Might it be that preaching sermons is not the most effective way to disciple believers in weekly smaller churches? Much good has good from preaching, especially by those gifted at it (Charles Spurgeon, for example). In congregations with hundreds and more in attendance, there is really no other option but to preach. In smaller churches, however, the opportunity cost of preaching sermons should at least be weighed. What other, potentially more effective, ways are there of persuading believers to obey all that Jesus commanded? What example does the New Testament offer for smaller congregations? When and why in history did weekly sermons come into the church?

Monologue Preaching

The word “preach” has, frankly, been overworked in our English Bibles. This is due to the fact that over thirty different Greek words were all translated as “preach” in the King James Version, and because most subsequent English translations have been heavily influenced by the KJV.[1] Don’t make the mistake of tacitly assuming that the New Testament activity referred to as preaching is similar to that undertaken weekly by modern preachers in their pulpits. [2]

One common Greek word typically translated as “preach” is euangellizo (transliterated “evangelize”). As might be expected, it refers to evangelism. (The noun form, euangelion, means “good news”—the gospel). For example, Paul wrote that Christ sent him to “preach the gospel” (translated from a single word, euangellizo, 1Co 1:17). This happened synagogues, markets, and places like Mars Hill—apart from church meetings. New Testament church meetings were designed for the edification of believers (1Co 14:26), not the evangelization of unbelievers, so this type of preaching was not typical in a weekly gathering of the church.

Another common Greek word historically rendered as “preach” is kérusso. It, too, is usually associated with evangelism.[3] For example, “how are they to preach (kérusso) unless they are sent?” (Ro 10:15). Kérusso fundamentally means “announce, make known” (typically by a herald). [4] In classical Greek, it indicated a public, authoritative announcement that demanded compliance.[5] However, we should not limit our thinking to only one method of heralding (preaching), such as the open-air gospel preaching done by Whitefield and Wesley. Kérusso can also simply have the sense of giving notice or informing.[6] For example, if one person quietly shared the gospel with another he was sitting next to, he has “preached” to him (without ever raising his voice!). New Testament gospel heralding, however it was done, was directed primarily to the lost, not the assembled church. C.H. Dodd defined New Testament preaching as “the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world.” [7] R.H. Mounce commented that preaching “is not religious discourse to a closed group of initiates….”[8]

What about texts that seem to support preaching (kérusso) the Bible to Christians in church meetings? For example, Paul charged Timothy, “preach (kérusso) the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2Ti 4:2). Paul’s reference to the “word” (logos) could refer to the gospel (and thus evangelism), but it more likely refers to the Scriptures referenced two verses earlier in 3:16 (All Scripture is breathed out by God”). It is noteworthy that this command to “preach the word” was to be done “with complete patience and teaching” (4:2). As previously stated, kérusso means to “make known.” There are many ways to make the Scriptures known besides the modern concept of preaching a sermon. Part of the way in which Timothy was charged to herald the Word of God was clearly through “teaching.”

One other word that could be translated as “preach” is katangello. However, it does not refer to any particular form of proclamation in the New Testament.[9] How these proclamations were carried out has been lost to history. Again, to envision katangello was the same as a preacher preaching a sermon would be to assume too much. My goal is not to prove that there never were lecture-type sermons in early church meetings, but rather that perhaps there was another way that was more common and more effective—dialogue teaching.

Dialogue Teaching

For the first several centuries of its existence, Christianity was an illegal religion. Consequently, churches met secretly in private homes. A typical church was probably around fifty people. Perhaps as many as one hundred people might squeeze into an ancient Roman villa, but not hundreds or thousands. In such small congregations, was the preaching a one-way monologue sermon de rigeur?

With all the emphasis today on the “centrality of preaching,”[10] it is worth noting that in 1 Corinthians 11-14—a lengthy section on ecclesiology—neither preachers nor preaching are ever mentioned. Early church meetings were quite intimate, allowing for a greater emphasis on “one another” ministry. For example, Hebrews 10:24-25 exhorts ordinary believers not to forsake the assembly, but instead to “stir one another up to love and good works … encouraging one another.” Colossians 3:16 states that believers are to be “teaching and admonishing one another….” Paul was satisfied that Christians in Rome were “able to instruct one another” (Ro 15:14). In describing weekly first-century church meetings, Paul referenced a “lesson” (didaché; transliterated “didactic”), 1 Corinthians 14:26. The NIV here has “a word of instruction”; the NAS has “teaching”;[11] neither has “preaching.”

