Sermons Don’t Make Disciples – Missional Discipleship Part 2

kinnon —  July 6, 2010 — 26 Comments

NOTE: I began writing this post on May the 7th and never finished it. Today I will. Part 2 in the title refers to this post as Part 1.

Please see UPDATES @ the bottom of this post that point to people including Bob Hyatt, Darryl Dash and Len Hjalmarson.



As I type this post, mid-Friday afternoon (May 7th, 2009), tens of thousands of church leaders are preparing their sermons for this coming Sunday. Some are in their church office, door firmly shut, a Do Not Disturb sign literally or figuratively in place.

Others are in their home office. Their spouses and children knowing well enough to leave them alone.

The cool leaders are in the local St. Arbucks, an over-priced Venti of surprisingly poor quality coffee close at hand, as they scribble notes into their Moleskinés while searching Logos on their MacBooks.

Still others are somewhere listening to (insert your favourite preacher) as they copy down the theme, the examples and sometimes even the personal stories of those "gifted preachers." (I've heard of one copyist who preached something along the lines of "when my three daughters and I were in Hawaii" – the problem being he'd never left mainland North America and he only had a son – an extreme case, no doubt.)

For many, if not most of these preachers, the Sunday service will be their primary point of contact with members of their congregations. This will be the place where these preachers hope to impact their listeners with the preacher's understanding of the gospel. For some it's the gospel of self-help, of living your best life now, of God as Santa Claus.

For others, the Gospel has ruined them for anything else – they are madly in love with their Saviour – and they pray fervently that the words they've laboured over that week will be words of life to those gathered. And across the breadth of churches on my continent, there will be every kind of sermon preached in between those two extremes.

I would guess that in the 27 years I've been a Christian, I've probably listened to heard close to 1,500 sermons. Though I know many have impacted me (including any number from Barry Parker, Jenny Andison and Dan MacDonald in my fair city), I can accurately remember the message of four (six). One was Bob Roxburgh at Millmead Baptist Church in Guildford, UK in the fall of 1987. Bob's primary point was that the only real sign of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a person's life was the Fruit of the Spirit – rather than the wild charismatic gifts too many of us then sought.

The second was actually a pre-Advent series of three sermons from Fleming Rutledge preached at Little Trinity in the late fall of 2008 under the theme of Advent Begins in the Dark. You can read one of them here. I have them in iTunes and have listened to them numerous times. (She is my favourite preacher bar none.)

The other two sermons were both preached at Christmas Eve services, a number of years apart, by different preachers- one focused on Satan and the other on Dying Well. Sigh. (I remember them both too well as Imbi and I had been so thankful that the non-believing friends we'd invited hadn't shown up either time. Aside: Regina Spektor's Laughing With is playing as I type this paragraph.)

However, I do remember, often in great detail, the hundreds of times that people more mature in the Faith shared their lives with me – telling me stories of what the Lord has done and what He can do – often opening my eyes to the Scriptures while they did this. Many guided me on my journey with gentle correction or words of encouragement. Others kicked me so hard in the buttocks that I still feel the pain. (And I'm not suggesting I didn't deserve that form of correction.)

Some of these people have been with me for all of the journey so far. Others were only around or available for a short time. (My father-in-law died in my fifth year of being a believer – after having had a profound impact on me – and I still miss him, 23 years later.)

I haven't only learned from people "more mature in the faith" than me. My kids, their cousins and their friends have taught me plenty. (I should also note that my wife, Imbi has played a huge role in my growth as a Christian as have a number of members of her family, including two who would not identify themselves as evangelicals.)

Sermons Don't Make Disciples

After this post of mine (Part 1 to this post's Part 2) prompted by Kevin DeYoung, I dropped by to read the next in his series on Reggie McNeal's book, Missional Renaissance. In the comments, DeYoung says this,

If I had to summarize the mission of the church in two words it would be: make disciples. [emphasis added]

If you read the "Part 1" post, you would know I don't disagree with that statement. My question to Kevin would be, "how do you think disciples are made?"

According to his co-author, Ted Kluck, in their book, Why We Love the Church (link is to my review), Kevin spends 20 hours a week preparing his "45 minute expositional sermons," for which Ted is both "thankful" and "glad." (Pg 67) My not particularly positive comment on this in my original review prompted a response from Andrew Jones that led to an interesting discussion in the comments on his post – with many great comments from my friend, Triple D.

If you are spending 20 hours a week preparing your sermon, while involved in raising a young family (in DeYoung's case), managing the "business of church" with all the cares and concerns of your congregation and physical plant, elders meetings, etc not to mention blog and book writing – how exactly does one go about "making disciples."

