One church is ‘loaded’ with highly committed, talented workers, another is struggling to keep its doors open: and they’re side by side in the same suburb or town. Why? The secret is often in the way those highly motivated church-members are taught.
How do we mature in our faith and life? How do we develop a sensitive Christian conscience, a strong desire to live obediently to the Word of God, a love for Bible study and prayer, a dedicated commitment to ministries of evangelism, mercy and justice? A discussion of teaching must work backwards from these questions.
When asked ‘What or who were the formative influences in your life?’ most people name a parent or teacher. ‘I teach’ says US professor of the year 1983, Peter Beidler, ‘because I see people grow and change in front of my eyes. Being a teacher is being present at the creation, when the clay begins to breathe. Nothing is more exciting than being nearby when the breathing begins… I teach because, being around people who are beginning to breathe, I occasionally find myself catching my breath with them.’
Paul and Barnabas majored on teaching (Acts 11:26). The church at Antioch had a list of their teachers (Acts 13:1): does yours? The religion of Israel was a teaching religion (see eg. Exodus 18:20, Deuteronomy 6:1): the law of Moses was first a lesson, then a command. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher (eg Mark 1:38), and commanded his followers to go into the world and teach all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). The early Christian churches took seriously the function of teaching (Acts 13:1, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11). Paul later describes the teaching-learning process in this summary: ‘All you have learned by participation in the church’s life by listening by watching my example; put this now into practice’ (Philippians 4:9).
The purpose of Timothy’s teaching, Paul says, is to ‘arouse the love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith’ (1 Timothy 1:5). ‘Bible teaching’ is therefore much more than a ‘jug to mug’ approach: it’s meant to produce better-behaved rather than merely better-informed Christians. Christian leaders should be able, or apt to teach (1 Timothy 3:2).
If you could choose one verb to describe what the pastor/s do in your church, would it be ‘teaching’? In churches battling to survive, the leaders spend their time ‘oiling the church’s machinery’ or ‘keeping the people happy’ through routine visitation (so-called ‘maintenance’ ministries). But where the ‘pastor-teachers’ (Ephesians 4:11) take their teaching role seriously, they use many means to encourage their people to mature in the faith, serve others, and become ‘reproducers’. Pastoring and teaching go together: we don’t teach theory, we teach persons. The best teachers love those they instruct, model what they teach (‘truthing it in love’ as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:15), are enthusiastic, hard-working and systematic in their preparation, and always assume their students will teach others (2 Timothy 2:2).
Teaching and preaching also belong together. The New Testament writers drew a distinction between kerygma (proclamation by a herald) and didache (teaching, instruction). Preaching addresses our unbelief (urging a response to the Word of God), teaching our ignorance (encouraging a learner to understand the Christian faith). Preaching mainly addresses the will, teaching the mind. Of course preaching without teaching can be propaganda: by-passing people’s minds to get them to make a commitment they don’t fully understand. And teaching without persuasion can be dry, sterile dogma.
Christian teaching moves through four stages: listening to the Word, reflecting on the Word, ‘uttering’ the Word, and ‘doing’ the Word. Listening to and reflecting on the Word is best done in uninterrupted silence: so a sign will go on the door, the telephone-answering machine is switched on, and we’ll create a ‘desert’. As one of my pastor-mentors put it: if you take your teaching ministry seriously you’ll take down the sign ‘Office’ and put up ‘Study’! Uttering is done through word (what we say), deed (what we do) and sign (what God does to corroborate his word and works through ours). So the teacher’s life must be congruent with his or her teaching; and we’ll be open to the power of God…
Paulo Freire was perhaps the 20th century’s most outstanding teacher. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed he attacked conventional education for its ‘banking’ approach: the teacher knows and the student learns; information is put by the teacher into the head of the student – so the teacher talks and the student listens; the teacher is the active, the student the passive part of the process; the teacher has authority and the student must submit. Freire was not suggesting that students ‘do their own thing’, but that teachers and taught become transformed together in the process of transforming the world. Words are used to understand experience and reality. The result is ‘conscientization’ – a recognition of one’s dignity and worth and a movement towards change in society to enhance others’ dignity and worth.
Building on this approach, Henri Nouwen (Creative Ministry) draws an important distinction between ‘violent’ and ‘redemptive’ models of teaching. Teaching as a violent process is competitive (knowledge is property to be defended rather than a gift to be shared); unilateral (from ‘strong teacher’ to ‘weak student’); and alienating (teachers belong to a different world to that of the students). Redemptive teaching is evocative (drawing out others’ potentials); bilateral (teachers and students learn together, and from each other); and actualizing (envisaging the building of a better world).
The teaching process will be ‘dialogical’, inductive and deductive, propositional and relational, doctrinal and life-centred, from the pulpit, in classes, in small groups, and one-to-one. Every church that’s alive has a bookstall (positioned where people will fall over it!); and an audio and video cassette library. Perhaps small-group studies can be related to the whole church’s theme for the week, where the sermon is followed up by discussion. (That’s better than the reverse order: experience shows too many will come with their exegetical – and critical – minds made up to truly hear the voice of the Lord in the preaching).
Teaching happens from the pulpit; in preparation for marriage; membership classes; and training for elders, deacons, home visitors, people-helpers, Sunday school teachers, etc. Some churches have ‘Training Days’ or special mid-week options offering classes on everything ranging from leading singing to an overview of church history to a Christian reaction to high-school English texts. Whatever your people want to learn – find a teacher and form a ‘learning exchange’. Adult education classes are proliferating in their thousands in Western cities and towns these days: why doesn’t your church offer some? And don’t forget to run a course on English for newcomers from other lands, perhaps using the Good News Bible or a similar easy-to-read translation like The Message as your text.
