I remember my thoughts as a student, learning theology and preaching. “If they would only preach Jesus, people would be saved and the church would do more to fulfill her calling.” As I progressed in school, the thoughts became, “When I preach the gospel, people will be saved and the church will fulfill her calling.” Before you throw a stone at me for my arrogance, just know that this thinking is pervasive among young aspiring pastors and leaders alike.
I believed that my Sunday morning preaching would change the church and our community. So I studied a lot. I read and wrote and re-wrote my sermon. I practiced it several times before Sunday. I prayed all along that it would do all those things – change the church, bring people to faith, change our community. Sunday after Sunday I preached as hard as I could preach!
A year into pastoring I saw some growth in our church but not nearly what I had imagined! I studied, read, wrote, practiced, worked and preached all the harder. By year three I was convinced that “they” just weren’t going to grow. I was sure that I had done all that I could. It must have been "them."
My second pastorate was a fresh opportunity, a new people. Because of the church’s circumstances, I didn’t believe that I would be their long-term pastor, but I did believe that with my preaching, I could lead them into the next steps of their future and it would be great. I studied a lot. I read and wrote and re-wrote my sermon. I practiced it several times before Sunday. I prayed all along that it would do all those things – change the church, bring people to faith, change our community. Sunday after Sunday I preached as hard as I could preach! The results were much the same as in my first church. Don’t get me wrong, in both places the Lord was at work and did great things, but it wasn’t my preaching.
About five years into leading New City and still struggling, it dawned on me. "Keith, your sermon is really not THAT important."
I am often a slow learner.
This past Sunday I was sitting in on our Missional Community, New Leaders Training led by Caleb Bedingfield. The group is going through the Saturate Field Guide by Jeff Vanderstelt and Ben Connelly. During the discussion they were sharing some of what really stood out to them from their week of reading. They pointed to pages and even read from the book. With excitement they shared what they were learning.
Much of it was what I have been preaching for 10 years at New City – some of it almost word for word. One of the couples in training has been with us for 8 or 9 years. Joyfully they pointed out what they were learning. Inside I laughed! “How many times," I wondered, "have I preached on that very thing?” I really can laugh about this!
The truth is, that while my sermon matters and what I say with regards to God’s word is incredibly, incredibly important, it will never do what I dreamed that it would. God may certainly choose use great preachers to do great things… or even average preachers to do great things, but generally, preaching isn’t THAT important. I mean that your best preaching will likely not bring about great change in your church or community, or in mine.
Theologically, it must be the Holy Spirit’s work!
But it seems from my experience and from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry that life transforming change takes place in an interactive small group of people.
Think about it.
Jesus preached to thousands and thousands of people! And I would say, because He was Jesus, that His preaching and teaching ability was AMAZING. Yet in the end, there was only a very small percentage of those who heard Him preach that followed Him, that believed what He said, that were changed by His message. It was the small group who talked regularly with Jesus, who did life with Him that was changed.
As I listened last week to our training group react to what they were learning together, I was reminded, THIS matters – a small group gathered, talking, questioning, pressing, answering the hard questions of Scripture and life together. THIS is what is remembered. THIS is what changes people the most. THIS, at least in part, is what led fishermen and deniers to become martyrs for the faith.
I know, young pastor, YOU are the exception! YOU will be the guy that breaks the mold.
You probably won’t.
But that’s OK! You are actually in great company.
And its not you. Really.
I ran across “The Learning Pyramid,” researched and created by the National Training Laboratories in Betel, Maine. Their research shows that your Sunday morning listeners only recall about 5% of what you are teaching (in my experience, its usually your joke, story or mispronunciation).
But take a look at how recall goes up with group discussion, then with practice and teaching others!
The Learning Pyramid puts numbers to what humbled me years ago. My preaching really doesn’t matter THAT much. Don’t misunderstand. I study. I choose my words carefully. I pray over the words that I will speak. I hope each week that something amazing will happen. I know the weight of proclaiming, “Thus says the Lord.”
I also know that we need more.
We need Missional Community life. We need a small group gathered, talking, questioning, pressing, answering the hard questions of Scripture and life together, doing life with one another and engaging together in mission. That is where the disciples of Jesus grew the most. That is where I have personally grown the most. That is where, at New City we see the most growth in our people.
Pastor, Church Leader! Do you see those numbers?
If you want to see the lives of your people changed, there must be more than your preaching and Sunday morning gathering! Change happens as people remember and apply what is being taught and that happens best in the small group environment that is participatory. Your church needs interactive and practicing small groups. Your church needs a culture of gospel-centered community more than it needs a superstar in the pulpit.
Church Goers! Do you see it?
If you want to grow in your faith there must be more than a Sunday morning gathering and the preacher’s message. You need to be engaged regularly with a small group of people where you participate in discussion, where you practice the Christian life and where ultimately you even help in teaching others. You need to belong to a gospel-centered community.