A friend of mine once led a rather large youth group in a mid-western Canadian city. They saw kids coming to Christ by the dozens. My friend and his team began to disciple those kids and then realized that the people who were "raising their hands for salvation" in the main services were not being discipled in any meaningful way. He approached the senior pastor, who he was close to at that time, to talk about how to create more effective discipleship and got this response, "you just need to encourage people to hear my sermons on Sundays and Wednesday nights. That's all the discipling they need."

But sermons don't make disciples – though living life together just might.

Let me play the Jesus-shaped discipleship card. Jesus made his disciples by living with them. He didn't preach at them – though he did preach – rather, he was in intimate relationship with them. And that intimate relationship, combined with the power of the Holy Spirit, turned them into people who helped change the world.

Do me a favour and go read Matthew 28:19-20. Even if it's for the eleventy-seventh time. Jesus is telling the disciples to do what he has shown them to do through living life with them. He doesn't say, "go write great sermons and preach them in the Temple." He tells them (and us) to "go and make disciples of all the nations." (Make a point of reading Luke 9:57 to Luke 10:23 as well to see both how Jesus trained disciples and the cost of that discipleship.)

I do not debate that preaching plays a role in making disciples of "all the nations" – but if your primary function as a church leader is writing and delivering sermons – how much are you really a part of the discipleship-making conspiracy? (Conspire is from the latin, conspirare- to breath together.)

Please understand that I am not arguing against the importance of teaching. I am arguing that hands-on teaching – where there is a level of intimacy and transparency between the teacher and the taught – is more effective in discipleship-making than the lecture-style nature of preaching.

I would further argue – and this coming out of months of discussion with Imbi – that unless the church recovers the art of catechesis, the "ministry of grounding new believers in the essentials of the faith", our efforts to make disciples will be less than fruitful. (The above quote is from the back cover of J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett's Grounded in the Gospel – one of the books in my reading cue.)

Finally, I acknowledge that your stellar preaching may in fact draw a crowd – but how many disciples are being made while you are not being disturbed.

UPDATE 1: Please pray for Gary Parrett who was critically injured in a bus crash in Korea.

UPDATE 2: Please read a repost of Bob Hyatt's which he's posted in response to this one.

UPDATE 3: Len Hjalmarson's post chaordic leadership, embodiment, adds some very good stuff to this discussion. He quotes from Gary Goodell's Where Would Jesus Lead,

Jesus modeled leadership by living and walking with His disciples, everyday people, and the religious leaders of His day. You can emulate His leadership style by changing the traditional hierarchical, pulpit-based leadership model of most Western churches to a more relational form of leading from among the people. This leadership style involves participating in the chaos of real, to-way relationships, yet bringing order by training and discipling in the midst of chaordic interaction. 

UPDATE 4: Darryl Dash pushes back with Sermons DO Make Disciples.

Do not!

Do so!

Do not!

Do so!



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

26 responses to Sermons Don’t Make Disciples – Missional Discipleship Part 2

  1. Couldn’t agree more! Third Option Men could give a rip about sermons at this point, at least ones that are preached using words. Great post about true discipleship. Now let me close this laptop, turn in my mug and go get involved with a flesh-and-blood human being…

  2. So while I completely agree (seriously…completely)how do we make the shift? What you are asking for seems impossible within the existing church context. It would demand we embrace the chaotic, often unmeasurable world of relationships. It requires that those who define themselves through their voice and controling the message stop doing so… I don’t know man. You are not simply talking about changing a practice of discipleship. You are questioning a defining aspect of most congregatgions. To be the church = to gather around the sermon.

    Also, is there a place for pulpit preaching? If so, what do you think it is?

  3. Bill:

    It may surprise you that I like your post overall. Sermons are important; they just aren’t enough.

    Here are my two quibbles.

    One: remembering a sermon is not the mark of whether or not it was effective or not. I can’t remember 98% of the things that have shaped me, but I can’t deny that I’m a product of the conversations, experiences, events, and sermons that I’ve long forgotten.

    Two: If the teaching pastor spends 50% of his or her time preparing sermons I guess I’m okay with that, just as we recognize that this is only 20 hours out of one person’s ministry. If we believe in the priesthood of all believers, a lot of other ministries are going to be taking place. Maybe they’re the mouth in the body. Fine. Just make sure that half of the body is the mouth.

    These are two fairly small quibbles. Overall I think you’re bang on. I’m not sure whether you should be more scared or whether I should be!

  4. Why don’t I proofread before submitting?

    The last sentence of the second-last paragraph should read, “Just make sure that half of the body is NOT the mouth.”

  5. I think small groups that would meet together to discuss the passage and the teaching of the Preacher would help immensely.

