In last week’s follow-up post about community (‘Can we just hang out?’), I mentioned the advantages of doing the obvious—that is, actually teaching our people about the nature of membership and community. But how well do we do this kind of thing? I said this:
I am often struck by how meagrely and haphazardly we teach about such subjects in our churches. We do the essential work of expounding the Scriptures week by week, and we also study Bible passages in our small groups (often the same ones). But the integrative work of applied theology—that is, the task of drawing the Bible’s teaching on a subject together, and showing what it means for our lives … this is something we do much less often, and less effectively.
I promised some further thoughts, and here they are.
Has it ever occurred to you (as it occurred to me recently) that when we preach an expository sermon on, say, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, we are doing something different from what the passage itself is doing?
What I mean is that our process starts with the biblical text—with understanding it, expounding it, and then applying its truths to our lives. The content of our preaching is initiated by the authoritative Scriptural text and flows from there to the minds, hearts and lives of our listeners.
This is exactly how it should be, you say, and I entirely agree.
But it is interesting that this is not how 1 Corinthians 1 itself proceeds. Its point of departure is not a text being expounded but a subject being addressed. In whatever way we describe the issue or problem Paul is tackling at Corinth—factionalism, divisiveness, arrogance, worldly wisdom—Paul crafts this chapter as a response to this. He draws on a theology of the cross in order to teach the Corinthians that their arrogance and factionalism is ridiculously wrong and out of place.
I guess you could say that Paul is practising applied systematic theology. When we preach the passage, though, we are practising applied biblical theology—that is, we take the text as it is given to us in Scripture, expound and explain it in its own terms and according to its literary and biblical context, and apply its message to our hearers. The same is true for the small Bible study group that opens this passage, seeks to understand it together and apply it to one another’s lives. We start with the Bible, and let its message shape our discussion and mutual encouragement.
Again (in case you’re worried) let me re-assert that this is just as it should be.
In fact, as I look back on nearly four decades of Christian thinking and ministry, one of the features of the evangelical movement for which I am most thankful has been the consistent and vigorous effort to restore expository preaching and Bible study to the centre of our churches and ministries. God’s word is the lamp to our feet. We should humbly and contritely tremble before his speech in Scripture, and listen. This is what the ‘expository movement’ (if I can call it that) has sought to recover. And praise God that in many places it has succeeded.
This is especially so when we consider the alternative that we’ve been working to overcome—the kind of topical preaching that starts with a biblical text and then springboards off into the topic that the preacher wants to speak about; or the therapeutic preaching that starts with the felt need in our lives and tries to solve it; or the moralistic or political preaching that is always taking its subject from the latest social issue or moral outrage; or even the systematic theology kind of preaching that preaches an important (or favourite) doctrine but never actually pauses to listen to and expound the text.
Topicality is certainly dangerous. It not only runs the risk of replacing God’s agenda with ours, but frequently leads us to lift Bible verses and passages out of their context and apply them in ways that the authors (and Author) never intended.
But topicality is also unavoidable and necessary. This is because the worthy Christian walk takes place in human time and space. To state the obvious, daily discipleship constantly confronts us with circumstances and situations in which we are called to be godly and faithful. But as soon as we ask, “What does the Bible say about how I should be godly in this situation?” we are asking the topical question. We’re starting with an issue and going back to the Bible, to draw together, integrate and apply what it says.
So you might say that there are two ways in which God shapes and directs our thinking and our lives through the Scriptures. We start with the Bible, humbly reading and preaching and meditating upon it as it is given to us, having our minds and hearts transformed by the Spirit as we do so. And we also turn to it, and seek its truth and wisdom regarding the particular issue or challenge that we are facing today.
Both are important, and they are complementary. The more we start with the Bible and have our minds shaped by it, the better we will understand our circumstances and situations, and know where to turn in the Scriptures for guidance on particular topics. Conversely, the better we understand the key topics and subjects that the Bible addresses, and its entire teaching about these subjects, the better we’ll be equipped to read each individual part of the Scripture with an awareness of the theological truths that undergird it.
Just as in theology we need both biblical and systematic theology, so in church life we need both to teach and apply the Bible expositorily on its own terms and teach and apply the theology of the Bible to the issues and challenges of our lives.
Which brings me back to the question with which we started: where in our church life today do we teach about topics?
I am referring not just to the classical topics of theology—the person and work of Christ, the content of the gospel, the doctrine of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and so on. I’m also talking about the various topics of Christian living and ministry—the nature of faith and love and hope and thanksgiving and generosity and assurance and holiness and so much more. Where do we teach our people what membership and community mean, or what the Bible itself is and how to read it, or what evangelism is and how we can personally be involved in it, and so on?
Historically, evangelical churches have done this in various ways and at different levels. We preach the occasional topical sermon series. We run conferences or weekends that address topics. We might run a one-off seminar at church. However, most churches in my part of the world have few or no intentional ministry structures within which to do applied theology with our people.
I was struck (once again) during my recent trip to the US by their culture of adult Sunday schools. It’s common in many American evangelical churches for Sunday morning to consist of an hour of Sunday school (both for adults and children), followed by Sunday service. The adult Sunday school is essentially the vehicle for topical teaching in the church—whether on doctrinal subjects (‘Understanding Death and the Afterlife’) or on subjects of Christian living and ministry (‘Biblical parenting’; ‘One-to-one ministry’; ‘Sharing your faith’).
