Effective Discipling, Ineffective Sermons: What Education Can Teach Us

October 7, 2010



Does God speak to you in unexpected ways? Say, while listening to the radio?

Seven years ago, I heard an NPR report on how cutting-edge classrooms are changing to fit our changing culture. This is where I first heard that teachers must shift from being “the sage on the stage” to “the guide by the side,” and I blogged about postmodern schooling.

A few days ago, I heard another report on NPR about education. Only this time, it wasn’t a cutting-edge classroom. It was about a school district in bad shape, with low scores on state tests that weren’t improving. Simply holding the teachers accountable for better test scores wasn’t working.

Then they accomplished a major turnaround.

And like the report seven years ago, I listened intently, making connections to church and discipling. What can this school district’s advancements teach us about how we train people in the Way of Jesus?

Theories don’t cut it

Don’t tell me.
Show me.

Joe Curtis is one of the superstar teachers, whose students tend to make big gains on the tests. Curtis has been teaching for nearly 30 years. Ask him how he became a good teacher and he doesn’t talk about graduate school or professional development days. He talks about other teachers — talking to them, trying out their methods and watching them in action.

Stick with me, I’m jumping between education and faith. How do churches try to make disciples?

  • First, the person wanting to become a pastor must get a seminary degree.
  • In seminary, students learn various theories and approaches.
  • After graduating and getting pastoral jobs, these people give weekly lectures.

Lectures are a fine way to impart raw information. But it’s not enough for what we want, which is to make disciples who make other disciples. Information transfer isn’t enough, we need life transfer. Don’t tell me. Show me.

Re-read the account of Joe Curtis above. How did he become a good teacher? Not from training courses, but by spending time with good teachers. What if we did the same and spent time with effective disciple-makers?

Going solo doesn’t cut it

Heather Long is a new teacher. Not only does she watch Curtis teach, he watches her and gives feedback and advice. They also plan lessons together. Curtis works with the veterans in his building too. Everything teachers in Chattanooga do now is rooted in the idea that they get better when they work together.

The report goes on to highlight a shift from teachers doing their own thing, to helping each other.

Are church services just a gathering of many Lone Rangers into one place?

Sermons are mostly a one-way delivery. A good preacher offers a challenge for how to apply a teaching to your life. But then it’s up to you, on your own. Maybe you’ll get it, but probably not, because there’s no one coaching you. And you’re not coaching anyone else, either.

It’s certainly not a team effort. North American Christianity suffers from excessive individualism, and there’s an entangled cause-and-effect relationship between that individualism and our sermon system:

  • Preparation: One person researches and creates the message.
  • Delivery: One person delivers a lecture to multiple people.
  • Processing: Each person sits and listens to the message.
  • Application: Each person is on their own to apply it to their lives.

See how it’s about individual effort, even when we’re all gathered? Evangelicals are quick to criticize “Lone Ranger Christians” who have left the church. But are church services just a gathering of many Lone Rangers into one place, still largely isolated from each other? At the same time, you can’t just ask strangers to share their lives with each other and expect something to happen.

Re-read the account of Heather Long above. “Everything… is rooted in the idea that they get better when they work together.” How can we shift from a solo-student mentality, to a sports-team mentality?

Sermons don’t cut it

[Penny] King says she and her colleagues have learned all kinds of new teaching techniques. One thing they’ve learned: Don’t lecture at the students. Their goal now is to get the kids thinking and talking.

“God knows we don’t need more lectures.”

In my previous post I asked, what’s the return-on-investment for sermons? Blog one another’s resident atheist commented on Twitter, “Of all non-people, God knows we don’t need more lectures.”

Deliver me from sitting still and listening to one person talks. And I’m an introvert.

Sermons happen to be about spiritual topics, but they’re still lectures. That’s not to say they have no benefit. But a modern sermon is a lecture, with computerized slides. Just like at work.

…Except when I heard the CEO of eBay address the rank-and-file engineers, he presented his vision of the future but then spent most of the time letting anyone ask questions. And instead of using a question as an opportunity to provide his quick answer and move on, he lingered on it. He explored it. He carried on an open conversation with the person who asked the question, and got input from others. And he took his time and did this for each question.

Re-read the quote above. How do we move from monologue to dialog? How can we move from teaching informing our lives, to our lives informing the teaching?

Effective discipling: What is God telling us?

These were the things that struck me as I listened to the radio article on education. I’m reminded of what I read years ago in The Master Plan of Evangelism: Effective discipling isn’t a curriculum. It’s demonstrated. It’s imparted. And the torch is passed on.