Scripture makes it clear that church leaders regularly spoke in church meetings, but in a style in keeping with a one-another emphasis, not preaching as we think of it today. For example, consider the words Luke used to describe what Paul, an apostle, did all night when visiting the church in Troas (Acts 20:7ff). First, Luke recorded that “Paul talked with them …” (20:7), from dielegeto, the lexical form of which is dialégomai (transliterated “dialogue”). The primary meaning of dialégomai is “to conduct a discussion.” [12] In other places, dialégomai is rendered as “reasoned” and “reasoning.”[13] Next, Luke noted that Paul, “prolonged his speech until midnight” (20:7). “Speech” is from logos, a very broad term. Although it certainly can mean speech, it can also simply refer to speaking as in talking.[14] Luke further described Paul’s method of communication by writing that Paul “conversed with them a long while …” (20:11). In English, the word converse is related to conversation. The underlying Greek is homileo, “to speak with someone.”[15] In this passage, homileo is a virtual synonym with dialégomai. Paul was doubtless the teacher/authority that night, and for sure had much to say, but based on Acts 20:7-11, it appears that he did not deliver his information in the form of lecture or preached sermon. Paul’s teaching method was clearly more of a discussion than monologue. No doubt Paul did most of the speaking; however, it was not an uninterruptable sermon as if broadcast on the radio. Thus, even a special time set aside for teaching by an apostle was to some degree discussion oriented.

It is obvious from 1 Corinthians 14 that spontaneity, informality, and the freedom for ordinary, non-ordained members to speak was the norm in church meetings. Of course, there were guidelines, such as only one at a time speaking, a cap on tongues and prophecy, and a prime directive that everything said had to build up the church. All of this orderly participation was declared to be “a command of the Lord” (14:37). In such a free-wheeling context, how likely do you think it was that everyone was required to sit mutely and passive listen to someone preach a sermon?

Some have opined that the prophetic activity referenced in 1 Corinthians 14 might be the equivalent to modern preaching. However, Thomas Schriner has rightly pointed out that the prophets, unlike preachers, did not exposit Scripture based on their own prior careful study. Rather, they spoke spontaneously when they got messages directly from God (1Co 14:29-30).[16]

When emphasizing the great diversity of spiritual gifts given to build up the church, Paul did not ask, “Are all preachers?” Instead, he asked, “Are all teachers?” (1Co 12:29). In a list of spiritual gifts, Romans 12:7 lists “teaching” (didaskalia) and even “exhortation” (paraklésis), but curiously, not preaching (kérusso).

The concept teaching obviously has a different feel to it than does preaching. How is modern preaching different from teaching? R.C. Sproul pointed out that, “there is much overlap between the two. Preaching must communicate content and include teaching, and teaching people the things of God cannot be done in a neutral manner but must exhort them to heed and obey the Word of Christ.”[17] One major difference is that a teaching, unlike preaching, is not as much of a solo performance. A teaching can be interrupted, questions can be asked, comments added, and disagreements stated. Another difference between preaching and teaching is the difference between heralding and explaining.

John Piper offered this example: Imagine a herald galloping into town, shouting from high atop his horse, “Hear ye! Hear ye! The Emperor has declared an amnesty to all slaves!” That, Piper said, is preaching: proclaiming good news, announcing something that has happened—information that completely changes the situation of the listeners. However, after the announcement, imagine people approaching the herald with questions: “What is amnesty? When does it go into effect? Does this mean I can leave my master now? Will compensation be paid to slave owners?” At that point, Piper said, the herald would have to start teaching, explaining the implications of the news, helping people with concepts and ideas they don’t understand, and telling people what they need to do in response given their various situations.[18]

