Friday, November 13, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Minding the Store [Part 1]

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

In his recent post “Who’s Minding the Store?” Immanuel Can considered the responsibility of elders in deciding what should be taught in the local church they care for. His point was that elders need to really know their congregations in order to provide them with the spiritual food they need. Somebody needs to “mind the store”, so to speak.

Tom: I wanted to get into this a bit further with you, IC, and it seems to me this is a better place to do it than a back-and-forth in the comments to the original post.

Difficulties in Implementation

Now, I agree with what you’re saying, but it might be useful to examine some potential difficulties encountered by elders trying very hard to do the job you are encouraging them to do. Here are a few I can quickly identify:
  1. Differences in level of maturity in the congregation (meaning something that helps Mary is pure Greek to Joe).
  2. Having heard something taught does not mean it was understood or retained.
  3. Knowing something intellectually doesn’t mean the spirit and life have been engaged.
  4. Each elder’s primary spiritual gift predisposes him to perceive needs through that lens (thus an evangelist will be deeply concerned that people are not preaching the gospel, an encourager will see another set of problems and a Bible teacher a third and very different set).
  5. Congregational ebb and flow. There’s a lot to be taught, and people come and go, meaning that the longer it takes to work through any program of study, the fewer people are actually able to take in the whole thing and profit from it.
There are probably more, but that’s enough to think about for one post.

Differences in Congregational Maturity

Immanuel Can: Okay, Tom; let’s start with your first one, “differences in congregational maturity”. That seems to me to be a concern only if we conceive of “feeding” as a product of platform ministry rather than, say, smaller groups or nurturing individuals. If the preaching meeting on Sunday is the only source of congregational “food”, then maybe you’re never going to get to a level that reaches everybody. You’re going to have one man, limited by his particular gifts, style and level of understanding coming off the platform to a varied audience: and it’s going to miss a lot of people if there are differing maturity levels, or if the guy in the pulpit has only a certain level of maturity or ability himself.

And if that’s how it’s going to be, then the solution is obvious: just don’t do that. (Or at least, don’t do just that.)

Tom: Agreed. So we’re talking about taking into account not just the preaching and teaching meeting(s) but the content of all church gatherings, even if they are “stratified” in some way: age, interest, maturity, sex … whatever.

Breaking Away from Once-a-Sunday Pseudo-Christianity

If we’re going to address the immature (as well as families with young children, parents working shifts, etc.), we have to recognize that in every evangelical church in North America the Sunday morning pulpit service is THE one everybody comes to. All other meetings are more sparsely attended, many of them drastically so. It’s the default religious cultural programming. For churches that make that meeting primarily about community outreach, I don’t see how helping the Christians that ONLY attend that meeting to mature in their faith will ever occur, do you?

IC: No, and I would argue that’s a crucial task for modern Christianity: we’ve GOT to break away from our addiction to the pulpit and to once-a-Sunday pseudo-Christianity. Unless we start getting spiritual food into people and helping them to actually nurture their personal lives from it, we’re all going to starve. Those are the basic facts: we’re just not facing them yet. I hope we will before it’s too late.

And that ties in with your second point, I believe ...

Hearing Doesn’t Mean Understanding or Retaining

Tom: I think of the Lord with the disciples. Not everything he did or said was instantly understood, retained or correctly applied (let alone lived out), even by those who were all genuine, committed followers. Still less were the things he said understood and retained by the masses, and I would argue that our evangelical churches are more like those crowds who came to see the Lord Jesus than they are like a large gathering of real disciples. I’d like to think we have only one apostate in twelve, but I suspect many congregations today have a much higher percentage of those who are not true believers, and many others present with reasons for coming to church that have very little to do with true discipleship: obligation, habit, social circle, good works, etc.

In any case, the Lord’s own kingdom parables teach us that people have different ways of hearing, and a large percentage of the seed that is sown does not ultimately produce fruit, for a variety of reasons.

Pulpit Ministry and Two Decades of Fallow Ground

IC: Yes. Hearing is not possible unless you have “ears to hear”. I can tell you first-hand that it is quite possible to sit in a meeting for two decades hearing simple salvation messages every single week, and never to have retained enough to actually share the faith with anyone. And that experience is far more common than not: if you doubt it, just ask your congregants to explain the way of salvation in their own words, as they would to an unbeliever, in under five minutes and without John 3:16. They can’t do it … or the vast majority can’t. So what have they really learned?

Tom: I would call that horrifying except that it’s probably true.

IC: With all the time I’ve spent in university, I think it’s fair to say I’ve got an unusual ability to pay attention to lectures; but pulpit ministry is taxing even for me. Today’s teaching experts will happily tell you that lectures don’t work. For certain situations, such as highly-motivated audiences trying to absorb densely-packed information over a short period of time, they can have a bit of use: but for every other situation, they’re the least effective method of producing understanding. More effective is simultaneous teaching-plus-showing, and teaching-with-active-involvement is the most effective of all. We know that: why don’t we do that?

