mistaken priority, and that will involve other life changes.

7. We Christians must start questioning and fixing how we spend our time.

We are all too busy with the perishable, which amazingly enough causes us to ignore the imperishable: the next generation.

If you have been a reader here for long, you know my pet peeves concerning how we spend our time. But for those who have not, I will outline them briefly (I hope).

Work/Jobs—I believe that Christians must find a way to speak to the devastating work and job choices we have created in our modern society. The same conservative Christians who wrap themselves in the American flag, talk about the Founding Fathers, and go on and on about how America once was are the same folks who seem to endorse the postindustrial work world of America 2010 that is at complete odds with American work life circa 1776 (when BOTH parents worked from home).  While the stay-at-home mom is lauded, we want dad to be 30 miles away slaving in a cubicle for 12 hours a day, driving an hour through gridlocked traffic, slamming down a cold meal, spending “quality time” with the kids, and then romancing his wife the way she wants and all the Focus on the Family literature says he must. Somehow, we think that is normal—and possible!

Or we once did. Economic realities in 2010 have put dad out of work, or in a sub-optimal-for-his-training job at a sub-optimal income, which means mom now must work. The irony is that she may be better paid, which torches all the Christian literature about dad being the breadwinner.

Ten years ago, most of the households of people I knew were single income. Today, none are. And many of those households were adamant about dad working and mom staying home.

Some Christian leaders, those with a national pulpit, have got to start discussing alternatives to the way we Christians work. The work world of today is broken, and it not only breaks parents, but it breaks their families. For too long we have made the self-made man and his self-made wife and self-made kids the poster faces of the Christian family, with the accompanying McMansion, private Christian schools, and Christian cruises in the Caribbean. Perhaps we should be thinking more downscale.

When we talk about parents educating their children, we’re not really talking about parents; we’re talking about moms. And it’s been that way for a long time, and still is, even with moms working.

Why is it not possible to rethink the way we Christians work so that BOTH mom and dad are home? We hold men up as breadwinners, but the way our society functions, that breadwinner role more often than not completely removes fathers from educating their children. Boys, especially, suffer for not having their fathers around, particularly as spiritual examples.

One of the major reasons youth ministry is failing goes beyond spoken words. Yes, preach the Gospel to kids and their parents. But more than anything else, our culture, which has heard enough words about Jesus from myriad sources, needs to SEE the Gospel message PRACTICED. Nothing is more true than this for kids. Their hypocrisy radar is always cranked to 11. When they go to church on Sunday yet fail to see their parents actively practicing the faith—and I’m not just talking about reading the Bible and praying, but feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and so on—then they will note the disconnect. The first chance they get to bolt, they will.

This happens because families cannot have the world’s mammon and the Lord. Dad’s 60-hour work week and Blackberry slavery when not at work leaves no time for genuine practice of the faith. With this increasingly the case for mom as well, how can any kid not see the disconnect between what we say and how we live?

Dealing with the outrageous inflation of college costs will also force Christians in the near future to discover better ways to prepare their children for work. Yet where are the Christian voices proposing a rethinking of apprenticeships and Christian alternatives to college as work prep?

Christians MUST find alternatives to the contemporary work world. If that means moving downscale, exploring alternative community living, or going back to an agrarian lifestyle—whatever—we need to get our brightest and best together to deal with this most pressing of problems.

Because most adults today spend the majority of  their week at their jobs. If Christianity cannot speak to this, then we are ignoring the most time-consuming portion of people’s lives. And our failure to speak and act on this has brought enough damage already.

Organized Childhood—The other form of slavery Christians endure is organized child events. The worst offender here is sports.

When I was a child, we played kick the can in the street. Our backyards became small softball fields. As most yards were unfenced, we’d string a few together to play touch football. In the summertime came the neighborhood chess tournaments, with kids lined up to play on our front porch. Later, we got into wargames and D&D. We found a way to fill our own leisure time.

Today, most children are shuttled constantly between organized activities. Kids can’t throw together an impromptu game of whiffle ball because all of them are now on Select sports teams. And pity the poor loner who isn’t! Those organized leagues have two-hour practices several times a week, with a couple games at ludicrous times spread out over a 100-mile radius, running parents and kids ragged.

The number one excuse I hear from folks with children as to why they can’t make a church event or just get together to hang out as the Body of Christ is their kids’ organized sports.

When you truly get down to why this devotion to sports exists, it’s hard not to shake the truth that many parents harbor the hope that Johnny or Janie will be the next Drew Brees or Mia Hamm. Sports has become the ticket to an elite college, and for too many parents, that college education trumps everything. Fact is, among parents identified as Evangelical Christians, the majority claim that getting into an elite college is a higher priority for their children than knowing Jesus, according to a George Barna poll from a few years back. Get a sports scholarship, get drafted, and make a mint.