I know that adult Sunday schools have their issues, and I don’t remotely know how we could introduce that kind of structure into the churches in my part of the world. But I remain a little jealous of what the structure (or trellis) allows many US churches to do in an uncomplicated way—to regularly teach applied theology to their people on a range of important subjects.
As I think about my own history in all of this, I realise that what I’m talking about overlaps a great deal with what we have often called ‘training’—that is, starting with a particular subject of Christian living or ministry (evangelism, one-to-one encouragement, reading the Bible for yourself), working through what the Bible says about it, and then encouraging and helping each other put it into practice. It’s a variety of the applied theology we’re considering. I guess (as I think about it) many of the training programs and resources that I’ve developed over the years with Matthias Media have been directed to this area—to helping churches teach and train people on key subjects of Christian living and ministry; to do applied theology in the context of church life.
But there’s a twofold complication to that history.
As I look back, it’s clear that many churches have found it tricky to fit this kind of applied theology (‘teaching-training’) into their busy programs. Parish life is complicated, and people are busy. There’s less disposable time and space than (say) in university or young adult ministries. ‘There’s no time for training’ has been a common refrain.
Where churches have made space for this kind of teaching-training, it often hasn’t been integrated into the overall ministry trellises of the church, and so often has not produced the hoped-for fruit. For example, we might have trained people in understanding evangelism, but have not harnessed that understanding, energy and ability in way that utilises what people have learned—like having a coherent, effective ‘evangelistic engine’ in the church that people work on together.
I’m dealing in very broad generalizations at this point!
But whatever the history, and whatever the reasons, I think the generalization with which I started this post is certainly true for many evangelical churches today—in the midst of all that we do, many of us lack contexts or spaces within which to effectively teach-and-train people in the vital subjects of Christian thought and living and ministry (such as the subject of membership and community that kicked this discussion off).
What’s the answer, practically speaking?
I’m very keen for your ideas! I don’t think there are simple answers, but we need to find some way forward.
I guess we could rethink our Sundays to incorporate something that approximated the ‘adult Sunday school’—but that would be a major logistical and cultural change for many Australian churches.
We could start a regular or occasional program that mimicked what adult Sunday school achieves, but at a different time or in a different way—a ‘school of Christian thought and living’. This could be something regular, or something we do once or twice a year for 8 weeks. It would also have its challenges—the thought of starting and maintaining an additional ministry structure like this would make many pastors think twice. But having thought twice, and considered how important the task is, we still might prioritise this teaching-training structure over some other things we currently do.
Perhaps the most obvious solution would be to utilise the most suitable existing ministry trellis we have—our network of small groups. We could devote a certain number of weeks each year (say 8-10) to working through topics in small groups rather than passages. This is also not without its challenges—in particular, we don’t want to load small group leaders with teaching-and-training expectations and responsibilities they aren’t equipped for. However, if we managed to find some high quality teaching resources that were simple and straightforward enough for group leaders to use easily, there’s no reason this couldn’t work very effectively. I can’t imagine where you’d find those kind of resources … maybe we should start a publishing ministry of some sort to produce them …
If this post has wound its way towards being a minor apologia for the role of Matthias Media in resourcing this kind of applied theology, I didn’t start out with that in mind! Nor is it the important point.
Whatever the structures, and whatever the resources we use, there is a real need here. We are quite right to think about teaching new members what membership means, and to come up with some regular framework or ministry structures within which that can happen. But the same is true for teaching our existing members what membership means—and what mutual service means, and what evangelism means, and what biblical sexuality means, and so much more.
There are teachings and doctrines that we need to ‘set before the brothers’ (1 Tim 4:6).
How are we going to do that?
I’d very much like your feedback and ideas on this important and practical question. What do you think? And what is your experience and wisdom? Hit reply to this email, or make a comment on the website.
Another angle to the issue this post addresses is the steady decline in reading Christian books that has occurred over the past four decades. This used to be a key and much-used medium for teaching Christians about important subjects. Faithful books on important subjects were recommended by pastors, sold at the back of churches, read and discussed in small groups (as an occasional break from regular Bible study), and so on. It was part of the Christian teaching-and-learning culture.
Times and technologies change. It’s not the book itself that’s important but what it offers—carefully constructed, biblically faithful (God-willing!) teaching about important subjects. As books have declined, have we replaced them with anything? I don’t think so. And our Christian learning culture is the poorer for it.
Mind you, I’m not the only one who thinks that the day of the book has not passed. Christians basically invented book culture in the West (as we know it), and founded schools to teach people to read, so that they could read the Bible and other Christian literature. We once built a culture of reading, and we can re-build it. But that’s a topic for another time!
As I look back over the teaching-training resources I’ve been involved in developing over the past couple of decades (either as writer or editor-publisher), I can see a definite trend towards making these more user-friendly and easy to use in an existing small group context. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a format that Matthias Media is calling ‘Learn Together’—a package that provides a mix of Bible study, discussion, exercises, text and video that almost runs itself in a small group context (i.e. that is easier in most respects than leading the usual inductive Bible study discussion). The new Learn the Gospel resource that is due out soon is in this format, and will be an interesting case study. I can’t help feeling that if we can’t find a way to use a resource like this to teach our people the gospel itself (surely the most central and basic topic that we’d want Christians to master) then something is wrong somewhere.
But we will see!
This is an adult Sunday school class from one of the churches I’ve visited in the US (not during this most recent trip). It’s pretty commonly like this—20-30 people in a room, with a guy out the front leading an interactive-style teaching time.