In his article Sermons Don’t Make Disciples Alan White asserts that preaching doesn’t make disciples. He gives a litany of reasons but in the end, the article reveals more about White’s low view of the Bible and the ministry of the Spirit than to prove preaching doesn’t make disciples. His point is valid about the value of relationships in the process of discipleship. But White errs in one major way: he ignores careful study of the Scriptures themselves on the topic of preaching. We need a far higher view of the Scriptures and of preaching. And preaching need not be diminished to uphold the value of relationships in discipleship.
I take my argument from the Bible and from the ministry of a faithful preacher from church history, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. His classic book, Preaching and Preachers, is utterly relevant for our day.
In his time, Lloyd-Jones faced many critics of preaching. He saw their low view of preaching as a result of their low view of the Scriptures. Furthermore, Lloyd-Jones argued that preaching wasn’t merely an important task for the church and her pastor, but the single most important task:
I suggest that here are some of the main and the leading factors under this heading. I would not hesitate to put in the first position: the loss of belief in the authority of the Scriptures, and a diminution in the belief of the Truth. I put this first because I am sure it is the main factor. If you have not got authority, you cannot speak well, you cannot preach . . . . Well now the great question is—what is our answer to all this? I am going to suggest, and this will be the burden of what I hope to say, that all this at best is secondary, very often not even secondary, often not worthy of a place at all, but at best, secondary, and that the primary task of the Church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God. 1Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan, 2012), 20, 26.
White rightly argues that we need godly examples to look to in order to imitate them. To whom should we first look? Jesus. What did he do? He preached and spent time in small group discipleship—it’s both. We should note that Jesus’ ministry was absorbed in preaching. Matthew’s gospel is filled with extended passages of the preaching of our Lord. White emphasizes the time he spent with the twelve disciples but overlooks or seems to ignore the vast material, particularly in Matthew, that is record of Christ’s preaching. We certainly don’t have to make over generalized statements like “sermons don’t make disciples” in order to bring up the importance of small group discipleship. Rather, we should first check the biblical record and, second, consider whether we simply have too low a view of preaching before making such a sweeping statement.
Let’s continue to look at the Scriptures specifically Matthew 28:18-20 where Jesus commissions his disciples for gospel work:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The missional movement seems to generally emphasize the “go” and sometimes the “make disciples” in this text. However, many often overlook the “and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” Teaching is essential to the task. Can that happen and should that happen in small group discipleship? Yes! But note what we find the apostles doing immediately following the commission (hint: it’s not rushing out to form cell groups or missional communities). It’s preaching! See Acts chapter two and four, and then chapter six where the primary mission of the church is first tested: “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (6:2).
Commenting on this text, Lloyd-Jones states:
Why go on preaching when people are starving and in need and are suffering? That was the great temptation that came to the Church immediately; but the Apostles under the leading and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the teaching they had already received, and the commission they had had from their Master, saw the danger and they said, ‘It is not reason that we should leave the Word of God, and serve tables.’ This is wrong. We shall be failing in our commission if we do this. We are here to preach this Word, this is the first thing, ‘We will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word.’ 2Preaching and Preachers, 30.
In Acts 8 the disciples are scattered in persecution and what do we see them doing? Preaching! The book of Acts makes the priority of preaching unmistakable.
Now let’s look to the pastoral epistles (interestingly, a portion of the Scriptures White doesn’t address in his article). Paul’s climactic charge to Pastor Timothy uses arguably the strongest language of any of his instruction to him in 2 Timothy 4. Listen to his final charge:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (4:1-2).
Here, Paul keeps upping the ante on his charge, first drawing on the presence of God and of Christ himself, then on the coming judgement, and finally on Christ’s personal appearing and his very kingdom! What in the world could be this important!? The answer: preaching! Indeed, in view of all this glory, Timothy is to “preach the word.”
There is much more to say regarding the indispensable role of preaching in the life of the church. But I end with this question that every pastor would do well to answer: Why is there so much emphasis on preaching and its importance in the New Testament if it doesn’t make disciples? There is so much emphasis on preaching in the New Testament because it does make disciples. The problem is that many pastors haven’t taken a high enough view of it in accordance with the Scriptural record to render their preaching effective.