Renewal Thru Biblical Literacy
The First Place To Start
The first place to start in reviving a local fellowship is with an extensive and intensive focus on biblical literacy. Unless we develop a biblically educated congregation, anything else we do will be building a makeshift church on sand. Charles Colson once said, “The church today in North America is 3000 miles wide and an inch deep.”
In this study we will explore three areas that address the local church’s responsibility in order to succeed in the outworking of Christ’s Great Commission: First, the task of the church; second, the depth of the problem; and third, the need of a system.
The Task Of The Church
Our congregations are equipped with divinely empowered people who get highly involved in the work to grow the church both spiritually and numerically. These empowered people are those who attempt to live on the cutting edge of the kingdom of God. People who would really want their lives to count for the Lord—people who are trying to be a pleasure to God. But something went haywire. Somehow we’ve not helped them; we’ve only given them more guilt and more activity. We’ve given them more things to do. So for the moment, they burn brightly only to burn out in the end. When we pick up the broken charred remains of their burned out lives we can only guess that they either suffered from a power outage or, the empowered life from God really wasn’t in them to begin with. I have a sneaky suspicion that we would rather quickly forget what these once empowered people were called to fulfill in their lives. Their failure to perform and produce what was expected of them comes as a shock or an embarrassing reflection upon the congregation to say the least.
What did these people feel like when they knew that they had tried their best, given their all, and worked their hardest? What was the spiritual fatigue they sensed as they licked their wounds and picked up the pieces of their worn-out lives? That weary sensation may be old, but it is not obsolete. Over and over again, we’ve tracked the lives of people who were once in the center stage of things one year. Then without notice, they suddenly move under the shadow of things the next year. And finally, they quietly hide away in the remote darkness of a guarded secretive world. The spotlight has dimmed, the stage is bare, and the act is over.
Talk to them. See how they feel. Engage them in a candid conservation and you’ll soon discover that they arrived at a place where they lost their spiritual zeal to keep going. The typical response, “I was running in circles as fast I could and going nowhere.” They are not bitter or even disillusioned. They simply shrug their shoulders and say, “It didn’t work for me. Please don’t get me wrong. I haven’t turned my back on Jesus. I just got tired of all the activity that people say has to be done in the name of Jesus.”
“Now wait a minute,” someone might say, “I believe the secret to reviving a local church is the great experience our members need to enter into. A supernatural event generated by conferences that Christians put together. Serve up an ensemble of first-rate speakers. Mix in a host of musicians and a dash of singers. Add a celebrity or two and spice it up with seasoned seminars. Let’s get excited by the numbers. Let’s get motivated by the songs. Let’s get enlightened by the teachings and testimonies.”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” a second may argue, “the secret to reviving a local church is the yielding of our members' lives to the leading of the Holy Spirit without all the Christian hype. If we keep getting in the way of the Spirit’s inward work, we are simply stifling the promised spiritual growth. Just chill and allow the Spirit to do whatever he wants to do in and through the congregation. Let go and let God. It worked for our church and I know it will work for you too.”
“Where have you been?” interrupts a third. He or she says, “Church revival comes from the members' exposure to the real world. They should develop a heart for missions. Go overseas. Visit the ghettos. Reach out to the poor. Meet the needs of the less fortunate. And believe me, you’ll get bit by the revival bug for sure!”
Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in those three remedies for the weary among us. All three responses can be proof-texted in the scripture so as to strengthen each position. Be it the pursuit of a supernatural experience, a divine yielding or a missionary heart, all still fall short of the promised results: the spiritual revival of our local churches.
We can create a dynamic church conference, yield our lives over to the Holy Spirit’s work, or develop a tremendous missions program, but if the people do not have a biblical background, they will not have the rationale for numerical church growth, inward spiritual growth or world missions. And the programs will fall apart. Our congregations can become completely immersed in evangelical or social action, but for what reason? The work will be short-lived. Our churches can increase numerically and add dozens of new members to the ranks each year, but why are we bringing these new people into the fold if we cannot feed them spiritually with the word of God? The leadership of our churches can have incredible visions and the congregation can have a finely honed statement of purpose, but if there is no biblical foundation to build on, everything will be tucked away or surrendered in an obscure box that is labeled “lost and found.”
Help in this foundational area will not come from most mainline seminaries. Help will not come from our mainline bureaucrats or denominational leaders. The only way this critical foundation can be laid is if a small handful of lay people in each congregation demand that their present pastor be a biblical one—that he or she be committed to the arduous task of biblical literacy by investing every shred of his or her discretionary time in it.
The Depth Of The Problem
In his article published in RenewaLife, Dr. Don Fothergill recounts his formal student days when he worked occasionally as a carpenter.[i] On one particular job, he was called into an old home with a problem in one of the bathrooms. It took him all three seconds to diagnose the difficulty. He writes, “The linoleum on the floor was stained. Water sat around the base of the toilet as well as the sink. The floor had almost as much bounce to it as a trampoline.” “The homeowner,” according to Don, “hoped that it would be a three or four hour job.” On the contrary, Don spent the entire week in that old house.
He had to pull out the sink and the toilet. To his amazement, he peeled up seven layers of vinyl flooring before he got down to the original oak. The oak floorboards were rotten; the sub-flooring rotten; the two by eight floor joists were in such bad shape that Styrofoam supports would have been an improvement. Everything had to be ripped out. He needed to put in new two by eight joists, a new sub-floor, new top flooring and new linoleum. Six carpenters before Don had attempted to fix the problem in the bathroom the quick way…by putting down a new layer of linoleum. The problem, however, was not a superficial or cosmetic one. It wouldn’t be solved in a day's work, not even in three. It went much deeper than that.