It’s a false dream, though, as noted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. A kid’s month of birth may have more to do with his success than any talent he may have. Not to mention the minuscule pool of pro athletes today.

And for those who say that all this builds character, well, there isn’t much character in sports today, especially with everything being about money. I’ve seen coaches of 6-year-olds screaming at them for a simple mistake on the field. My own kid suffered at the hands of a coach who made winning everything, even if it meant calling on his handful of superstars to crush the same hapless (read: played even the less talented kids) opponents week after week.

If our kids are spending ten hours or more a week on a playing field somewhere, when are they getting time to hear about Jesus? And what message does all our organized child activities speak about the priority we make Jesus in the lives of our kids? A couple hours a week about Jesus versus a couple hours a day practicing piano is the wrong proportion. Should we then be surprised when our kids are a mile wide in soccer skills and an inch deep spiritually?

Community—We talk and talk and talk about community in the American Christian Church. But when we look at genuine practice, we’re pretty much strangers to each other. The early Church met in each other’s homes every single day, and in the temple for worship. That was normal. In contrast, our normal is their “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”

We have made the busyness caused by work and organized child activities the main enemy of Christian community.

Kids see this. Again, the hypocrisy of what we say compared with our practice speaks (and teaches) louder than our words.

Kids who are NOT regularly surrounded by a multigenerational group of nonfamily members grow up seeing other people as competitors for an increasingly smaller portion of the pie. Our lack of genuine community breeds distance, which abets social Darwinism and the kill or be killed mentality we foster in our business practices. If we need examples, look no further than the highly educated kids from elite colleges who knew they were selling air through mortgage-backed derivatives that precipitated the collapse of our economy. All the postmortems paint those folks as knowing exactly what they were doing to other people, but the opportunity to make a killing at the devastating expense of others proved too great. All ethics, if any existed previously, were dumped in the trashcan.

Technology also hurts community. I watched my teenage niece repeatedly text a friend of hers. Amazingly, the friend lived a couple houses up the street. When I asked why she didn’t walk a few feet to talk with her friend, I got a bunch of responses that I couldn’t understand. Studies even show that today’s teens have greatly reduced vocabularies and an inability to read body language thanks to their dependence on cell phones and the Internet. In addition, social groups depend on these devices, as one parent I know who was strongly against cell phones caved to the pressure when his once-popular 11-year-old son got left out of his peer group because the boy didn’t have one.

Adults fall prey to this too. Most of the Christian small groups I’ve been a a part of don’t meet anymore, or they meet with increasing irregularity. The voices are strong on Facebook, but we just don’t see each other much.

Our busyness, technophilia, and pursuit of mammon have killed our community, hurt our families, and left our children with a distorted view of other people. We have gone so low as to substitute face-to-face gatherings with a fired-off, dozen-word update on Facebook. I believe wholeheartedly that we are in a time when our distance is only breeding contempt, as it seems that fewer and fewer people genuinely like each other, with more and more finding nitpicky, Seinfeld-esque reasons to avoid other people entirely.

These are enormous issues that better minds than this writer MUST address. Yet I hear almost no one in the Christian community with a national voice speaking to them. Instead, those leaders often extol these deficiencies. What these lacks do to our kids, though, can’t be ignored.


I believe that the seven points above, when properly addressed within the American Christian Church, can stem the tide of teens leaving our churches. Empty pewThe generation now coming up is one of the least churched in American history because our youth ministry models failed it.

We have got to change! But those changes will need to be drastic, which is why I am not confident that those churches that claim to adhere to Christian doctrinal truth can pull off the fixes. We’re too obsessed with the failures of the culture around us and not ruthless enough in fixing our own deficiencies.

But if we don’t, our lampstand will be taken away—if it hasn’t been already.

Previous posts in this series:

Preaching for Results


Jared Wilson at The Gospel-Driven Church pointed out six framing questions for preaching the word as suggested by Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I think this list is outstanding, but I also think it is missing a critically important #7. The list:

1. The Biblical Question: What does Scripture say?

To answer this we need to check translations, do our word studies, and find out exactly what words best convey the meaning of Scripture.

2. The Theological Question: What does Scripture mean?

Here we need to interpret what is said, which requires commentaries, cultural background studies, etc. At this phase, John Glynn’s Commentary and Reference Survey is a must-have for every preacher and teacher. He rates all of the best commentaries and other reference material on various books of the Bible and theological topics.

3. The Memorable Question: What is my hook?

A word, image, concept, doctrine, emotion, or person needs to be the hook that is woven through the sermon. Without a unifying hook, the sermon will not be memorable for the hearer and will end up seeming like a number of disjointed thoughts.

