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Renewal Thru Teaching Priests
Discipling The Church Through Christian Education
I can remember quite clearly my first six months of ministry in a Filipino American church in the Greater Los Angeles County. I had just completed a course in Fuller Theological Seminary entitled Foundations of Church Growth with Dr. C. Peter Wagner.[i] It was high time that I employ the practice of using “church growth eyes” to my new ecclesiastical situation. I kept my eyes and ears open. I asked a lot of questions. I listened to what the people had to say. I spent some considerable time diagnosing the health of various parts of the church. I had requests coming in from all quarters as to where I should spend my time.
We had youth, but no youth group. Concerned parents of teenagers sought my attention in this area. The young adults group needed me to help organize and launch their ministry. The Thursday night couples group that met in a nearby city invited me to launch a regular study series. Our members from the southern part of the county also looked forward to the same study series every Wednesday evening. It was expected that I would eventually teach the Baptism class. It was mandatory that I be present in every council and pastoral staff meeting; not that they expected me to lead or give direction, but somehow my presence at their meetings gave validity to the plans and goals of the church. And the list of hurting people who wanted counsel or just needed to be heard began to grow and ache.
At the outset, it was obvious that if I did not prioritize my work. I was setting myself up to fail. Not only was I to be involved in ministry, but I was also a full-time seminary student, a husband, and a father who had to care for and raise three young children. I understood that of all the requests that beat against my door, I could only invite about one out of three of them. That meant having to say no to two out of three felt ministerial needs. It is extremely difficult for any pastor or leader to say no to anyone or any legitimate need. The crying needs of any church can be a tremendous strain on anyone with a heart to help. We want to be able to accommodate everyone. I chose my priorities, however, on the basis of my best understanding of how God called, gifted, and sent me to serve in this local church, and not on the basis of where the greatest human pressure came from.
Ezra And Education
Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 was very clear about the priority of teaching people the entire counsel of God for the purpose of bringing about obedience. The passage in 2 Chronicles 15 made an impact in my life that it concluded by saying the reason the Hebrews were so long without the true God was that they were “without a teaching priest” (15:3). Ezra was a teaching priest and his ministry has made a lasting example for me prioritizing my time: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
I made the decision to invest as much of my time as possible in teaching our people the word of God—I employed the teaching priest principle. As the months went by, there were several people who questioned the amount of time I was spending in the study. For the preparation of a sermon lesson, for example, I would spend between 16 to 20 hours a week. They felt that if I did not spend so much time in the study, I would be able to address the other pressing needs of the church. The passage in Acts 6 in regards to the necessary action taken by the twelve apostles strengthened my conviction. I strongly believed I had to guard my calling. I shouldn’t neglect the word of God in order to attend to every pressing need that comes down the pike (6:2). Likewise, I devoted myself “to prayer and to serving the word” (6:4). I had chosen to invest a significant amount of my time in an area of ministry that very few others thought was important. I held fast to Ezra’s example—the teaching priest principle.
As the former coordinator of the Christian Education arm in our Los Angeles based church, I soon realized the importance of training our laypeople in the word. Our young adult ministry started with seven handpicked members who had a heart to serve their generation. At the start, the numbers were in question. In a matter of months, this handful of emerging leaders gave birth to two care groups with teachers, facilitators, and coordinators to see the work through. In time, the young adults ministry was making its mark in the community.
In the early stages of growth, I recommended another colleague from the seminary, a former professor and associate pastor to join the Christian Education teaching team. It was a unanimous decision among the council members that a lay-training center be immediately established. The fruit of this decision led to the creation of an Asian training institute for laypeople.[ii] The center’s doors were open to professors as they were invited on a regular basis to teach their particular area of expertise. As we practiced the principle that “like attracts like,” this lay-training center has indeed drawn a steady group of 10-15 members from our church who are gifted in the area of preaching and teaching. During that period, these laypeople were afforded opportunities to exercise their gifts in ministering the word of God in the context of our weekly care groups, evangelistic outreaches, mid-week and Sunday worship services.