The problem that exists in all mainline denominations today is very similar. National leaders refuse to acknowledge the source of our ailment as being biblical illiteracy. They continue to move forward with new pronouncements, priorities, and programs—putting new layers of denominational vinyl down—but our problem runs deeper. We have no solid foundation to build on. The floor joists of biblical literacy that are supposed to hold our churches up have long since rotted away. And the short-term remedies of new vinyl layers simply compound the problem by hiding it even deeper.
It is not good enough to take church growth principles and translate them into the mainline context. It is not good enough to say, “Let us build more churches like the ones we have.” The ones we already have may be dying. It is not enough to say, “Let us bring in more and more members.” The ones we already have may be biblically illiterate, or at worse, spiritually fast asleep. Before a church can grow and multiply itself, renewal has to take place from the inside out. Before renewal can take place, people need to be biblically educated toward spiritual maturity. There can be no enduring growth unless it is built on the foundation of a biblically literate laity.
The Need Of A System
Biblical education is a ministry of teaching that serves the body of Christ. In his book entitled Teaching for Spiritual Growth, Perry G. Downs defines Christian education as a “ministry of bringing the believer to maturity in Jesus Christ.”[ii] Downs puts forth the question, “How can we best enable Christians to grow toward maturity?”[iii] He systematically unpacks his definition of Christian education by suggesting three key concepts namely: ministry, believers, and purpose.[iv]
First, the ministerial methods must never be manipulative, demanding or self-serving. As Jesus had compassion for the shepherdless multitude in Mark 6:34 by teaching them, Christian educators likewise must be motivated by a love and desire to see people growing in their faith. Second, the focus and design of educational ministries should be toward believers. Although there is a vital place in evangelizing unbelievers, the church must not forget that its primary aim and concern is to build up believers that they may be sent out to testify and work in God’s name. And third, how the Christian educator defines spiritual maturity will govern the foundation of his or her educational ministries. Just as the means for spiritual revival in our churches have differing views, many Christian groups see spiritual maturity in varied manners. Disagreement abounds among believers as to the meaning of spiritual maturity and how it is achieved. Based on the Bible’s many terms and metaphors to describe spiritual maturity, no single, simple definition is offered. For the sake of the elect and the purposes of Christian education, it is clear from the gospel accounts that Jesus valued faith and desired that his flock be faithful.[v] Therefore the term faith should be the foundational framework by which we can describe and design an educational ministry toward spiritual maturity in a meaningful way.[vi]
The pastor or lay leader in whose hands the spiritual care of the flock has been placed, must develop, embrace, steal, borrow, or purchase a system that will build this foundation of biblical literacy. He or she does not have to be a great teacher or a great scholar. This leader must put into place a system that will biblically educate the entire congregation. Page Smith wrote, “The man with a system, however inadequate it may ultimately turn out to be, has a vast advantage over a systemless rival, however brilliant.” A system will continue to work even after the leader’s initial zeal has long disappeared. It will be effective in biblically educating people even when the leader’s moods and energy fluctuate, and even when he leaves.
We don’t need brilliant teachers or highly gifted leaders to set in place a biblical foundation. We need faithful men and women who are committed to and know how to work a system. Church fellowships today can access a whole array of bible study series, systems that are readily available, programmable, and inexpensive. Employing this effort can almost single-handedly turn a congregation around within five short years. It doesn’t happen overnight. Investigate a handful of them, select one that works for your church, and put your lifeblood into making it work. The commitment, the time, and the fortitude required to make this happen are tremendous. But the pay-off will be even more tremendous.
We need to be mindful that growth doesn’t just happen in an instant. Let’s draw an important lesson from the agricultural world. In order for the land to yield a bountiful harvest the farmer must labor in tilling the earth, digging the ditches, fertilizing the soil, and planting the seed. This is all hard but necessary work to ensure a good crop. Yet the farmer is dependent on forces outside his control. He is ultimately dependent upon God who provides the warm sunshine and the pouring rain to nourish and give life to his crop. God will do what the farmer cannot do, but God will not do what the farmer should do.
In essence, God and the farmer are in partnership with each other. God has designed the nature of things in such a way that one cannot succeed without the other. God has given us the responsibility to do our part in building up the believers who make up his church on earth. We exercise this divine privilege as his servants in planting, watering, and literally working together in his field, his building. Yet the apostle Paul issues a humbling reminder that “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). It is in the context of this divine partnership that the church will realize a bountiful harvest.
To summarize, for church renewal and a harvest of sorts to happen, there are three places to start: First, ‘the task of the church’ is at hand in that she must demand that her present pastor be a biblical one; second, ‘the depth of the problem’ is revealed in that there can be no enduring growth unless it is built on the foundation of a biblically literate laity; and third, ‘the need of a system’ is crucial in that it will be effective in biblically educating people even when the leader’s moods and energy fluctuate, and even when he or she leaves.
[i] Don Fothergill, RenewalLife.
[ii] Perry G. Downs, Teaching for Spiritual Growth: An Introduction to Christian Education (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 16.
[v] Downs points out that Jesus commended faith when he found it, and rebuked the lack of it when one was found wanting. Based on the scriptures, we are saved by faith (Eph 2:8), the just shall live by faith (Rom 1:17), and without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6).
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.
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