Tom: Because we have a routine that says “church” to us, and it’s not only comfortable, but for many of us the routine has effectively supplanted actual discipleship and learning. To change it would discombobulate most people. But it also explains why when churches have tried breaking into small groups, meeting in homes and making their Bible studies interactive, almost everyone involved says, “Hey, this is great” — so much so that many prefer it to Sunday morning.

IC: Absolutely. Nobody does well in lectures. They never really did. I guess we have to ask ourselves this: which is more important, keeping up the tradition or teaching people to live their faith? Because we’re not going to get both; we’d better pick a horse and ride it.

And that takes us to point #3.

Intellectual Knowledge and Practice

Tom: Right, the difference between intellectual assent and obedient practice. Or, to put it another way, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” It’s obedience that demonstrates we are disciples, not head-knowledge.

Now, that’s an obvious point, of course, and it’s been made many times. But my thought is that in assessing what is most needed in the local church as far as teaching goes, the wise elder is not so much looking at a spreadsheet of topics covered by speakers at the morning meeting in the last five years as he is looking at the lives of the people he gathers with to see if those lessons have actually taken. Because one remedy prescribed for those who have not yet matured is to re-learn the fundamentals, since obviously those lessons never took: “You ought to be teachers”, but “you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God”.

Helping the Sheep Do Better

IC: Absolutely. This is a crucial point. Tending the flock means knowing them very well, looking at who and where they really are, spiritually speaking, and helping them actually do better. It doesn’t mean interfering in their private lives, but rather seeking to know them as people, and lending leadership support to make them stronger and better at using whatever gifts the Lord has already given to them; and paying attention to what he is already seeking to do in their lives. It means cultivating them, not controlling them: shepherding by proving to be examples, not ruling by pushing people around. Well said.

Tom: Probably the worst way I can think of to address failures of character in a church fellowship is from the pulpit. If I am being skewered by the Holy Spirit with the content of a message that I really need to apply in my life, the one distraction I don’t need is thinking somebody ratted me out and decided to humiliate me in front of the whole church, which enables me to justify rejecting the actual message because of the way it was delivered.

But I may really need that message!

I think we have to face the reality that many of the things that need to be taught most urgently in the local church simply cannot be effectively passed along programmatically or publicly.

Response and Feedback

IC: I agree entirely. I may need a conversation group dedicated to the same topic, where I can feel “safe” from being singled out. Or I may need a face-to-face with a trusted friend or mentor to help me work through an issue. But intensely pointed and personal ministry is usually badly done from the pulpit.

Something else is critical too. In our current format, we have little to no opportunity for response and feedback from the audience. Are we reaching them? Are they awake? Are they misunderstanding a word we used? Did we express something inadequately? Do they need that last point made a different way? Are they longing for an application here? Do they have objections that are holding them back, and if we dealt with those objections, could they go forward? We cannot know such things if there is no feedback loop between pulpit and congregation. So interruption and exchange — really, we mean conversations — are essential to teaching. The Lord used conversational techniques — so why don’t we?

The Value of Q&A Time

Tom: Bernie and I were talking about how profitable it might be to have a monthly Q&A session with a small panel of gifted teachers instead of just another in an endless series of platform performances. Give the believers an opportunity to put in writing the questions on their minds and give a variety of godly, gifted men the opportunity to respond and discuss. That way, less mature Christians get to ask the questions that are on their minds with the added benefit that they get to see the work process of the more experienced believers as they try to share the benefit of their experience.

IC: Now, that’s a great idea. Why do we almost never have such things? (Well, I can probably tell you why: because we don’t know in advance how things are going to go. Surrendering the agenda to an audience is intimidating. But if we really care about doing people some good, we have to do such things.) Or what about mixing formats: say, 20 minutes of introductory stuff for discussion, and then a more open session, or a group split-off session? There are lots of things we could be doing.

I think there’s another level here too. The gifts that people have are part of the agenda, really; because there’s an organic relationship between learning and serving. I’ll give you an example, if I may. I’ve seen great things for evangelism and apologetics happen in people’s homes: but in every case, it was prepared by the sincere and thoughtful hospitality practiced to the group by the hosts and their friends. Food together opens hearts. Or again, if someone has voluntarily helped you shingle your roof all day in the hot sun, how much easier is it to believe they want to show you love spiritually? That’s teaching plus service. This stuff works … and we need to maximize it. Why don’t we do that?

Tom: Because it requires more effort to participate than to listen passively. Because routine is easy and orderly. Because almost any change in the church (or anywhere else) generates pushback. It’s human nature.

Let’s carry this on next week, IC. I think there’s plenty more to consider.

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