Jesus tasked the apostles with making disciples, a process that He said required “teaching” (didasko) them to do all that He commanded—not preaching at them to do it. Acts 2:42 makes it clear that the disciples were devoted to the Apostles’ “teaching” (didaché)—not the Apostles’ preaching. In sync with this, in the two passages that cite qualifications for a church leader, one states that he must be “able to teach (didatikos)” (1Ti 3:2), and the other, “able to give instruction (didaskalia)” (Titus 1:9). The ability to preach in the modern sense of the word was not a requirement. In 2 Timothy 2:24-25a, we learn that the Lord’s servant must be “able to teach … correcting his opponents with gentleness” (this approach would seem to be the opposite of one way, performance-style preaching).


Women learn in silence

1 Timothy 6:17 states that elders will be involved with both “preaching and teaching.” The Greek underneath “preach” is logos, which fundamentally simply refers to a literal “word” uttered when talking.[19] It can also refer to speech, but is not the typical Greek word used for what we consider today to be preaching (kérusso). And, whatever its meaning, it is clearly different from teaching.[20] Since logos can also refer to God’s written Word, [21] this may be what Paul had in mind. That is, church leaders who labor hard studying the Scriptures and subsequently in teaching it are worthy of double honor. Thus, the KJV has: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” Again, the point is not that preaching a sermon absolutely never could have occurred in a church meeting. The point is that unlike teaching, preaching a sermon was not a regular weekly occurrence.

Where Did Sermons Come From?

A study of early Christian historical writings reveals that the lessons in church meetings were of such a nature that there was considerable frankness and openness between teacher and the congregation. Speakers were interrupted by such things as clapping, the foot stomping, suggestions to the speaker, the public congregational quoting of Scripture, crying, laughing, and dialogue between speaker and the audience.[22]  It was far from the situation today were congregants sit quietly, and passively listen to a high-powered Bible lecture.

In secular Greek and Roman society an oratorical style known as rhetoric was a popular form of entertainment. It was very similar to what we today think of as preaching. It was an interesting, persuasive, eloquent, emotionally-moving monologue. It was even regarded as an art form.[23] Corinth was a city full of Sophists who were masters of the persuasive art of rhetoric. They were eloquent, well respected, and had large followings.[24] It is interesting that Paul seems to have been decidedly against this performance-type rhetoric that was so popular in His day. From his letter to the Church in Corinth, we learn that he spoke “not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1Co 1:17), and that he “did not come … with lofty speech or wisdom” (1Co 2:1). Sadly, the church in Corinth had splintered into factious following various popular Christian leaders (Apollos, Peter, Paul, and even Christ). Worst yet, they had even fallen under the charm of various false, golden-tongued “super-apostles” (2Co 11:5). Contrasting himself to them, Paul conceded that he was “unskilled in speaking” (2Co 11:6). Paul wanted to be like the donkey that carried Jesus on Palm Sunday. The crowds hardly noticed the donkey; they looked at Jesus. They cheered for Jesus, not the donkey.[25]

Historians inform us that it was not until several centuries after the New Testament era that rhetoric was regularly incorporated into church meetings.[26] Its introduction was due in part to the sudden influx of large numbers of nominal believers into the church after Christianity was made the Empire’s official religion. Furthermore, congregations moved from the intimacy of Roman villas into large, impersonal basilicas that could accommodate hundreds. The “one another,” discussion-type teaching modeled by Paul in Troas thus became impractical, not only due to the large numbers in attendance, but also because of the nominal nature of these new “disciples.” Since many early church Fathers had been rhetoricians before their conversion (Tertullian, Arnobius, Cyprian, Lactantius, Augustine, etc.), it is not surprising that they would readily employ this form of communication.[27]

So, what’s the point? Today, in a small church that is Roman-villa sized, and composed of genuine believers, the continued use of ancient Roman rhetoric should be questioned. Don’t simply copy what big churches are forced to do due to their size. Preaching sermons wherein the congregation passively listens in silence is not the best way to cause learning, and is wholly inappropriate in a smaller setting.

Let the Educators Speak!