Re-read the accounts of Jesus. Pay attention to what he does, and how his disciples watch him. They ask him questions. He answers with more questions. Then he sends them out to do the same stuff he was doing. Then they come back to debrief.

At this point, I encourage you to listen to the radio report that caught my attention. Do as Kay says and “listen with both ears” — meaning your spiritual ear in addition to your natural ear. For me personally, this is a continuation of my Lectio Divina meditation on the word “and”: the Holy Spirit is reawakening my desire for personal discipling relationships in small groups.

What is he saying to you? Share in the comments below.

(Special challenge for pastors: Can you find someone who is an effective disciple-maker and shadow them for a week, or even 3-4 days? Even if you’re a good discipler, watching someone else in action will give you different insights.)

Related posts:



Jon Reid

Posts Twitter Google+

As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

16 responses to Effective Discipling, Ineffective Sermons: What Education Can Teach Us

  1. Jon, awesome post!
    What greater example of effective discipling being demonstrated and imparted than in St. John 6: 5-14. The disciples (those under the discipline of a Master) gave to the multitudes what they first received from the Lord, Who in verse 35, referred to Himself as the bread of life. This is discipleship 101.

  2. Hi Jon:
    This is an excellent post, spot on. Jesus’ Great Commission does not call for more lecture halls. He called for disciple makers.
    I especially appreciate your observation that each of us should make disciples. Our own maturity and growth depends upon helping others learn how to follow Jesus.

  3. a lot to chew on Jon…

  4. Wow, I have one on one relationships with several sisters in the Lord, but I have always craved a deep mentoring relationship with a group.
    When you wrote about when you have grown the most, for me it would be from books I have read, Mere Christianity – CS Lewis, The Bondage of the Will – Matin Luthur, the Autobiography of Madam Guyon. All of these books and many more, deeply effected me and sent me searching in prayer and the scriptures.

  5. Always with the great thoughts, Jon. I would add that my experience in youth ministry and counseling has shown me that there are very few people who wish to be “fathers of the faith” any more. Young people are easily discipled (relatively speaking). Yet, the act of ‘getting in the trenches’ with the young seems…unsavory…or undesirable.
    It’s not a coincidence that the awakening of this ‘disciple maker’ was in the medium mostly consisting of young people.
    ‘where be our future,
    I see them reaching up to us’…(anonymous)

  6. Julio, the way you phrase that reminds me of Paul’s words. We use them as a ceremonial words for communion, when they also point to discipleship: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.”

  7. Ray, I’m trying to be careful and not reject lectures as a useful tool. But I’m afraid we have skewed the emphasis — and because the medium is the message, skewed our understanding of living in the Way.
    One of the things I appreciate about the church planting movement (CPM) style is the way they focus on obedience, sharing your experience immediately with others, and getting newbies to lead. They do this with folks who haven’t even decided whether they’re Christians yet!

  8. Gnaw away, Roy! I hope you can take up the challenge at the end.

  9. Cherry, you are blessed to have those one-on-one relationships! Those already put you much further along than most, including myself at this time. But yes, there is a magic to doing so as a group, learning how to be the Body with multiple parts.

  10. Young or old, discipling is messy. But so many innovations in ministry (both good and bad) have their roots in youth ministry, eventually spilling out.
    Thanks for being one who gets dirty, Jeph.

  11. Jon, i really liked the statement, “How can we move from teaching informing our lives, to our lives informing the teaching?” If this is truly the way of discipleship than sermons are virtually impotent because of the passive nature of the monologue. I’ve been critical of the passive nature of our services in general and the delivery of sermons in particular but I’ve always been left with a few questions.
    1) Do sermons have a place? Is there a benefit to them and if so, is it enough to warrant 20-45 min. every Sunday?
    2) To entertain the common argument, “Jesus lectured. Paul lectured to the Greeks in typical Greek fashion (1 man before the masses). We are far more influenced by Greek culture than Jewish so aren’t we following biblical examples by “preaching”?
    3) True discipleship happens with regular meetings, time spent together, where real life can happen. So then what’s the point of Sunday morning in your understanding?
    Very thought provoking stuff Jon. Much appreciated.

