Preachers have unique opportunities to develop stronger disciples while also enhancing the quality of their preaching. It often feels as if we must choose between two essential activities in order to get everything done that calls for our attention. Employing the sermonic process as a disciple-making tool accomplishes both, reducing the guilt we often feel for short-changing one responsibility or the other.
This article suggests practices in which the pulpit ministry can become more effective at making disciples than simply depending upon the content of our sermons. At the same time, the process improves our preaching. I wish I could say I had consistently done all these activities over my years of ministry; I can’t. What I can say is that these practices have worked well when implemented.
What I’m sharing shouldn’t be seen as an all-or-nothing program. Any of these activities could be executed alone, though together they provide a more powerful tool for making stronger disciples while also producing more relevant preaching.
These suggestions reflect the following assumptions:
- Discipleship requires quality time investing in people around God’s Word.
- Collaboration generates more holistic understandings of both text and congregation.
- Coaching disciples on how to read Scripture well is fundamental to disciple making.
- More mature disciples serving with the less mature develops everyone’s effectiveness.
- Listening to parishioners at all stages of growth enhances the relevance of our preaching.
- Biblical (expository) preaching is the primary approach used in the congregation.
- Those called to ministry must model intentional disciple making.
Planning Phase: Developing Disciples while Preparing the Sermon Plan
The sermon planning phase becomes an ideal time to practice one’s listening skills. Deliberately speaking with elders, youth sponsors, staff, new believers, the yet-to-be-converted, small group leaders, and others provides insight for planning next year’s sermons. Done over coffee, in small group settings, or in the regularly scheduled meetings on the calendar, these conversations intentionally put us in contact with disciples speaking about texts and spiritual issues.
Spend time asking both believers and non-believers their perceptions of observed needs and concerns. The very process not only facilitates your relationships but suggests that all disciples should be listening carefully for these concerns. Be clear that this a quest for relevant information but doesn’t imply that any or all ideas will be used.
A few questions…and lots of listening:
- What are the concerns you hear people talking about?
- What kinds of spiritual questions are you being asked?
- What do you perceive we need to address as a congregation?
- What are the chief concerns of the unchurched community?
As part of the planning phase, call together a small group of men and women whom you respect and to whom you will listen. Share the findings from your previous personal conversations and collaborate about what concerns are most significant, which themes are similar, and what biblical books/texts best address those concerns.
“Collaborate about what concerns are most significant, which themes are similar, and what biblical books/texts best address those concerns.”
Use this opportunity to help these disciples see the process that you go through in determining your preaching plan. Help them recognize what the church is always seeking to become: it’s moving toward the goal of being a more mature congregation. Help them realize they are a part of reaching that goal.
After the initial meeting, develop the basics of the year’s plan. What is the overall theme for the year? What goals are driving your choices? What biblical book(s) will be used? How many series will be involved? What are the key themes that will drive the various series? How do the sermons move the congregation toward its goals?
Once the initial plan is in rough draft form, recall the group for feedback. Ask what’s missing or overused? What needs rearranged? Which texts might be better choices? Whose voice best fits the various issues and texts? As you share, reinforce how knowing Scripture and spending time with people have played important roles.
Study Phase: Teaching Disciples to Read the Scriptures Well
From my perspective, the study phase provides the greatest opportunity for teaching disciples how to read Scripture. This phase not only gives you the added resource of multiple eyes on the text, but you also help people recognize what goes into serious study of Scripture. The appropriate hermeneutical practices we hope to model in our preaching get taught directly to a small group of disciples.
Initially, the study phase is a group project. Select approximately twenty men and women, including some of your best Bible readers, potential leaders, and small group leaders. Ask them to read and reread the key book of Scripture that you will use for the primary series of sermons. The initial meeting takes the form of a seminar presentation with a time for questions/answers and table talk, concluding with a large group summary and an overview of the coming year’s plan.
“The study phase provides the greatest opportunity for teaching disciples how to read Scripture.”
Have an expert (possibly you) give a synopsis of the particular book from which you’ll be preaching. Include an overview of the key themes, the genre and its implications, the structure of the book, and the key questions the text raises. Spend significant time revealing the situation to which the book was written. It should be scholarly but still very accessible.