Wesley And Whitefield
I came to find a solid confirmation in my choice of priorities in the ministry of John Wesley. Wesley knew early on that it was absolutely crucial for laypeople to be trained in their understanding of the scriptures and how to live godly lives. This was to be the foundation upon which he built all his work. In his extensive open-air preaching, Wesley never asked people to accept Jesus Christ right on the spot. He did not preach for decisions. Rather, he preached with the aim in mind of convicting people. He did this by awakening their appetite to hear more of how the gospel message could satisfy their hunger for the word of God. He would not preach the gospel to large crowds unless there existed an established network of classes where people could immediately plug-in, study the scriptures, and experience real spiritual growth.
In Wesley’s mind, people did not become disciples simply by hearing an exhilarating, highly rousing sermon. Rather, they first hooked-up to a Christian Education class. Then, and only then, after they have had a solid grasp of the biblical message of salvation, did they submit their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Wesley understood that his preaching was subordinate to the importance of teaching seekers the rudimentary basics of Christian discipleship in a small class setting.
Some of Wesley’s own contemporaries, including George Whitefield, did not understand the methodology behind all these class meetings. Whitefield, by far, was the more spectacular, more sensational, of the two evangelists in the arena of open-air preaching. Endowed with an incredible voice, he was able to preach to crowds of a greater multitude. As he neared the end of his life and work, Whitefield’s eyes were opened to Wesley’s strategy. Whitefield’s insight, which came too late in his life, explains why Wesley left behind a powerful movement that swept across the continent of a newly emerging nation. Whitefield’s preaching may have incurred many decisions, but it left no enduring mark in the annals of church history. Whitefield said, “My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in class and thus preserved the fruit of his labors. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” Wesley’s seed was sowed in good soil and bore fruit, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold (Mk 4:20).
Whitefield’s statement reveals only one-half of Wesley’s insightful method. He was not so much interested in preserving the bountiful fruit of his preaching. Wesley saw the classes as the main focal point or backbone of his ministry. The lasting fruit of his labors did not sprout in the large open fields of his preaching campaigns, but in the small lay-led class meetings. It was through these established networks of classes, where people were able to personalize and internalize the gospel message. The open-air public preaching resembled that of a loud clanging cymbal which was noisy enough to catch the people’s attention and prepare them for the real work that took place in the class setting. It is interesting to note that Jesus himself avoided the vehicle of sensationalism or playing up to the gallery. In his book entitled Counterfeit Revival, Hank Hanegraaff comments, “when sensationalism becomes more tantalizing than truth, the very fabric of our faith is compromised.”[iii]
As I reflect on the quality and quantity of disciples that have been reproduced in the last four years through the ministry of the Los Angeles based church, I believe the Sunday morning preaching is responsible for only 25 percent of our people’s biblical maturity. Our Christian Education ministry, through the care groups and lay-training center, is responsible for a much larger share of 75 percent. Our members were able to stand spiritually on their own two feet, not so much because of the solid biblical preaching on Sunday mornings, but because they have been taught how to properly handle the word of God individually and in the context of small groups.
In speaking of the development of a solid biblical foundation in a local church, I am not referring to some twelve-step or nine-month program that is set on ablaze only to soon fizzle out. I am talking about revolutionizing not only the way our local church does business, but why it does its business, and what in fact its business is. Our commitment as leaders to the biblical literacy of our congregation needs to be made a permanent priority. We need to note that a time in the life of the church wherein the bible is freely advertised and readily accessible, printed in many translations and languages, and made available on a worldwide scale through the Internet, the Christians produced in this generation are one of the most illiterate in all the centuries. If we are not willing to spend the rest of our lives emphasizing biblical education as a priority, it will not happen in the next century.