  12. Craig, I’ve been chewing on your questions. I really don’t think I can do them justice in a comment — and I want to make sure people have a chance to contribute their thoughts. So I think you just gave me the content for a new post at some point! 🙂

  13. Jon, thanks for the keen thoughts on crucial issues. But I must admit that I am seriously bummed by your description, definition and evaluation of sermons… Saying a sermon is a lecture (with or without slides) is like saying movies are just video clips, or that novels are just printed words on paper. If sitting still is the problem for you, by all means find a church that will let you wander about the room. Preaching does not inherently require any particular physical posture on the part of the listeners. If it’s the size of the group that is bothering you, by all means flee the mega-church and find a small congregation or group where you can worship. I also find it ironic that you seem to have drawn your inspiration for much of what you say on this topic from having listened to a radio broadcast! Not a live person speaking, not heard in the midst of a group of diverse and yet like minded friends, not heard in the context of praise and worship, but spoken by someone who doesn’t even know you exist, and probably never will, then recorded and broadcast across the airwaves; and at the other end you sat in front of a metal box and listed to it in complete anonymity. If even that experience could be inspiring for you, what is this big hang up about sermons??? You also seem to be implying that when Jesus was listening to others, when he was asking questions, when he was sending people out, and when he was working side by side with people, he wasn’t preaching. Yikes! Those activities are at the very heart and core of preaching! Sermons have never intended to be monologues. Sermons are supposed to be events thru which the most important dialogs and conversations of all time; those between God and humankind, are enlivened or brought to life, such that they are transformed in the hearts and minds of the listener, from being just words on a page to the living, moving, and life altering force of God’s Word incarnate! I know, that sounds a bit lofty and exaggerated… but I guess that’s because preaching is one of the most real and tangible ways in which scripture actually becomes God’s Word in the lives of individuals and in the life of the body.
    Of course, I agree that there is much about discipleship that can and should be done outside of the preaching/hearing event, so I’m totally for the ideas you are suggesting. Its just that I think you are profoundly undervaluing and misrepresenting preaching in your comments.

  14. Hi Jim,
    Ow, did I touch a nerve? Thanks for your counterpoints. But let me ask: How often does dialog happen in a sermon? I know it can be done — I’ve seen it.
    I think you would argue that, for the most part, the teaching doesn’t end when the sermon ends, and that’s part of what I want to see: ongoing conversations, with or without the pastor. That’s pretty much the situation in the church we belong to now. The content is terrific, and gets me thinking. And the delivery is, I guess, efficient, because everyone’s in one place. But it still bothers me that (with the rare exception) I’m staring at the back of someone’s head instead of participating in a larger conversation.
    Your counter did make me realize that this article may seem like a put-down to so many pastors who work so hard on their sermons. And that’s certainly not what I intend, so for that, I apologize. It’s a tough calling.
    I guess I want to make a clearer distinction between preaching and teaching. Preaching, meh. Teaching, bring it on.

  15. And perhaps I am undervaluing teaching, because traditional teaching tends to be about a cognitive process and about learning. That’s not unimportant but rarely is it life changing in the eternal sense. Scripture comes alive when we encounter Jesus Christ in a personal way through the words, the images, and the events of scripture and ultimately by the power of the holy spirit. I’m not anywhere near ready to write off preaching as one of the prime events through which scripture comes alive. Predominant homiletical theory said goodbye to unilateral dissemination of information more than thirty years ago and focuses far more on the preaching event as an encounter. Interestingly enough, after thirty years there is now somewhat of a backlash particularly in large, conservative mega-church style congregations, many of which have reverted to a more teaching intensive style of preaching. Many suggest that it has been fueled by the massive decline in scriptural literacy among the population at large.
    We absolutely do need to read, understand, and study the Bible, but I don’t believe that is the primary task of preaching at all. First and foremost, the preaching event ought to be an enlivening of God’s word in the minds, hearts and lives of the congregation; a spark that leads to a blazing fire among God’s people, a conflagration that inherently encompasses the fulfillment of the great commission and the building up of God’s Kingdom.
    As for seating arrangements, there is nothing inherent in preaching that demands traditional pews and pulpits. Many churches have experiments with other methods, with varying degrees of success. But there is a sense in which preaching resembles theater (in the very best sense of the word). This is likely to start a whole separate debate, but both are public presentations intended to reflect life and truth, albeit in a slightly abstract sense. How hard would it be to really get drawn into the story, the emotions and the pathos of a theatrical performance if you were seated right up on the stage, or in a circle around the stage where your view might be of the backs of the actors, the stage hands, bright lights in your eyes etc. So in a sense, the stage at front, audience set back aways, facing the stage does work to accomplish a meaningful presentation. Ultimately there needs to be a certain amount of space, both physical and psychological, to enable an appropriate suspension of belief if you will, that allows those present to see beyond the stage, actors, lights, building, screen, preacher, etc. and move into the world of deeper participation and belief in the story.
    Sorry for getting wordy!

  16. Jim, we may be slightly different flavors, but I appreciate your passion and rigorous thought! Don’t apologize for being wordy, that’s good stuff. 🙂