  6. Preach it! Umm, I mean, well said.

  7. Josh – so instead of fixing what is broken by addressing it head on we should pile on more activity to support it? While I think your right that sermon based small groups help, is the good that comes from congregation based on preaching really worth all the effort?

  8. Bill,
    I can disagree with you on so many levels but let me just mention 2.
    1) My preaching is not stellar and it does not draw much of a crowd – so there!
    2) Do YOU a favour and read Matthew 28:18-20? Sorry, but I need greater motivation. Fortunately, I have it.


  9. I agree with you a long way, Bill. And as a pastor myself I know I really wouldn’t have swapped all the time spent with young people in important conversations – although I often wish I had more time for sermon preparations.

    There’s one thing, that might be a side point,that Daryl also are mentioning:
    I see the “How many sermons I’ve heard vs How many sermons I remember card” being played regularly in conversations. I’m not sure if that’s a very valid point. Sermons, when they work well, are a part of the conversation that keeps shaping me and my life as disciple. Often I won’t remember the sermon per se a long time, but the fact that it was important at that point – and stimulated both thinking and conversation – means that there are lots of sermon that I don’t remember a word of that still have shaped me a lot.

    I spent seven years in a church that shaped me and my life as a disciple a lot. Great preaching was a part – but only a part – of that experience. Now, four years after moving on, I’m not sure if I can refer to any – or at best just a few of those sermons. However, I know they have been of great importance for my life as a disiciple.

  10. Jeff,
    My response is purposely hyperbolic. It isn’t that I do not believe that sermons/preaching/teaching play a role in the life of a community of believers, it is rather that if you think you are creating disciples by simply preaching at them rather than living with them, you are dead wrong. To me, the relationship aspect of disciple making is key.

  11. I guess since my role in the body tends to be more at the other end, rather than the mouth, I’m probably just whinging. 🙂

    Again, I note the impact of Barry, Jenny and Dan’s preaching on me in my post (and I’ve never heard you preach so I couldn’t add you, bro) so I’m not denying the role sermons play in the life of a church community – my point, however poorly made, is that if you are a church leader and think you are going to grow disciples by preaching @ them rather than being in relationship with them, then you are simply wrong.

  12. I’ve missed seeing you, Ken and look forward to the fall when our Theo-Pubs start up again. And I’d certainly not be aiming this broadside @ you as I know how much you love your people and are in relationship with them.

  13. Elling,
    I’m not debating the efficacy of sermons as part of the life of a community where the preacher/teacher/sermonizer is engaged in transparent and intimate relationship with that community. Again, I am stating that if you think your preaching is going to create disciples, then you are wrong. In My Not Humble Opinion, of course.

    Bob Hyatt has reposted a good older blog post of his on this.

  14. “…if you are a church leader and think you are going to grow disciples by preaching @ them rather than being in relationship with them, then you are simply wrong.”

    Are there many people that would disagree with he need for Christian community? I hope they’d be the exception.

    Actually, I’m more concerned these days with a general lack of confidence in preaching, which I think reflects a lack of confidence in the Word. I know a church can’t thrive without heavy infusions of the Word lived out in community. My general impression is that a lot of churches are looking to all kinds of other things besides preaching, and that a lot of sermons are underprepared (not over). But that could just be me.

  15. In our community the sermon, while facilitated by a teacher, is very conversational, interactive & generative. It love this approach as it pushes each person to engage the text individually and collectively. I wish I had been able to have this throughout my faith journey.

    That being said, even this process (while better) is not an effective means for discipleship. It plays one part, but without being supplementary to building genuine communities that are actively engaged in loving service to each other & the neighbourhood, it can be less than a good use of time & energy.

    Bill, I think you are VERY clear that you see it as one (and even an important) part of the development of faith communities, but caution us against making it the exclusive or even primary means of spiritual formation. I think this is an important point.

    Oh, and when I first wrote “preach it!” in my first comment, it did take me a minute to realize what I had said. Good times…

  16. Darryl,

    Might I suggest that the model being promoted as the most efficacious for Christians in the West – whether from the Reformed or Arminian wings of Evangelical Christianity – is that of the megachurch. Regardless of Scot McKnight’s apparent love for it, and his willingness to blog the data that seems to best promote that style of church, I’m not convinced that Christian Community is being built for most of the people in the pews/big comfy chairs. And I would further suggest that megachurch services are built around the Sunday morning spectacle with the sermon being the pinnacle point of said spectacle.

    In terms of the Word, in the words of the Apostle John, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. ” The Incarnational reality of Christ in His Body is revealed in the relationships amongst his people – not just in the preaching “of the Word.” And might I further say that if we want the Word lived out in community then we need to spend more time in catechesis – rather than no time at all.

