What is the foundation, the cornerstone of church discipleship programs?
I realize that a lot of folks, especially some of my good friends, are not going to agree with this old fogey’s take on this.
The church has a lot of discipleship programs today – Sunday School, small groups, short-term studies, how-to classes. All of them have their effect and impact. But in my 32 years of ministry, I have come to believe that there is a specific discipleship program that is the ground of truly effective discipleship. The impact of the other programs is magnified if this discipleship program is effective, and if this program is not in effect, the other programs struggle to find traction.
What is this program?
The consistent, expositional preaching of God’s Word from the pulpit, week after week.
When I went to Southwestern (back in 1980-81) preaching was generally held in low esteem. I listened (seething inside a little) as one professor dismissed preaching as an outdated and ineffective form of communication. It just wouldn’t work in the modern world. My preaching professor showed little interest in exegetical or expositional preaching. He was a typical “three points and a poem” prof.
But in the decades of my ministry I have come to believe in the importance and impact of consistent, expositional preaching of the Bible. There is a lot I have done wrong in my ministry and many things I wish I could do again. But I have seen God work in the people I shepherd as I proclaim God’s Word week by week.
As I have observed the effect of biblical exposition through the years, I have formulated a motto for my ministry.
The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to do the Work of God in the people of God.
I am not in any way downplaying the importance of small groups or other discipleship programs, but I would remind pastors that Paul’s admonitions to Timothy were more like “Preach the Word” than they were “start small groups.” Since this is not an either/or equation, we do not have to choose between the two, but I would say that if you are dissatisfied with the progress of discipleship in your church then you ought to…
“Start at the very beginning, a very fine place to start.
When you read, you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with do-re-mi.”
And when you disciple, you begin with “Preach the Word.”
It’s a very fine place to start.
Permit me to share just a couple of verses that buttress my point.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Since we all know that passage, I need not do any more than point out the obvious. The Bible is God’s breath – his inspired and inerrant word. It is “useful” or “profitable” to teach (to disciple!), to reprove (to identify sin in our lives) to correct (to show how to stop doing the wrong thins), and to train in righteousness (to show people how to stay on the right path and off the wrong path). How can that be described as anything but the discipleship process?
Then, Paul goes on to say that through the use of the profitable Word, the man of God will be complete (mature) and ready for every good work God lays before him. The Word of God is our primary discipleship curriculum. Does anyone disagree with that?
This is an instance in which chapter divisions are unfortunate. The passage goes on to say immediately thereafter:
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. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 2 Timothy 4:1-5
The primary method of discipleship is to “preach the Word.”
Please hear me, I am not saying that the only way we should disciple in the church is through the preaching ministry. What I am saying is that the preaching ministry is the primary and effective tool of discipleship in the church. I am saying that to try to develop a discipleship program without the in-depth, consistent, exposition of God’s Word is foolish.
Start at the beginning. It’s a very fine place to start.
One more scripture here – among the most misappropriated of Scripture.
Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
but blessed is he who keeps the law. Proverbs 29:18
This is used by motivational experts to support their ideas of vision-casting and long-range planning. Again, I am not saying that these have no place in Christian leadership, but I am saying that vision-casting is NOT what Proverbs 29:18 is all about.
The word translated vision speaks (as the translation above makes clear) of prophetic vision – of the revelation of the will of God. When God’s Word is made clear among his people, the Spirit uses that Word to bring restraint (limiting the expression of the sinful nature) among God’s people. “The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to do the Work of God in the People of God.”
We abandon the exposition of the Word of God then wonder why people live sinful lives?
It is God’s Word, applied to hearts by the power of the Spirit of God, that restrains the sinful nature, reproves and corrects and then trains in righteousness.
Let me be VERY clear here.
1) I am not saying we should abandon discipleship programs, discipleship classes, small groups or any of that. Those are important parts of the work of God. I am not advocating abandoning those, or even putting less emphasis on them. I am reacting to things I have read and discussions I have had in which the importance of preaching the Word as a discipleship program has been subtly discounted. t
2) I am saying that the most important discipleship program in the church is the accurate proclamation of God’s Word; exegetically, expositionally, passionately, with vigor, power and passion, with a call to repent, to apply the Word and to live in obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
- If you preach the powerful and effective Word of God, you might find your other discipleship programs more effective.
- If you preach less exegetical, less expositional, less Bible-centered sermons, do not be surprised if your discipleship work becomes a lot harder and less effective.
One note here: when I talk about preaching the Word, I’m not talking about delivering theological treatises from the pulpit. I am afraid that too often exposition has been confused with delivering lectures on Greek grammar and systematic theology. That is not really preaching.
- But I am talking about sermons where the Bible is not used to get across your message, but the Bible is the foundation of your message. You are not using a text to deliver our ideas, but letting your ideas be driven by text itself.
- I am talking about sermons that are intensely practical, directed toward people’s needs, sermons that hit people where they live. The Bible hits people where they live. If your sermons are not “relevant” they are probably not actually biblical. But your relevant preaching is driven by the text.
- I am talking about sermons that are passionate, interesting, filled with stories, humor – none of these is inimical to expositional preaching. But it all roots in a desire to explain what God says in his Word to people who need to know what God says about their lives.
- I am talking about verse-by-verse exposition as the pattern, though preaching can be expositional without being verse-by-verse. I recommend verse-by-verse as the norm, but there is no sin in straying from that (a holiday message, a study of a biblical topic, a biblical theme, etc).
- I am talking about forceful and personal application of the principles of God’s Word. I have been baffled by statements I’ve heard discounting the importance of application in the message (leaving that work to the Holy Spirit). The first message we have is Peter’s at Pentecost. It is an explanation of OT Scriptures, but it ends with this statement, “with many words he exhorted them to save themselves from this corrupt generation.” The preacher’s duty is not only to explain the Word, but to clearly explain how that applies to the lives of the hearers. Exposition + Application = Transformation. Of course, that is all a work of the Spirit, but we are his tools in the process.
One more time – I am not attempting to nullify discipleship programs or their importance. I am saying that those who seek to build effective discipleship programs should never discount the ground and foundation of all effective discipleship programs, the consistent exposition of God’s Word.