Preaching to Make Disciples

I try to imagine it sometimes:

A first-century believer walks into a small congregation, maybe in Antioch.  He enters with suspicion, holding his young family close.  His eyes dart around, trying to get the “feel” of this gathering.

A quick-eyed, elderly brother notices them and rushes to welcome the new family with a holy kiss.  Now that the pleasantries are over, the visitor drops a stunning question: “So, what do you have to offer us?”

Taken aback, the wizened man scrambles for an answer.  “We, um, well … er.  We can teach you about our Lord? You are invited to come and worship Him with us, if you like.”

The newcomers are not impressed.  “Right, right.  Anything else?”

*******

That’s when I snap out of the daydream, because it’s just too hard to imagine early believers doing that (although they had their own foibles).  But that kind of conversation happens practically every Sunday in the modern church.  Only, our greeters are usually quick to provide a glossy list of our programs and special features.

Similar encounters occur when discussing the preaching ministry of a church.  We never want to disappoint, do we?  In fact, our desire to “satisfy the needs of people” can lead us into believing that our preaching is just a “service” we offer to picky patrons in a highly competitive market.

But we preach to make disciples, not to satisfy consumers.

The pulpit is the place to set that tone for the entire church.  Personally, I have to check myself often, lest I lose the purpose of the sermon.  At some point during preparation I’ll sit back from the keyboard and ask something like:

“Is this point really aimed at making disciples?  Or am I just crafting a slick product?”

Here’s just a few bullet points I jotted down one week when the urge to “satisfy my target market” became really concerning for me (these are spoken to myself):

“Lead them to Jesus’ feet, not yours.”                

The image of Mary sitting at her master’s feet in Luke 10 is a powerful one to remember when we preach.  We preach to make disciples of Jesus.  Jesus’ disciples belong at the feet of Jesus – He is the one they are meant to follow.  Help them find their satisfaction in Him, His work, and in His authoritative teaching, not in a pastor and his flashy technology (Yes, I’m aware of my previous article).

To be sure, small groups, men’s Bible studies, children’s programs, and excellent music – the things we “offer” – are important, and they certainly facilitate discipleship.

But our preaching can regularly call people to ask: “If one day our church’s programs, shiny technology, and special events all vanished at once, would Jesus be enough for us?”

If Jesus’ and His teaching are not enough to satisfy us, then we have neglected “the good portion.”  So, we might think long and hard before tipping our hat to consumer-driven queries like “What do you have to offer us?”


“Say what you need to say.”

 I recently watched the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid with my children.  In the opening scenes, John Mayer’s song “Say” plays as the protagonist leaves his home in a rain-soaked Detroit bound for mysterious Beijing, where he learns Kung Fu (Kung Fu Kid?).  Mayer’s song has a haunting little melody and a very repetitive chorus:

♪ ♫ Say what you need to say♩ ♫    [ad ridiculum]

That simple phrase reminded me of the humble boldness that should accompany preaching.  The Bible is full of timeless, frank truths that we need to say – even if “consumers” would prefer to hear them with more nuance.

Say them.  Let the markets reel.  We’re out to make real disciples, not to hock a “new and improved” discount discipleship.   We can say things plainly:  We have all sinned.  Hell is real.  Only Jesus can save.  Only He can satisfy – and He will satisfy His disciples for eternity.

There is a caution here.  Strange to quote Mayer twice in an article on preaching, but another line from “Say” intrigued me:

♪ ♫ Say it with a heart wide open ♩ ♫

I need to remember to “say what I need to say” from a heart that loves God and longs for people to become passionate disciples of Christ.  Calling for boldness is not a call to “give them a piece of my mind.”  My mind has very little to offer them.

Modeling a full heart in our preaching sets the right example for disciples.  After all, we want disciples who sound like the Psalmist, who wrote:

            With my whole heart I seek you;
                                                                       let me not wander from your commandments!
                                                                                       – Psalm 119:10

Obeying His “commandments” with a “whole heart.”  Let me so preach, let me so practice.

“Trust Him.”

Simple enough, right?  But in a culture marked by constant pressure to “innovate” and “sell” we have to trust that God will produce the fruit that honors Him through time-tested preaching.  People might tire of our sermons, they could possibly yawn at a careful exposition of Romans 9, and they might leave our churches for ones with more to “offer.”

Still, we can trust Him.  If our mission is to make disciples, then we can preach with full confidence in His Word – the Word He breathed “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16).  That is what our preaching ministry has to offer.  It may not interest consumers.  But that is exactly what disciples need.

As we preach that kind of Word, we can trust that His Spirit will transform people who ask “What do you have to offer us?” into people who say, “I am here to serve.”

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