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09.02.2018

Preaching to Disciples

Whether as preachers or listeners, we come to the Bible as disciples of Jesus.

This may sound like a truism, but is crucial to establish, since preaching is one of the major means God has provided for us to make and equip disciples for everyday life. Seeing ourselves as a gathering of disciples of Jesus affects our posture towards the preaching task.

Here’s one way of thinking about what discipleship involves:

A disciple is someone who is learning to live the way of Jesus in their context at this moment.

We’re familiar with the notion of a disciple being a student, an apprentice, or a learner of the way of Jesus. But learning the way of Jesus is always carried out in specific contexts at specific moments.

For the people in our churches, following Jesus means working out what it means to be a disciple in education, a disciple in law, a disciple in photography, a disciple in business, a disciple in healthcare. The same applies in different stages of life – a disciple as a young adult, a disciple as single person, a disciple as a husband or a mum or a grandparent, a disciple in retirement.

Being a disciple also involves learning the way of Jesus in the specific experiences we each go through in life. What does learning the way of Jesus look like when the dream job falls through? Or when one of our children is being bullied at school? Or when we feel like we have the worst boss in the world? Or when our adult son or daughter really mucks up? Or when the test results come back and things aren’t looking good?

Following Jesus isn’t something we bolt on to those things. We’re disciples of Jesus in those things, learning the way of Jesus through those things. So, when Joe, a middle-aged plumber, married with two children, who plays hockey at the weekends becomes a Christian, he doesn’t put those aspects of his life on hold. He lives out his calling to love God and serve others in those places and in those relationships.

So what does preaching look like if this is who we’re preaching for?

It will certainly involve moments when we invite people to follow the way of Jesus. But it will also require our sermons to help people see how following the way of Jesus is significant to the situation in which they currently live. We preach with an awareness that being a disciple involves ongoing learning. We preach recognising that each context offers its own specific opportunities and challenges, that we and our hearers will be learning new lessons in different stages of life.

It also means we will take seriously the fact that the Bible was not written simply as a collection of blessed thoughts for our personal comfort. Nor is it a self-help manual, a book one turns to for practical advice about the ‘good life’. Instead, we seek to understand who God is, as revealed in the Bible, see how he has worked in the past, what these patterns of activity look like, and what his plans for us might be as our own lives get caught up in his ongoing work in the world.

In all these different ways, then, church leaders and preachers are able to see the congregation as followers of Jesus who are scattered into their everyday lives, with preaching as significant in nurturing and equipping them for that, in enabling them to live out their calling in their contexts at this moment.

For further reflection or discussion

1. Think about the last few sermons you preached (or heard):

  • What were the implicit assumptions being made about the congregation?
  • What links, if any, were made between the Bible and the questions that people will have been facing in their frontline contexts?
  • How did the sermons help people get a bigger vision of God’s purpose, or of the part they could play in God’s purposes outside the church building?
  • How far did the sermons clearly see the congregation as disciples?

2. Paul writes to a young leader who he has left in charge of a church in Ephesus. The letter, 1 Timothy, sees Paul encouraging Timothy from a certain posture, and in turn guides Timothy about the posture he is to take with the church.

Read the whole letter with these questions in mind:

  • What posture does Paul take towards Timothy?
  • What posture does Paul want Timothy to have toward the church in Ephesus?
  • What posture does Paul want the church to have toward the wider culture around them?

Antony Billington & Neil Hudson