    Whether over prepared or under prepared, the sermon is not the central moment in the weekly life of the church, in my never humble opinion, of course.

  17. Thanks, Jamie.

    The problem with the assembling of far too many of the saints is that it becomes impossible to make the teaching/sermon conversational and interactive.

  18. I couldn’t resist:
    “Sermons DO Make Disciples – A Response to Bill Kinnon”
    link to

  19. Hah! I’d already linked to it in the body of the post. 🙂

  20. What usually passes for “go and make disciples” seems little more than religious salesmanship. If they will know you by love, it implies that making disciples is more about one’s personal life that continually grows in love, and less about one’s ability to sell a belief system. My friend says, “the truest defense of the faith is not a defense of the faith but the act of love.” I’m more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come to start a religion but to save us from it.

  21. WenatcheeTheHatchet July 7, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Well, preaching is a part of making disciples but it is merely a part. Those who come to Christ hearing Christ preached have become disciples. We would all agree about that. Preaching in conjunction with a shared life does go very far. The pastor who has had perhaps the strongest positive influence in my life was an Assemblies of God youth pastor (yes, really!) who introduced me to works by Gordon Fee, Francis Schaffer, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Watchmen Nee (I’ve dropped Nee over the last two decades but still respect the others). He also had breakfast with me a time or two and we’d discuss biblical literature and theology and he advised that though his apologetics were problematic Kierkegaard’s meditations on Christian love were actually great. There are, I daresay, very few AG youth pastors who decide to teach their group about exegesis and hermeneutics and then are willing to have meals with the kids and talk about Kierkegaard! The older I get the more I realize how blessed I was to have a youth pastor like that in my life twenty years ago. I was taught both by preaching and by lived example what a love for the scriptures and the Lord looks like. I had another mentor in high school who was willing to discuss things he didn’t understand about the Bible with me, like David’s brutal final words to Solomon or the baffling case of the lying spirit sent to the prophets of Ahab. It’s easy to overlook this but older and better-read Christians admitting that there are things about the scriptures they struggle with actually HELPS younger Christians if this sharing is done in a relational setting. It helps people know that the scriptures cannot be exhausted as a means on reflecting upon the mysteries of Christ. I better stop rambling.

  22. The problem isn’t whether or not a sermon can make a disciple. It is that we think disciples are made through some technique that a professionally trained operator performs.
    If anything makes disciples it is the Spirit of God, through the agency of a sermon, or a person, or a book or, dare I say, a blog.
    The discussion reduces preachers to the level of technicians. Which technique of preaching is the most efficient and cost effect method for making disciples. Who has the best program and material available now. Is it the eight minute homily or the 45 minute exposition of the text the best preaching method for making a disciple?
    And why is it that remembering what the preacher said is the measure of a good sermon, rather than the action that I took in response.
    I’ll accept sermons as disciple makers once we see sermons as public manifestos for change, instead of as an information deliver system.
    There is an eschatological side to this issue too. If we see all that is necessary for making disciples as conversion decision, because the church will be raptured before the tribulation, then our preaching will be narrow and only evangelistic. If, however, we see the life of church as kingdom creating, then we’ll preach sermons that bring changes in attitude and behavior to the people in the pews. There is a wide gulf between those two approaches.

  23. Bill –

    (As he steps out from under his sermon prep rock. 😉 )

    You sure know how to stir a preacher’s sensibilities. Bruise our egos. And, remind us that a full orbed transformational experience never centered on words only. Even if this cyber thing is virtual, there have been any number of interactions with you Canadians that have helped hone the thinking of we Southerners. 😉 (That includes Daryl and David Fitch)


  24. I can’t believe someone would say ‘hey, just listen to my sermons.’

    …hold it. This is evangelicalism. Of course someone would say this 😉

    Look at Jesus and the twelve disciples. They certainly heard his sermons and talks. They also lived life with him, and there were certainly things Jesus said to each of them in the moment (as opposed to scheduling the weekly sermon at the nearest synagogue).

    I kind of wish I had a mature believer to help disciple me when I was a young Christian. Instead, all I had was Sunday services and opportunities to ‘feed myself’.

  25. No time to read this all today, but will.. and then will respond on my blog. Important topic. as important for impact on the way we “do church” as on our thinking around discipleship and mission – what we might frame as inward and outward life (but a mistaken separation).

  26. Great post and responses. I think your point is well taken. While both sermons and connection have important roles, life change happens when you get into someone else’s life! It is so easy to listen to a sermon, nod in agreement, think about it til lunch is over on Sunday, and then go on with life. But when a believer shares their testimony, rebukes you when needed, or gives to you in the name of the Lord when you really need it, God becomes real to many.


What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.