After the seminar presentation, have the various tables spend time reflecting on what they’ve just heard. Have them formulate 2-3 big ideas and 2-3 questions. Encourage wide participation in a large group discussion of those ideas and questions. The process reinforces the value of open, honest conversations about Scripture.
The seminar is usually 3-4 hours with snacks and breaks, providing ample time to facilitate conversations among the disciples attending. It models good hermeneutical practices while it teaches both significant content as well as process. You will also gain much-needed clarity and focus as you continue refining the preaching plan.
“You will gain much-needed clarity and focus as you continue refining the preaching plan.”
Following the seminar, select a half dozen people that seem to have a good grasp on the material and who are obviously interested in learning. Give each an individual assignment. Some will research specific texts. Some will read specific books, articles, etc., and summarize the material for you. In the process, they grow and you receive added resources you don’t otherwise have time to pursue.
Development Phase: Refining the Series while Growing the Disciples
During the development phase, utilize 3-4 of the most gifted people (both male and female) you’ve discovered in the previous phases. In a meeting or two, these disciples will help you confirm textual choices. Ask them to make sure you are getting complete thought paragraphs and are not modeling poor textual choices. Ask them to honestly identify any biases you may be exhibiting. Encourage them to have studied the texts and highlight the personal growth potential from such study.
Assign two texts to each person and have them come prepared to share their thoughts and insights into those texts. They should provide a short paragraph summarizing the meaning of the text. Based on those brief summaries, collectively seek a single sentence that captures the essence of that paragraph of Scripture. These summaries may become the dominant thought for the respective sermons on those texts.
“Assign two texts to each person and have them come prepared to share their thoughts and insights into those texts.”
As a group, seek to develop the why of the text. What was the author seeking from his readers? What actions, beliefs, convictions, attitudes, etc., did the author desire in response to this text? Develop a statement for each text that looks like this:
- As a result of this sermon, the listeners will:
- Think this…
- Do this…
- Believe this…
As a result, these disciples learn that arbitrary application is misguided. Each text was written for a reason, and as disciples we seek to discover and implement appropriate responses.
Ask the group to consider what form the sermon might take. Should it be a direct sermon where a main idea is explained and applied? Would it be better to approach it indirectly and not reveal the main idea until the end? Should it be a story sermon? Could it be best be done in a dialogue or through the incorporation of a personal testimony as part of the sermon?
“As a result, these disciples learn that arbitrary application is misguided.”
Finally, allow the group to make recommendations concerning what voices would be most appropriate for each text. Is this a sermon only the primary preacher should take? Would an outsider be best suited for the message? Is this one for an elder or one of the student ministry staff? In the end, you or you and the preaching team will make the final decision about who does the preaching. Yet in the process, these disciples are learning not only to read a text carefully but also to seek sharable conclusions. They also learn the power of credibility in speaking to certain texts/issues and you can encourage them to continue developing their personal integrity and credibility.
The Implementation/Evaluation Phase
In the final phase, implementation and evaluation, call the team from the development phase back together after each series. Spend time discussing the responses they are hearing to the sermons. What conversations are they having after the sermons? Are people continuing to discuss the issue and/or the text? What questions are being raised by the sermons?
It should be clear that these various conversations are discipleship. More mature and less mature disciples are spending time together, talking about life, Scripture, and how those come together. We are teaching believers how to discuss sermons and congregational life without being critical.
Conclusion: Better Disciples and More Relevant Preaching
Spending time with believers around God’s Word is a key component of making disciples. Preachers automatically spend a lot of time in Scripture, and these practices multiply that practice by bringing disciples alongside you and showing them good Bible study practices. It also gives them insight into you, your heart, the sermonic process, and the work involved. It makes them better listeners, more informed members of the congregation and thus, more likely defenders of the value of the preacher spending time in the Word, and they become more responsible disciples.
In addition, the sermons become more relevant because they speak to actual questions and concerns being asked by the people. The time spent investing in making disciples enhances the value of the time spent in preparation.
And that’s a win/win for any preacher and any church.