Sensitivity-Seekers And Self-Feeders
If you are older than 40 the name Dr. Benjamin Spock is more than familiar. It was Spock that told an entire generation of parents to take it easy, don’t discipline your children, and allow them to express themselves. Discipline, as he told us, would warp a child’s fragile ego. Millions followed this guru of child development and he remained unchallenged among child rearing professionals. However, before his death Spock made an amazing discovery: he was wrong.[iv] In fact, this is what he said:
“We have reared a generation of brats. Parents aren’t firm enough with their children for fear of losing their love or incurring their resentment. This is a cruel deprivation that we professionals have imposed on mothers and fathers. Of course, we did it with the best of intentions. We didn’t realize until it was too late how our know-it-all attitude was undermining the self assurance of parents.”
A similar recantation of immense proportions has just occurred in the evangelical community. In the latter half of 2007, Willow Creek Community Church, the most influential church in America, issued a shocking confession, “We made a mistake.” Over the last thirty years, a generation of evangelicals embraced the vision of this church that is big, programmatic, and comprehensive.[v] These men and women have been seduced by this seeker-sensitive and market-driven movement that has been heavily influenced by the methods of secular business. Bill Hybels, the guru of this movement, along with his constituents have been telling us for decades to throw out everything we have previously thought and been taught about church growth and replace it with a new paradigm, a new way to do ministry. This “new wave” of ministry de-centralized the task of taking personal responsibility and replaced it with a bible-based study programs that focused on “felt-needs.”
The size of the crowd mattered more than the depth of one’s heart. This was the new spiritual standard of measure to determine the success of a church. If the crowd was large then surely God was blessing the ministry. To borrow a catch phrase from the pseudo self-help guru, Stuart Smalley, and tailor it to this felt-needs program, “We’re big enough, sensitive enough, and dog-gone-it people love us!” Burney notes that, “churches were built on demographic studies, professional strategists, marketing research, meeting “felt-needs” and sermons consistent with these techniques. We were told preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn’t matter nearly as much as innovation. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity.”[vi]
A multitude of pastors and leaders flocked to the feet of the church growth experts in order to learn the latest way to “do church” and labor to recreate such programs in their own churches and denominations. After all, thousands of people and millions of dollars invested in this movement couldn’t be wrong. In essence, forget what people needed, give them what they want. The numbers were telling, the experts were on a roll and everyone was getting into the bandwagon. Challenge the successful strategy and you’d be labeled a traditionalist—likened to a stubborn dinosaur unwilling to change with the times and sadly subject to extinction.
All that church hype dissipated in recent times. Willow Creek has published the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. Bill Hybels responds to the new book entitled Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins,[vii] executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, calling the findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking” and “mind blowing.” The study reveals that most of what they have been doing and teaching these many years has failed in terms of producing solid disciples rather than impressive numbers. Hybels laments:
“Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying for.”[viii]
If you’re into numbers and a crowd-gathering approach to ministry, then the seeker-sensitive programs can certainly corral the people in. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, the model misses the mark. Hybels confesses:
“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they should take responsibility to become ‘self-feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”[ix]
Plainly put, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on expensive and elaborate church programs but through the timeless biblical practices of spiritual disciplines namely, study, meditation, prayer to name a few. Superficiality is the curse of our age. The program prioritizing felt needs seeks instant gratification to a deeper spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a slicker church marketing tool, or highly gifted people, but for people hungering and thirsting after a deeper intimacy with God encouraging the community of believers to do likewise.
Spock’s supposed landmark approach to child development was a monumental and costly error as is the seeker sensitive movement propagated in our churches today. The promising model was built on sand. When the compiled data hit against its structure it was found lacking. Hawkins sums up his revelation with another more shocking statement:
“Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet.”
Haven’t we heard that very statement issued when the whole seeker sensitive thing stated in the first place? Do the church growth gurus desire to throw out their old assumptions, start from scratch and rethink and research new and informed insights that would satisfy the scriptural roots and receive the bible’s blessing once again?
