Preaching That Actually Changes Lives:
6 Keys in Forming Disciples
Here are six key factors that enable preaching to change lives and transform believers into growing disciples.
By Steve Lim
“The single biggest problem in communication,” wrote playwright George Bernard Shaw, “is the illusion that it has taken place.” Unfortunately, this includes preaching. Barna found that the typical church member cannot remember the theme of a sermon 2 hours after the church service.1 If so, the self-deception to which Shaw referred runs rampant among Christian communicators. Another survey of church members regarding their perspectives on preaching found that sermons rarely produced change in their lives.2 The results of the two surveys correlate: If individuals do not remember a message, they cannot apply it.
Partly as a result of weakness in preaching, small groups and spiritual disciplines have gained popularity as preferred options for growing in discipleship. Yet in no uncertain terms, the apostle Paul states the crucial role of preaching in the disciple-making process. He charges Timothy, his son in the faith: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). While appreciating additional means that help us form disciples, to obey God’s calling we must find ways to effectively proclaim the Word.
Historically, preaching has played a powerful role in forming disciples. It can still do so today. Effective preaching helps in the “making new” of our minds (Romans 12:2), enabling changes in our perspectives, priorities, and practices. In short, preaching produces life change. But what has happened to preaching? Church members often cannot remember the message, much less apply it.
Here are six key factors that enable preaching to change lives and transform believers into growing disciples. Preachers can more easily apply the first four, while the last two normally require more time to acquire the needed insights and abilities.
Coordinate Themes for Learning
Believers who attend several Christian meetings a week receive numerous exhortations. They may hear three or four good points in the Sunday morning sermon. Then, in Bible class they receive several more points on a topic different from the sermon. In attending Sunday evening service, a midweek service, small group, or fellowship they will hear or study more points on additional subjects. How many points will the typical church member hear in a month? Easily dozens, likely scores.
How many of these points does the average believer apply? For most, the reality is — none. Inundated with numerous topics and points, members cannot even remember most of the topics they hear, much less apply the points to their lives. If pastors will survey members on the major points they remember from the previous month’s preaching and those they have begun to implement in their lives, they will discover they have retained little and even applied less.
Some churches have learned to coordinate the theme of other learning opportunities during the week with the Sunday morning message. During these smaller meetings, leaders develop the topic further, and members discuss it, make personal application, and practice mutual accountability. This allows members to focus on one primary message each week. In addition, if a church takes several weeks to develop one topic, members will have more time to reinforce and apply the truth to their lives. Not all topics require extended treatment. For variety, some can and should be preached in a single sermon.
A few churches have taken the additional step of coordinating themes, whenever appropriate, throughout their age groupings. Taking the common theme, they provide discussion questions and activities for family times, which are appropriate for children and youth as well as adults. This has the added advantage of encouraging the transition of spiritual learning and growth from a primarily church-based process to a more family-centered one.
Motivate Love for God and His Word
Responsibilities, busyness, and stress conspire to drain our spiritual vitality and keep us from growing. We require ongoing motivation to persevere in following Jesus and becoming more like Him. Preachers can validly appeal to Christian duty as a motivation for obeying God. Alone, however, this will only lead to our doing the minimum required — often with little joy. Recall the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Beyond duty, our vision of God determines our capacity to love Him and our desire to serve Him and grow in relationship with Him. Through preaching, believers need to see God’s holiness, greatness, beauty, and love, and appreciate His goodness, faithfulness, and forgiveness. Foundational to discipleship is the vision of a good and loving God — a God who is for us, not against us. Author Richard Foster wisely observes, “The Christian life comes not by gritting our teeth but by falling in love.”3
As preachers, our lives must match our words. If a growing love for God and a delight in Him characterize our lives, we will radiate authenticity that inspires others. Otherwise, communicating facts about God simply becomes an exercise in transferring information without spiritual life. Our members quickly sense whether we speak from fresh spiritual experience or human emotion. As preachers, we must regularly ask ourselves, “Are we cultivating a personal love for God so it is alive and new in our hearts?”
