When we think of making disciples, we usually think about one-to-one evangelism and discipling—sharing a tract perhaps, or going through a weekly evangelistic Bible study with a friend over coffee. We might also think of reading a good book on biblical doctrine or on some aspect of the Christian life with a fellow church member. Or maybe it’s a small group setting where we help newer believers cut their teeth on the basics of reading and applying the Bible. Of course, all those things are excellent ways to make and grow disciples of Jesus.
But have you ever considered how public preaching fits into the task of making disciples?
Preaching is actually one of the main ways we make and encourage followers of Jesus. After all, to be a disciple of Jesus is to be one who learns from Him (Matt 11:28-30). And where do we learn of Christ, if not from the public exposition of Scripture? Remember Jesus’ Great Commission: we make disciples by baptizing them in God’s triune name and teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:18-20). The public teaching ministry of the church is the broadest and most corporate way that we make disciples. It’s where we expound all of God’s Word to all kinds of people and call them all to ongoing repentance and faith.
A Public Proclamation
Consider some examples from Scripture of the role of public proclamaiton in the task of disciple-making. Philip’s individual encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 was formed and informed by prior public, Christ-centered, evangelistic exposition of the Old Testament in Acts 2-7. Paul’s practice of making disciples was to preach publicly in Jewish synagogues or even secular venues like the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8-9); he then followed that up with individual instruction. Paul told Timothy to meet with people on a smaller scale (2 Timothy 2:2), but he also instructed him to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). To preach is to announce as a herald—it’s inescapably public and corporate. Paul says, “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Again, to proclaim is by nature a public activity—the one to the many—and it leads to maturity.
But the objection might come back, “Yeah, preaching was great back in the day, but today we’re into dialogue, conversation, dynamic interaction, give and take. Hasn’t post-modernism rendered preaching obsolete?”
So, what is it about preaching in particular that makes it a great vehicle for disciple-making? As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.” Preaching (and specifically, evangelistic exposition) gets across the authority of the gospel in a way no other medium can. God is not simply starting a conversation with us or asking our opinion about what He’s done. Nor is He asking permission for access to our lives. He’s making an announcement of good news to us and for us. God has accomplished our redemption in the event of Christ’s cross. This public truth comes to us not as an option, but as an announcement that commands our acknowledgement and obedience. As a way of starting off new disciples on the right foot, we could hardly do better than to help them understand the authority of the message through the medium of preaching.
The Ultimate Equipping Ministry
In the context of the local church, then, preaching sets the public standard for all the private discipling ministries in the church. And when that preaching is evangelistic exposition, that is, a clear proclamation of the gospel message wherein the point of the passage is the point of the sermon, then preaching not only announces the gospel but it also models for our people how to interpret and explain their Bibles to their unbelieving friends. In this way, evangelistic exposition becomes the ultimate equipping ministry of the church. And that’s as it should be, for the risen Christ gave “the shepherd-teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12, emphasis added).
Preaching, then, both forms and informs the saints as disciple-makers themselves. It forms them by calling them to ongoing repentance from their own sin and by spurring them on to growth in Christian conviction, character, and ministry competence. This formative ministry helps us obey the message we proclaim so that the church’s mission is manifest with genuine love rather than hypocrisy. Christ-centered evangelistic exposition lets us look at Christ ourselves so that we look like Him for others (2 Corinthians 3:18).
And preaching informs congregational disciple-making by deepening and broadening the church’s understanding of the gospel. Each member is trained week by week to articulate the gospel more clearly as he or she sees it modeled in the pulpit. Pastor, what gospel will your people proclaim? They will proclaim the gospel you proclaim. Just as Pauls asks the rhetorical question, “. . . how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14), we can also ask, “How will they learn to speak the gospel without a preacher to model it for them by his own public example?” Or better, how will our people “preach” if we as pastors don’t “send” them the right message?
This is why it’s so useful for a pastor to address non-Christians in his preaching—not only for the non-Christian’s sake, but also to model for our people how to talk as a Christian to a non-Christian about the Bible. What an example for the entire body to hear, “If you’re a non-Christian listening to this sermon, maybe this part of the Bible feels confusing to you. But I wonder if you’ve ever thought of . . . ” The church overhears those public statements and learns to imitate them in one-on-one settings.
In the end, preaching that makes disciples should be a proclamation of the gospel that is, specifically, from Scripture. It is the gospel, from Scripture, that is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18). And we want to train our people to clarify the gospel from Scripture, with power, for those who don’t yet understand it, i.e., unbelievers. That’s why disciple-making preaching cannot simply be topical or even doctrinal. It must model the gospel-centered, Christ-exalting explanation, interpretation, and application of Scripture so that Christians see a regular model of how to understand and explain the gospel from any biblical text in ways that engage unbelievers. In short, our people should be able to use God’s Word to call unbelievers to repentance and faith in Christ.
If the preaching ministry is not forming and informing the congregation as disciple-makers, then what is?