Putting the cart before the horse would endanger the next pied piper of church growth. To be rooted in scripture one must place a priority on the word of God and what it has to say in regard to the methods we employ to achieve its ends. We must, in all sincerity and seriousness, root ourselves in the scriptures and prayerfully ask God to allow us to return to simple biblical and relevant truths to implement for the depth and growth of our churches today. Only then, when we have emptied ourselves of all the world’s cleverly devised strategies do we “take out a clean sheet of paper” and “rethink” our methods with our Spirit-informed, biblically rooted insight and research to arrive at a plan that is effectively fruitful and pleasing to God.
In the first episode of the Star Wars Trilogy, the final battle was fought against the background of the evil empire’s Death Star.[x] The survival of the rebel resistance depended upon the success in firing two proton torpedoes into the thermal exhaust port that lay vulnerable within the massive trenches of the Death Star. As the rebel starships regrouped in attack formation they were immediately confronted with the sustained fire discharged from about twenty laser guns strategically stationed within the towers below. As the three rebel starships succeeded in evading the towers they were now on the look out for the enemy fighters. Their ship’s onboard computers locked on the target, which lay just ahead. Upon receiving their signal the guns on the enemy towers suddenly stopped.
“They’re coming in,” cried one rebel pilot who alerted the others and was immediately shot down.
“It’s no good,” cried another pilot, “I can’t maneuver!”
The order from the command ship came back, “Stay on Target!”
“We’re too close,” cried another pilot.
Again the commander ordered, “Stay on target!”
I must admit that my attempt in trying to maintain a consistent intensity in the education aspect of ministry, to stay on target, has taken its toll time and again. While it is true that teaching is one of my spiritual gifts and I have enjoyed every class I have taught, there were countless moments when I was pressed for time in the study and preparation of the biblical material. And I simply had to ‘wing-it’ to get by. This kind of commitment will be costly. It will bring on fatigue. Nevertheless, no investment will ever bring a sweeter dividend, a more rewarding investment, and a more lasting fruit.
If we are to have a greater influence upon the next generation, we must disciple the church through Christian Education. And we must teach the most often neglected spiritual disciplines have caused many a church or movement to wander without a rudder in a shallow sea of ambiguity and confusion. Every church has its strength and unique mission but they must all be taught and grounded in scripture. I encourage you to “Stay on target!”
[i] C. Peter Wagner, Foundations of Church Growth MC520: Course Outline and Syllabus (Pasadena: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1991).
[ii] In the mid-nineties, the Asian Center of Christian Ministry was established as a program of ministry training that was recognized by Patten College in Oakland, California and the Western School of Christian Ministry, which is the extension division of Patten. Its distinctive purpose was to train lay leaders of Asian churches to grown in the word for the world, know our roots and our world, and equip the worker for the harvest.
[iii] Hank Hanegraaff, Counterfeit Revival: Looking for God in all the Wrong Places (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997).
[iv] Bob Burney, “A Shocking “Confession” from Willow Creek Community Church, Tuesday, October 30, 2007.
[v] Willow Creek Repents?, Why the most influential church in America now says, “We made a mistake,” October 18, 2007.
[vii] Willow. In Hawkins’ video he says, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”
[viii] Ibid. James Twitchell, in his new book Shopping for God, reports that outside Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Directly or indirectly, this philosophy of ministry—church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage—has impacted every evangelical church in the country.
[ix] Burney. The author notes, “What we should find encouraging, at least, in this “confession” coming from the highest ranks of Willow Creek Association is that they are coming to realize that their existing “model” does not help people grow into mature followers of Jesus Christ. Given the massive influence this organization has on the American church today, let us pray that God would be pleased to put structure in place at Willow Creek that foster not mere numeric growth, but growth in grace.”
[x] George Lucas, dir. Star Wars: A New Hope, Episode III. 125 min. (Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1977).
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.
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Fensham's study on the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah is a contribution to The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Like its companion series on the New Testament, this commentary devotes considerable care to achieving a balance between technical information and homiletic-devotional interpretation.