If we were charged with helping a new Christian to develop spiritual disciplines for their growth in the faith, what would we most emphasise? If we were trying to encourage a fellow believer who is flagging in their commitment to God, what steps would we urge them to take? These questions are not the basis of a mere thought experiment, but are vitally important in terms of how we view the whole task of ministry, and may just help a brother or sister be delivered from discouragement and decline in their walk with the Lord.
It is easy to imagine that a poll on these kinds of questions might return answers which buy into the individualism that has become such a part of our psyche as modern/postmodern people. We have been brought up to privilege the ‘quiet time’ or ‘daily devotions’, personal prayer, and immediate connection with others who might bolster and bless us in our pilgrimage. Those, then, are likely to be the kinds of measures which are most recommended for avoiding slippage in our faith.
But what of preaching and teaching? Where would we place the weekly sermon in church on this scale? Where would we place one-to-one Bible reading/teaching where a mature Christian not only invites us to share our ‘feelings’ about a passage, but who helps us to learn how to read the Bible for ourselves? Would these elements feature prominently, would they feature at all? The answer to those questions might just provide a key to some of the deep seated issues which lie at the heart of the Western church.
We have become suspicious of didactic teaching, we have been taught to distrust propositional truth, and we have been effectively brainwashed into thinking that there is no authority which can lay claim to us or direct us as free people. These attitudes, be they assumed or articulated, create a dreadful barrier between the believer and one of the means which God uses to nurture and mature them.
God’s people do, however, need to be taught. There are many reasons for this, but three might help us to begin to think this matter through biblically and logically:
1. False teaching requires little cultivation
If, as Gerard Manley Hopkins suggests, ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’, there can be little doubt that false teaching has a similar number of outlets. Our culture hosts an entire industry whose raison d’etre is to propagate false doctrine; an industry which knows its target audience and can press almost every affective and psychological button to win it over. False teaching is poured from ‘Christian’ presses in huge quantities, and the airwaves are alive with almost every shade of heretic one could imagine.
Christians are vulnerable to these things, and will need little encouragement to connect with them. Like the tantalising allure of junk food, false teaching seems to override the logical part of the mind which could discern its harmfulness, and appeals directly to appetite. Prominent televangelists and authors show alarming expertise in deploying the right phrasing, in employing the right prose style, in promulgating just the right kinds of anecdotes to bait the hook. The church elder who is not alive to these dangers, and who is not earnestly praying against them, is not adequately shepherding the flock of God.
2. True discipleship is not a merely private endeavour
If those in our care are to avoid the pitfalls of false doctrine they need pro-active help, and they need to be consistently taught the truth of Scripture. This is possible (and desirable) at an individual level, but it is also most feasible when the church gathers for worship. The Word of God preached accurately, reverently, and experientially must be urged on our people as a means of cultivating true growth in their Christian lives. By all means we should provide guidance about how to spend time with God alone, but not in such a way as to make brothers and sisters believe that this is the only means of growth available to them.
The best affirmation of the place and importance of preaching is in the lives of more mature Christians who can model how to listen and learn well, and who can discuss how to get the most out of public Bible ministry with those new to the faith. It is not hard for a new Christian to grasp the crucial nature of biblical preaching if they see those a little further down the road from them hungrily absorbing it.
Young Christians should also see in their elders a deep seated belief in the public proclamation of God’s word. If we lighten the load of our preaching preparation, or demean it with a false self-deprecation, or trivialise the pulpit with cheap humour and trite moralisms, then we cannot expect people to pay much attention to us. If, however, we authentically demonstrate a bedrock belief in God using this medium as a means of Christian growth, if our ministry is Bible-saturated and prayer surrounded, if our application is Scriptural, personal, and incisive, and if we speak with seriousness about our pulpit responsibility, then we may just make it easier for others to lend weight to it.
3. Christ himself has given his church pastors and teachers
It also must be emphasised to and by those given to the oversight of a local church, that the task of shepherding and teaching are from the risen, ascended Saviour himself. Ephesians 4 candidly claims that elders have been placed in the church so that Christians can mature, and can be secured against the violent weather systems of doctrinal error. If we minimise this ministry, then we are practically denying the Saviour’s wisdom in providing the gift of teachers to his people.
I preach and teach because I believe them to be God-given means whereby believers grow in their faith. I believe in the almost immeasurable power that a sermon preached in the power of the Spirit can yield in the souls of men and women, and I believe that teaching from house-to-house (or face-to-face) on the part of elders and other suitably qualified people can revolutionise their spiritual lives. I don’t believe that people grow merely by their private Bible reading, but that they also need instruction, that they need the spiritual-childhood-to-spiritual-adulthood nurture which Paul describes as being so essential in Ephesians 4. I believe that we have deprecated the sermon so that it is the negotiable supplement to private devotions, rather than serving as their driver and director.
There is tremendous potential in elders owning their responsibility to teach, in emphasising this as a matter of first importance to all believers, and in giving themselves wholly to this task, progressing in their own ministry, and propagating the realities of our glorious Saviour in the hearts of those laid in their charge.