What is the Role of Preaching in Discipleship?

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In a sense, preaching runs counter to our normal disciple-making strategies. It’s not democratic like a small group discussion. It’s not conversational like an accountability meeting over coffee. It’s not personal like a long-term mentoring relationship. Compared to the way we conceive discipleship, preaching seems dictatorial, declarative, and disconnected. How, then, does it aid discipleship? Perhaps we haven’t fully recognized it, but Paul’s instructions in 2 Timothy approach this very tension. The end of chapter 3 provides a prototype for disciple-making that affirms the course we encourage in our churches.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom1 you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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 Tim 3:14-17).

Timothy came to faith in normal disciple-making ways—the influence of his family, the investment of a mentor, and the truth of Scripture. We might describe Timothy’s path as the combination of intentional relationships and inspired Scripture, and we can prescribe that dynamic as the template for own disciple-making endeavors. Intentional, investing relationships forged by the truth of inspired Scripture results in discipleship. This is the way it’s done!

So, how does preaching enter the picture? After all, if one has intentional relationships forged by inspired Scripture, then why listen to preaching? How does preaching help?

Notice the turn Paul makes as chapter 4 begins.

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 Tim 4:1-5).

Here, Paul moves from the personal and intimate to the public and corporate. The term “preach” means to proclaim, to declare publicly, even to shout in the assembly. When Paul charges Timothy to “preach the word,” he’s instructing him to proclaim publicly the message about Christ that is revealed in God-breathed Scripture. Preaching is the public declaration of the gospel to the assembly, and Paul demands this of Timothy. [quote]Preaching is the public declaration of the gospel to the assembly, and Paul demands this of Timothy.[/quote] It’s an order. While Paul does not neglect the personal and relational aspects of discipleship, he nonetheless crescendos toward preaching as a public and corporate act.

Notice the way Paul draws attention to preaching. First, he solemnizes preaching. “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead.” This is, perhaps, the most serious language Paul could gather, and it’s exactly the seriousness with which God breathed out the words of Scripture. To declare the gospel was a solemn command. Second, Paul perpetualizes preaching, claiming that it must be done “in season and out of season”—on all occasions, convenient or inconvenient, popular or unpopular. Third, Paul particularizes preaching, describing it as reproof, rebuke, and exhortation.

Don’t miss the similarities between the purpose of preaching in 4:2 and the purpose of Scripture just three verses earlier. In 3:16, Scripture is for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training.” In 4:2, preaching is to “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” Preaching Scripture serves the purpose of Scripture—correcting error, confronting sin, comforting pain, and so on. Just like Scripture, therefore, preaching isn’t merely informational—it’s confrontational.

And this is key. All components of discipleship involve a confrontational component. Relationships can’t be intentional about discipleship without being confrontational. Proverbs expresses the simple wisdom that “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). Scripture reveals the gospel with confrontational content. The Bible is profitable to teach you, refine you, correct you, and train you for your completion and equipping—to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (3:15-16). Preaching, too, is an inherently confrontational event, to reprove, rebuke, and exhort.

So, if discipleship is the confrontational combination of intentional relationships and inspired Scripture, then preaching is simply the discipleship process gone public. Preaching is discipleship’s pinnacle. Preaching is discipleship on the grand scale. [quote]...preaching is simply the discipleship process gone public. Preaching is discipleship’s pinnacle. Preaching is discipleship on the grand scale.[/quote]

We might consider the relationship between discipleship and preaching in the same way that we think about other relational activities. Take spectator sports, for example. People who live in the upstate of South Carolina know that Clemson football is a big deal. It’s one thing to watch the Tigers at home on television. It’s another thing to attend a party with friends and watch the game together. Yet, it’s still another thing altogether to scream your face off with 85,000 friends in Death Valley. Each experience is good, yet there is a successive heightening as one progresses to the next.

Similarly, it’s one thing to hum your favorite hymn to yourself at work. It’s another thing to sing it with your spouse and children at home. But it’s another experience altogether to sing it with your brothers and sisters in Christ on Sunday. Each is good, and each stage heightens and intensifies.

When it comes to discipleship and preaching, it’s one thing to read the Bible alone. It’s another thing to discuss it and apply it with a friend or in a small group. Yet, it’s still another thing altogether to hear it declared openly in the assembly of the saints. Each experience is good, and each stage heightens and intensifies the work of making disciples.

There is much more to be said of preaching—the power of the Word of God, the power of Spirit-fueled witness bearing to Christ in the tradition of the prophets and the apostles, the power of pastoral office in shepherding the whole flock together. Yet, we can at least say this of preaching—that it is the work of making disciples heightened and intensified as the gospel is trumpeted in public spectacle.