Preachers also need to instill an appreciation for God’s Word, for discipleship requires obedience to it. Sustained motivation to follow it results when we see its value for human flourishing — in contrast to the way sin diminishes, damages, and destroys our lives.
Attached on my hair dryer is a tag that tells me what I should and should not do with it:
- Always unplug it after use.
- Do not place or store where the dryer can fall or be pulled into tub, toilet, or sink.
- Do not use while bathing.
- Do not use near or place in water.
- If the dryer falls into water, unplug immediately; do not reach into the water.
What if I think, Why should I allow the manufacturer to tell me how I can or cannot use my hair dryer? After all, I paid good money for it and it belongs to me. I’ll use it as I please. You would shake your head at my stupidity. The manufacturer places the tag on the hair dryer, not simply because the government requires it, but the manufacturer recognizes the danger of serious injury or death if I use it improperly.
Believers may chafe under God’s laws, because: 1) Many are difficult to obey. 2) Others appear to limit our lives. 3) Some run so counter to society’s perceptions and practices that we question their validity. 4) Still others require courage, risk, and sacrifice. For sustained motivation to obedience, believers need to recognize the desirability of God’s standards. We need a vision of God who gives us His laws because He knows they are best for us.
For years I regularly reminded my congregation that God’s laws are descriptions of reality. God told Israel, “Observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good” (Deuteronomy 10:13; emphasis mine. See also 4:40; 5:29,33; 6:3,24). Obeying God’s laws protects and enables us to flourish. To ignore God’s laws means to ignore reality. Sooner or later living in unreality will result in distorted living, harm to ourselves and others, and eventually destruction.
Challenge Counterfeit Gods and Misbeliefs
The world seeks to seduce us with attractive and urgent goals to divert our attention and energy from spiritual goals. These often become counterfeit gods in our lives. The nature of these seductions has not changed since biblical times. Jesus identified three major categories, “They are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14, ESV4, emphasis mine). Riches and pleasures are obvious. Cares not only refer to concerns about daily needs, but include goals — such as security, approval, success, power, influence, and fulfillment. If God blesses us with these things, we should gratefully receive them and use them for His purposes. Giving priority to their pursuit, however, will deplete the time and energy we need for spiritual cultivation.
Preachers need to discern which seductions most tempt their members and challenge the ability of these counterfeit gods to provide more than partial, temporary fulfillment. We need to provide believers with a vision of God who provides what we truly need and a vision of ourselves as beings created in God’s image for relationship with Him. We can never find full and lasting satisfaction apart from Him.
Along with seductions, in any culture misbeliefs abound. Often imperceptible, like low-flying cruise missiles, misbeliefs slip under our defenses and weaken our faith by gradually altering our worldview, passion, and values. Consider a sampling of misbeliefs proliferating in our society:
- In life our primary concern is to take care of ourselves and our families.
- God exists to take care of our needs when our resources prove inadequate.
- Personal fulfillment is the ultimate purpose of life.
- Achievement, assets, and appearance determine our worth.
- Many biblical teachings are outdated and irrelevant today.
- Sex is a normal drive that single people, as well as married people, should satisfy.
Like weeds, misbeliefs keep sprouting and multiplying. Preachers need to expose the fallacies behind current cultural misbeliefs, lest they weaken the spiritual commitment, life, and growth of believers. By challenging them, we can reduce or minimize their impact. Weeding clears space for growing spiritual fruit.
Tap the Power of Personal Story
Jesus frequently told parables, a form of story. Both the Old and New Testaments abound with narratives. Preachers need to use stories in communicating truth. They offer multiple benefits, including the following:
- People more easily remember stories than abstract statements of truth. As people replay stories in their minds, they are reminded of the truths we have communicated to them, and these truths are reinforced in their minds.
- Stories speak to the heart and imagination as well as the mind. In this way, stories leave a deeper and more lasting impression.
