It is not my intention to imply for a moment that good teaching isn’t a priority or essential in the life of the church. It is, and I personally love teaching and engaging with a community with the scriptures. When I first started experimenting with organic expressions of church I was excited because I believed that studying the scriptures collaboratively was a superior way to learn. It was my theory that house church was better because it was a better vehicle for teaching. I’ve learned since then that for most basic bible study, approaching the scriptures collectively and collaboratively is better but having a better bible study wasn’t any magic key to unlock transformative growth or healing.
I came to believe that good teaching is an essential element along with other elements. The important question is whether teaching has the proper emphasis or is there some other aspect of church life that should have more invested in it.
Most of the evangelical ministries I’ve been a part of invest more of their time, energy and money in biblical teaching than anything else. Our ministries are geared around providing people with solid biblical principles that people can apply in their lives. Worship services, small groups, bible studies, and Sunday school are generally constructed around hearing the scriptures interpreted and applied. Our leaders are credentialed based on degrees they acquire in academic institutions. The sermon is often the focal point of weekly church gatherings. The reformation anchored the protestant church on the proper administration of the sacraments and preaching. Even our most innovative expressions of church are just novel ways to provide people with information.
Despite all these efforts the western evangelical church suffers from broad swathes of biblical and theological illiteracy. Curiously we invest a lot of effort to give people biblical principles that they don’t seem to remember long after they leave the building. I think the issue isn’t intake but absorption. It is like the human body.
In North America we are encouraged by our governments and other agencies to consume dairy products. We might see some pressure on this as Canadian society becomes more racially diverse. Most of the world’s peoples have a hard time digesting milk sugars after the age of 5. Normally the body stops producing the enzyme required to digest lactose because it isn’t necessary. It seems our bodies are designed with the assumption that after we are weaned from breast milk we don’t need to digest lactose any more. Caucasians are the exception to this rule and have a funny genetic mutation that keeps the required enzyme production going allows us to continue to consume the wonderful dairy products we love. Sadly I personally have grown less and less tolerant to lactose over time and now can no longer enjoy a peanut buster parfait at Dairy Queen without digestive supplements and acid reducers.
Another probably more accurate analogy might be the relationship between calcium and vitamin D. Without vitamin D the body cannot properly absorb calcium. Taking in large amounts of calcium doesn’t do us any good without having it in proper balance with other nutrients. In the same way I believe that teaching will produce very modest fruit unless it is done in an engaged loving community. If we teach in a community marked by religious obligation rather than mutual sincere compassion it actually blocks the critical absorption of truth. If people come to a worship service, or sunday school or whatever because they are supposed to, they are going to do enough to look like they are meeting an external standard but inwardly be totally disengaged.
Paul made a couple of relevant points on this issue.
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
(1Cor 8:1b NET)
And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
(1Co 13:2 NET.)
There is a story in this TED talk that in one way illustrates the limits of knowledge. There was a study at Princeton Theological Seminary involve some divinity students. A group of students were given a topic to prepare a sermon on. Half of them prepared a message on the good Samaritan. They were sent to another building to deliver the sermon. On the way there someone was bent over suffering in obvious pain. Some students responded to him and some didn’t. Curiously it didn’t make any difference what they were about to preach on. Studying the story of the good Samaritan didn’t make anyone more compassionate. The biggest difference between the people that stopped and the people that didn’t was whether they were in a hurry or not.
The story doesn’t in anyway say that knowing something is bad, just that knowledge outside of love, compassion and empathy doesn’t help very much. When our church mediums center on giving people information without a facilitating and loving environment we are missing an essential element.
While I don’t discount the value of scripture or biblical principles I think we have too much of one good thing and not enough other good things. It is all in one sense very biblical. Teaching is mentioned a lot in scripture and it is essential that people have a good understanding of who God is and how to have a relationship with him. The lack of biblical literacy is huge problem in the church. I don’t think we are lacking effort or resources, it is just that people are not absorbing what we give them.