According to D.A. Blight, an expert on teaching methods, “… if students are to learn to think, they must be placed in situations where they have to do so. The situations in which they are obliged to think are those in which they have to answer questions because questions demand an active response….”[28] Asking questions made up the core of Jesus’ teaching method in smaller settings. There are over 100 recorded questions asked by Jesus in the Gospels. He was constantly asking questions (and it wasn’t because He didn’t know the answer!). It has been said that Jesus “came not to answer questions, but to ask them; not to settle men’s souls, but to provoke them.”[29]

Consider the possibility that preaching sermons may not be the best teaching method for congregations under one hundred saints. It is an inferior teaching method. Many listeners have a limited concentration span (typically twenty minutes). Consequently, they tune in and out, only grasping fragments of a lecture, and quickly forget the rest.[30] The church, through a weekly diet of sermons, “apes one of the worst features of modern industrial society—the creation of a dependent, unreflective, semi-literate, relatively skill-less population, almost devoid of creativity. Far from realizing that the stimulation of other minds is one of the chief duties of a teacher, most preachers often do the exact opposite.”[31]

Compounding the problem is the fact that few church leaders have the considerable virtuoso skill set necessary to effectively craft and deliver an interesting lecture. Perhaps worst yet, one-way communication too often blunts curiosity, causes passivity, creates an unhealthy dependence on the preacher, and does not effectively equip people for independent study. Lecturing is an inappropriate, less-effective, overly-formal method of communicating in small churches of under one hundred.


We must evaluate the opportunity cost of the weekly preaching of sermons in smaller churches. The communication styles we see in the Scriptures were simply not the same as a regular Western-styled pulpit ministry. Though much good comes from preaching, discussion-type teaching is more effective, and even more biblical.

How can we as church leaders best serve the Church in the way we teach so as to most effectively make disciples? Custom has been described as the fiercest tyrant of them all. Let us not unwittingly be like those Jesus confronted who set aside the Word of God for the sake of their tradition. It is far better to follow Jesus’ example and stop lecturing in smaller settings. Ask challenging questions that will cause people to think and to discover truth for themselves. Alternatively, adopt the discussion-stye teaching modeled by Paul in Troas.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”   — Matthew 28:19-20



[1] David C Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach? (Omaha: Ekklesia Press, 1996), 27.

[2] Norrington, Preach, 27.

[3] Norrington, Preach, 32.

[4] Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1979), 431.

[5] U. Becker, D. Muller, “Proclamation, Preach, Kerygma”, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, ed., Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 45.

[6] Becker & Muller, “Proclaim”, 47.

[7] RH Mounce, “Preaching”, New Bible Dictionary, 2nd edition, JD Douglas, ed., (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1982), 961.

[8] Mounce, “Preaching”, 961.

[9] Becker & Muller, “Proclamation”, 45.

[10] For example: “Mohler cites preaching’s centrality in ‘Power in the Pulpit’ seminar”, BaptistPress.org.

[11] Bauer, Lexicon, 192.

[12] Bauer, Lexicon, 185.

[13] Acts 18:4 and 19:8

[14] Bauer, Lexicon, 477.

[15] Bauer, Lexicon, 565.

[16] Thomas Schriner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are & Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2018), chapter 6.

[17] RC Sproul, “Preaching and Teaching”, Ligonier.org. Accessed August 09, 2023.

[18] Andrew Wilson, “What’s the Difference Between Preaching and Teaching?”, ThinkTheology.co.uk. Accessed August 09, 2023.

[19] Bauer, Lexicon, 477.

[20] The word “teaching” here is from didaskalia.

[21] Bauer, Lexicon, 478.

[22] Norrington, Preach, 35.

[23] Norrington, Preach, 44.

[24] The Bible Effect, “1 and 2 Corinthians Historical Background”, YouTube.com. Accessed August 08, 2023.

[25] Adrianism: The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Adrian Rogers (Collierville, Innovo Publishing: 2016), 319.

[26] Norrington, Preach, 46ff.

[27] Norrington, Preach, 46.

[28] Norrington, Preach, 124.

[29] HH Horne, Jesus the Master Teacher (New York: Association Press, 1920), 51.

[30] Norrington, Preach, 125.

[31] Norrington, Preach, 125.