Our personal stories can impact others even more powerfully than stories about others. When appropriate, we need to share our struggles. This produces several effects. First, people appreciate the fact we speak from experience, not simply theory. Second, they identify with us, for they too have weaknesses. Third, our vulnerability encourages them to honestly look at their own lives. Fourth, in relating to our failures, they can also identify with our successes. They gain hope for their struggles: “He is human. He has wrestled with what I now experience. With God’s help he overcame his problem. This gives me faith that I too can make it.”
Address All of Life
In October 2010 at the Lausanne Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, 4,000 evangelical delegates from around the world publically confessed the Church’s lack of holistic discipleship: “We have failed to bring the whole of life under the Lordship of Christ.”5 Preaching commonly focuses on the spiritual life, which lies at the heart of the Christian life. We hear the call to love and worship God, to trust Him, and to obey and serve Him. Receiving the Spirit’s empowering enables us to participate in His mission in the world and to become transformed into the image of Christ. This is all good. Yet, while the spiritual life takes priority, we cannot ignore the other areas of life, which must also fall under Jesus’ lordship.
Discipleship preaching must include the areas of daily life — including our understanding, attitudes, and behaviors related to work, career, success, money, possessions, leisure, and media. We also need to preach on relationships, especially the neglected areas of romantic love and sexuality, which our culture so badly distorts, creating much pain and grief.
Preachers must also deal with the believer’s responsibilities in the world. This involves not just evangelism and missions, though these have critical importance. According to God’s Word, Christians must also engage the practical needs of people for physical sustenance and justice.
Deal With Personal Maturing and Issues
Personal maturing closely intertwines with spiritual growth. We cannot become spiritually mature without becoming personally mature. I have known believers who possess great zeal for God, yet appear to make little spiritual difference in the lives of others. Why? Their weaknesses in relationships or their emotional immaturities neutralize or limit the effectiveness of their influence, ministry, and witness. Personal maturing includes: emotional awareness and growth, understanding the past and present influences in our lives, healing for inner brokenness, mental and moral development, and healthy relationships and functioning. Spiritual resources can aid the process of personal maturing, which in turn encourages spiritual growth.
Most preachers lack familiarity in this area, since the discipleship literature rarely mentions it and their training for ministry usually does not cover it. We need to intentionally seek to grow in this area. In our preaching, we need to share how we have struggled and learned to overcome negative personal issues with the help of God’s Spirit.
For example, while passion for ministry is good, it took me years to realize that part of my workaholism in ministry came from an unhealthy drivenness. Though I needed more sleep, I reasoned that I could get by on 6 hours, enabling me to spend more time in ministry. It’s up to me, I believed, to meet the church’s needs, while doing everything possible to communicate the gospel to a lost world.
As a result, I often felt sluggish and drowsy during the day. In retrospect, I could have accomplished more with adequate rest. One day I dozed at the wheel and crashed into a tree, wrecking my car. Even that did not change my compulsive lifestyle. While my conscious motives seemed noble, my drivenness resulted from low self-esteem. I strove for success in ministry to prove to myself that I had value as a person. Fortunately, I eventually experienced (not just understood intellectually) the reality that my worth comes not from what I achieve, but from God’s love for me.
Other personal issues that can thwart spiritual growth, include: unresolved emotional pain, evading the truth about our weaknesses, lack of awareness of our emotions and their causes, perfectionism, codependency, and a sense of entitlement. If any of these issues influence our lives, they prevent Jesus from being fully Lord. Discipleship preaching can sensitively reveal these issues, so believers can seek spiritual counsel, the support of others, and the power of the Spirit to deal with these obstacles to discipleship.
As you apply these six keys to discipleship preaching, seek the enabling of God’s Spirit for you and your congregation. Then, not only will the congregation remember your sermons, your preaching can actually change lives by forming disciples for Jesus.
1. The Barna Update, August 9, 2005. Accessed 02 April 2012.
2. Lori Carrell, “Sermons Most Likely to Succeed,” in Rev! magazine, May/June 2007, 71.
3. Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (Harper San Francisco, 1998), 51.
4. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Scripture quotations marked ESV are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, copyright 2001, Wheaton: Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5. The Cape Town Commitment: Lausanne 2010. Accessed 02 April 2012.