A newspaper columnist writes: ‘Not one of Australia’s 100,000 state-school teachers, or the 40,000 currently training, was selected because of personal qualities. Each was chosen as a two-legged set of percentages… What this means is that we do not care much what happens in our schools… Teachers should be chosen on grounds of commitment, intelligence, creativity and empathetic understanding of other persons, rather than merely on the basis of examination results.’ The same can be said of our universities, and, sometimes, our theological halls and churches.
Wise old Socrates used to say that if he could get to the highest point in Athens he would life up his voice and cry: ‘What mean you, fellow citizens, that scrape every stone to get wealth together and take so little care of your children to whom one day you must relinquish all?’
I still believe in Sunday Schools - or their equivalent - but only in churches where the adults are learners too. The most powerful influence on a child is an adult who obviously loves the Lord. As I once heard Lyle Schaller say: ‘In every church meeting there are children taking notes!’
We desperately need teachers who are exciting, interesting and creative. Pedagogy, said someone, is more of an art than a science. I agree. If we are forced to make a choice, give me a shallow teacher who teaches with enthusiasm and zest, over another who may be scholarly but boring! Teachers of children should understand the kids’ home situations and interests. Good teachers will control by presence rather than by threats; they will work hard to prepare an interesting lesson; they’re able to adapt themselves to different situations (as when a kid is angry or grieving or curious); they will do interesting things with their class outside lesson-time; and they will have a sense of humour. They will vary their approach (DVDs, team- teaching, object-lessons etc.).
Teachers-of-children should not be chosen because they’ve outgrown the children’s classes, or because there’s nothing much else in the church for them to do. It would be better to have fewer teachers than poor, untrained ones. Teachers of children are in loco parentis: a high responsibility. A university professor gave up his work among young adults to teach boys. When asked for a reason he said: ‘If you were to write your name on brick so that it would remain, would you write it before or after it was baked?’
Many Christians unfortunately view Sunday School as ‘nice for the kids’. This reminds me of a rabbi’s lament about ‘pediatric Judaism’ in his religion: the view that training stops when the child has received his Bar Mitzvah. Indeed the Jewish Talmud says that in the world to come we’ll be asked three questions: ‘Did you buy and sell in good faith?’ ‘Did you have a set time for study?’ ‘Did you raise a family?’ Let us encourage everyone in the church to be a student, a learner, a grower, forever.
Children and youth are important, but it’s useful to recall Jesus didn’t inaugurate a youth movement. The church was started by adults; it was organized by adults; and throughout the world the church is growing to the extent that it is reaching out to adults. When heads of families make a commitment to Christ, you’re more likely to win the whole family.
Adults aren’t all the same. There is a burgeoning literature now seeking to map adult life-cycles. John Claypool writes: ‘If adolescence is the most intense stage along the way, I would say adulthood is the most demanding. Not only is it long, it also involves so many different challenges simultaneously.’ He then notes Gail Sheehy’s phrase ‘concomitant growth’: adults grow concurrently in three areas: vocation, relationships with one’s ‘significant others’ and one’s own unique selfhood.
The first adult stage involves leaving the family (ages 16-22), where the young adult begins to leave youthful fantasies behind, establishes independence from the family, and creates new friendships. Then there’s a stage of reaching out towards others (23-28), with a search for personal identity with the help of an older ‘mentor’, a yearning to develop intimacy, a time for togetherness in marriage and a devotion to mastering the world. Aged 29-34 the adult searches for stability: life looks more painful and difficult, so this is a time of intense questioning and reappraisal of life’s values, and the setting of long-range goals. The ‘mid-life crisis’ period begins about 35-37: it’s a time to face reality and one’s mortality, one’s relationships, personal priorities and values are reassessed. The way out of this turbulent stage, says Erikson is through ‘generativity’ – nurturing, teaching and serving others. Life settles down in the late 40′s through 50′s. Money is less important; old values and family relationships reassume importance. Then, after the late 50′s the ‘mellowing’ stage, with adjustment to the ageing process, thoughts about the inevitable death of partner/spouse, a tendency to avoid emotion-laden issues, and (at last!) parents aren’t blamed for personal problems.
Another phenomenon with young adults is in terms of the traditional church; it’s boring, quite frankly. They don’t like rigid structures, old-fashioned music, or the church’s conservative politics. One 33 year old pastor of a large church in Colorado said: ‘The church is the last standing barrier between young people and Jesus.’
Adults, like young people, want to be committed to something. They must be encouraged not to lose touch with their youthful idealism. And they will make incredible sacrifices to grow towards maturity and ministry to others. I heard today of a Presbyterian church in Houston that conducts a Bible class for men at 6 am Tuesday mornings, and is well attended by business and professional men.
The great danger for adults, as Erik Erikson and James Fowler have pointed out is that they become permanently bogged down in a kind of restless social activism while the soul remains fixed in a sort of adolescent posture. The adult should move into middle years sufficiently full of spiritual and practical riches to endow others with the fruits of a reflective as well as actively well-spent life. They can then move towards the ‘shadow-years’ with the assurance that they have not squandered the gifts of God nor left them to rot away unused.
Suggested Reading: Locke E. Bowman, Teaching Today: The Church’s First Ministry, Westminster Press, 1980; James D. Smart, The Teaching Ministry of the Church, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954; James W. Fowler, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith, Dove Communications.
Now: Contact your denomination’s headquarters and find out what training resources they offer for teachers in your church. Organize a training day with their help.
(Revised from a chapter in my book Your Church Can Come Alive)