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Friday, July 29, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Minding the Store [Part 2]

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Continuing a discussion arising out of Immanuel Can’s recent and well-received post “Who’s Minding the Store?

Elders have the job of feeding the flock. IC’s post suggested that not only the Holy Spirit’s leading but a certain amount of human organization, ingenuity and especially careful observation are necessary in effectively carrying out that task. I pointed out some of the things that make that tougher than it looks, and we considered three of them last week. And here we are.

Tom: Since you mention individual gifts, IC, I pointed out in our discussion last Friday that our gifts tend to predispose us to see the world a certain way.

Spiritual Gifts and the Way We Perceive Need

If I have been given a hammer by the Holy Spirit, every problem looks suspiciously like a nail. For instance, my own very unreflective response to almost every spiritual issue is “You need more Bible study!” That may not be the answer at all, but it takes discussion (and, dare I say, a little humility and submission) for me to come around to see that maybe it’s a little encouragement, helps or service that is really needed.

I suspect correctly assessing what their local church needs most from a teaching perspective requires that same process of elders.

IC: I think you’re right. But this is also another reason (in addition to being obedient to scripture) that we need a multiplicity of elders. Shepherding (i.e. real “pastoring”, not that thing self-appointed clergymen pretend to do) takes a variety of perspectives, insights and gifts. Different believers are attuned to different wavelengths. And no one man can establish relationships of care with an entire congregation, or can be attentive to all congregational feedback. Incidentally, downgrading the priority of platform ministry would really boost the need for shepherd-hearted leaders, and would destroy much of the phony prestige of these clergymen. After all, we know what they want.

Why Don’t YOU Teach It Then?

Tom: On the other side of that, one of my very pat answers (and one I will continue to use despite its pat-ness) to a teacher who perceives a need for a particular subject or book of the Bible in a group of Christians is, “Why don’t you teach on it then?” If we recognize the Headship of Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit in our gatherings, it seems very likely to me that one of the ways that will manifest itself is that the person best equipped by the Holy Spirit to deal with a particular subject or passage will have the greatest sense of urgency about communicating it.

I think we need to be careful that we remain flexible enough — within whatever framework we set up for teaching particular subjects or books of the Bible, whether we do it consecutively or otherwise — to allow ourselves to respond to an elder’s or teacher’s urgent sense of what might be timely.

IC: Absolutely. Look, what I am NOT advocating here is that we set up a standard plan applicable across multiple churches to cover a particular set of topics, or even to guarantee that pulpit ministry covers the whole Bible. No such thing.

I’m saying that whatever needs a local congregation may have for additional teaching or doctrine have to be discerned by the local elders and tailored to the specific situation of the actual individual believers in the particular local church.

There is no catch-all approach here. Not only that, but the “plan”, if such there be, must remain flexible and adaptable. Because needs change. Gifts develop. Situations shift. Opportunities arise. And the Spirit needs to be able to speak into the process at any point. That’s why what I’m advocating is a prayerful, organic, shepherding process on the part of the elders, not some sort of prefab list. I hope I’ve made that sufficiently clear.

Now, on to point 5: “ebb and flow …”

That Was Then, This Is Now

Tom: Something I’ve noticed in visiting local churches regularly over a period of years is that they are rarely made up of the same believers as six months ago, or two years ago, or definitely five years ago. Some are a bit bigger, many are definitely smaller, but they are all different congregations than they were. Consecutive Bible teaching was a bit of a fad in the 1980s and remains popular in some quarters today. But its value is clearly not in moving a whole group of Christians in their thinking and living from point A to point B, because in a ten year period more than half those Christians will probably have “turned over”. The Bible is a big book, and to do anything more than skim its surface in a forty minute sermon one a week is impossible.

Now I realize consecutive ministry is not what you’re advocating, IC, but some of the same limitations apply to any method of tracking the subject matter taught in churches in an attempt to cover the “whole counsel of God”. Do you see it as doing anything more than trying to cultivate in believers a taste for the word of God that they can see through on their own?

Basic Doctrines Everybody Should Know

IC: Well, you’ll notice I didn’t say that Sunday pulpit preaching was the way to do it. In fact, I didn’t specify method at all. But there are some basic doctrines that everybody should know — for evangelism, for maturation, but above all, for their own peace of mind. How they learn these can be many different ways; that they must learn them, I firmly believe. And I just don’t see it happening without someone taking it in hand.

Tom: Point taken.

IC: Let me give you a couple of “fr’instances”. Take the doctrine of eternal security: how well can people explain to themselves or someone who’s wondering, why a Christian cannot be saved-then-lost? Is that something on which everyone is clear, or are there moments when they struggle with doubt and confusion on that one? Or if you ask people what the essential requirements for a healthy Christian life are, can they tell you? Yet without that, how can they be healthy? Or, as I said earlier, “Can you explain the logic of salvation simply and clearly?” How will people evangelize — or even understand their own salvation — without that?

But these things are so basic that surely every Christian needs them. We need to be intentional about making these things straightforward and clear, and we need to come back and review them frequently. If our congregation is in flux, then everybody there ought to have at least a chance of being exposed to such things. They aren’t optional for the Christian.

Immediate Practical Consequences

Tom: That’s what I was digging for. So for you it’s less about taking responsibility for familiarizing believers with the entire Bible cover to cover (which is something we can do for ourselves) than it is about grounding them in the doctrines that have the most immediate practical consequences for their faith and testimony, after which we can get to “Women in the Book of Esther” when there’s time. So you might hit, for example, Romans and Hebrews heavily and frequently with certain groups of people and maybe skip or edit down the twelve part series on Song of Solomon. Am I reading you right there?

IC: I think of it this way: imagine the sum of all the basic things a Christian needs to know as arranged on the perimeter of a circle, like a clock. When a new person appears in the local church, perhaps everybody else is at the 3 o’clock point — they’ve all had the first three doctrines taught them. The new arrival has missed that bit. However, if this new person stays long enough, eventually he or she will get the whole 360 degrees of doctrine.

Then let’s add flux. Suppose circumstances take that person away at, say, 10 o’clock. He or she has missed from 10 to 3 o’clock, of course. But he or she will still have absorbed a considerable “arc” of teaching, and will go away with fewer gaps yet to be filled. Not only that, be he or she will have the confidence that there are likely to be further answers, since his or her last church experience showed there were answers to other important issues.

Moving On to Alternate Modes

Tom: Then we add in some alternate modes of teaching …

IC: Sure. Not just pulpit preaching, but open forums, group studies, mentoring, home studies, service opportunities, hospitality etc. — and now he or she is able to ask for whatever else he or she needs, or to have it addressed when it comes up naturally. And having had those first three doctrines taught, practically anyone in the local church is equipped to help that believer with the gaps in his or her knowledge. See the strength of that?

Tom: I do. That’s it for my questions about your original post, and hopefully probing a little deeper into the practical aspects and working them through is useful to others.

IC: One of the biggest encouragements to the faith has to be this: the experience of having already seen that the word of God and the Spirit of God can provide answers. It’s the personal experience of seeing hard questions answered that confirms that we really do have “all things for life and godliness”. Once you’ve seen that yourself, you’re not easily shaken from your confidence. Like Peter, you may not always have the answers in hand yet, but you know for certain where they come from. That is perhaps the biggest payoff we can give a fellow believer — whether or not we get the chance to cover all doctrines.

Tom: Did I leave anything out that you’d like to wrap up with?

IC: No, that’s good.

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