4. The Apologetical Question: Why do we resist this truth?

Here we are assuming that people will not simply embrace God’s truth but fight it with their thoughts and/or actions because they are sinners who, like Romans 1:18 says, suppress the truth. So, we attempt to predict their objections so that we can answer them and remove their resistance to get them to embrace God’s truth for their life. This part of the sermon must be confrontational and often results in people walking out, standing up to argue, and sending nasty emails, all of which indicates you’ve hit a nerve like God wants you to. The real fight begins at this point and a preacher needs to come with his hands up looking for an opening much like a boxer. The issue here is uncovering the idols that people have and breaking their resistance to the truth of the gospel. This is also accomplished by co-opting their cultural hopes and presenting the gospel as the only answer to their deepest longing.

5. The Missional Question: Why does this matter?

We need to connect all that we have said to a missional purpose for our lives, families, church, and ultimately God’s glory. Something may be true but if people do not find it to also be important, they tend not to act on it. On this point I like to connect Scripture to the character of God, nature of the gospel, our mission in our city, and the quality of our lives both individually and collectively as a city of God within our city.

6. The Christological Question: How is Jesus the hero/savior?

The Bible is one story in which Jesus is the hero. Therefore, to properly teach/preach the Bible we have to continually lift Him up as the hero. Any sermon in which the focus is not on the person and work of Jesus will lack spiritual authority and power because the Holy Spirit will not bless the teaching of any hero other than Jesus.

Like I said, great stuff.

But I also think there’s a glaring omission.

As I look around the Church in America today, I see and hear a lot of preaching that is nothing more than pop psychology packaged in spiritual terms. It’s Christianity as self-help therapy, stripped of the cross, the blood, sin, redemption, and the Lord. In truth, it is no gospel at all.

On the other hand, I see and hear sermons that contain the full Gospel of grace. Yet something is still missing. Curiously, the item that is missing is the one item that previously mentioned pop-psych sermons address very well. And that’s to ask

7. The Praxis Question: So what are the next steps toward daily living out this truth in your life and mine?

If you read my post “The Question No One Wants to Ask…” you’ll know that our preaching today has not been very effective at making disciples. I give some reasons why in that post and note what we can do to help address the problem. I think what Driscoll lists above is very valuable at fixing the problem also. He’s just missing that seventh step.

The #5 Missional Question comes close to #7, but it’s still too conceptual. People in the seats are dying to know how the Gospel works in a practical way in their modern lives. They might hear the world’s best theological explanation of the cross, but if no one will tell them what to do to make that explanation real in their own lives, the message becomes like seed sown on hardened, baked soil.

Those of us in the seats today are clueless. Seriously, we are. Most of the foundation of Christianity that undergirded this nation is gone. We’ve got people today who don’t know what a hymn is. Even if what was in the past was merely a reflection of American civil religion, at least people understood that language and what to do with it. Today, few do.

Folks today have to be shown. They need to have someone tell them in detail what to do. Just as the Paul explicitly told the Philippian jailer what he needed to do to be saved, preachers today must give some idea what the next step should be. 'Jesus & the Rich Young Ruler' by Heinrich Hoffman“Jesus is Lord!” Yes, now what must we do next? “Sin kills!” Yes, now what must we do next?

Jesus, whenever He spoke with individuals or small groups, absolutely taught this way. Consider His example of washing His disciples’ feet. I think they got that message of love and service pretty clearly because Jesus showed them what to do next. Or take the negative example of the rich, young ruler who asked the high concept question about the commandments. Jesus responded by telling him what the next step should be in response. Jesus left no doubt as to what to do next; the ruler simply didn’t want to do it.

I’m not sure we’re preaching what to do next in Gospel-centered churches. I think we sometimes spend too much time filling people with knowledge they can’t figure out how to use. But if the difference between the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is what they did and didn’t do, then the people in the seats have to know what the godly next step is for what they have learned. They must have a clearly directed outlet for praxis.

Not only this, but as Jesus showed, people need something else that very few preachers are willing to offer—and that’s for the preacher to model the truth so obviously in true servant fashion that no one can miss how the message is supposed to be lived out.

It’s one thing to say that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, quite another to show how that should inform our evangelism, and quite another again to have the preacher model how it’s done. Yet I would guess that the number of churches where that occurs in all three steps can be listed in the single digits percentage-wise. I suspect that in the biggest churches with the most famous pastors it’s impossible for the average Joe to even scheduled a meeting with that pastor, much less hang out with him doing door-to-door evangelism together.

We need that #7 question. And we need our leaders to draw alongside the people and show them how it’s done.

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.