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Three Ideas for Filling the Learning Gaps

By Peter Thomas.

A central part of the life of any church should be Christian teaching. “Go and make disciples,” Jesus commissioned his disciples, “baptising them and teaching them …” (Matthew 28.19) Disciples are, by the meaning of the word, supposed to be ‘learners.’ So the task of teaching is at the heart of the work of Christian ministers. Jesus commanded Peter, “Feed my lambs,” “Take care of my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” It is the task of the “pastors and teachers” to “prepare God’s people for works of service.” (Ephesians 4.11) The calling of the minister is to preach and teach, and very often the best expression of pastoral care is relevant Bible teaching. Especially because more people are coming to faith with no background in church or Scripture, effective adult Christian education is more important than ever.

Yet in some churches the only form of regular Christian teaching is the sermon. However, sermons alone can never offer a balanced diet of Christian teaching - they are inevitably limited in length, and depth, and in the subjects which may be addressed. Members (such as Sunday School teachers) may miss many sermons for good reasons, although the convenience of making audio recordings or posting sermons online can reduce that problem, as can handing out printed copies of sermon notes during the service and not just afterwards. Cell Groups, Home Groups or House Groups offer another setting for teaching. Nevertheless, in many churches there are great gaps in learning.   

The gaps in WHAT we teach

We may be satisfied with our teaching of biblical truths, but not all churches succeed in helping their members to apply the Bible to everyday life. Few churches do justice to teaching ethics, or the basics of philosophy to enable Christians to make sense of this Post-Modern Post-Christendom world. Churches rarely teach sufficient church history to allow members to understand their denominational heritage, let alone the issues involved in ecumenical discussions.

Many churches are committed to the principles of the priesthood of all believers and every-member ministry. But even when we recognise the gifts of members we rarely train them to be more effective in Christian service, as Home Group Leaders or Youth or Children’s workers, or lay Leaders. We often do much less than we could in preparing all God's people for the work of Christian service and in some cases the minister ends up doing certain jobs because he or she is the only suitably ‘trained’ member.

The gaps in WHO is taught

Part of the problem in what is taught (and not taught) arises directly from the nature of the teaching situations. In most churches, a complete mixture of folk are regularly taught the same thing at the same time. An average congregation may contain many ages, folk with different extents of Christian maturity and experience and intellectual ability, and a wide variety of situations and problems. Few ministers would claim to be able to meet the needs for teaching of that whole congregation each week. And of course the function of a sermon is more than teaching anyway.

Some churches see midweek meetings such as House/Home/Cell Groups as their primary context for Christian education, but there are often difficulties with this, since these groups often also contain a mixture of folks. Education is often less of a priority in such groups than equally important pastoral care and fellowship, prayer or evangelism. House/Home/Cell Groups could sometimes offer teaching more suited to the needs of members, if churches didn't insist that all their groups follow the same course of study, or equally if the minister had written study notes appropriate for the church rather than just using purchased materials. Even so, a diet of sermons and Home Group studies leaves all kinds of learning gaps. I would like to share three easy ideas which can help educate our churches.

Dialogue teaches the parts monologue can’t teach

Discussion is a vital element in adult learning. Whereas children approach new topics with relatively open minds, adults bring a wealth of prior knowledge, experiences and convictions to almost any learning situation. Leaders with a special knowledge of the topic, or good resource materials and thorough preparation, are essential to prevent the pooling of ignorance which so often characterises ‘discussions.’ Many sermons are enhanced by an opportunity for discussion immediately afterwards, or indeed during, but properly led small groups can also be most helpful to the life and growth of Christians and Churches. We learn all kinds of things much better by talking about them and by doing them with other people than just by reading or by listening to a preacher talking about them.

There are so many topics which are better addressed in self-selecting small groups rather than in sermons or Home Groups for everybody, not least when the topic taps into a particular interest and so can be studied at a depth most appropriate to those present. A short course running for a fixed period is perfect for training worship leaders, or preachers, or workers with children or young people. Courses in personal evangelism such as Evangelism Explosion and Person to Person can be very helpful. There are, however, many other subjects which a number of church members might wish to explore together. In-depth exegesis of Bible passages, or exploration of specific doctrines; workshops on ‘faith in the workplace,’ ‘creation and evolution,’ ‘spiritual warfare,’ church history, ethical issues and pastoral concerns, or philosophy and sociology: “Why is it the church has good news nobody seems to want?” Most ministers will relish sharing their own interests and specialisms with other enthusiasts.

Courses can be based around books or DVDs. One book on prayer which I found particularly inspiring was Richard Foster’s Prayer – finding the heart’s true home. In 21 chapters, he explores different aspects of prayer. This led to a group of a dozen people, who were serious about moving on in their prayer lives, reading a chapter each week and meeting together to discuss in depth and pray through that chapter’s expression of prayer, guided by a booklet we called “Invitation to an adventure.” A number of other groups subsequently followed the same pattern. Most courses would be shorter and very many churches could benefit greatly from running two or three short courses a year for six or eight weeks each, meeting the needs of different groups within the church.

Some churches have gone further and regularly incorporate short courses into an Adult Sunday School or Midweek Bible School. For many years Tunbridge Wells Baptist Church ran a ‘Learning Centre’ meeting over 8 weeks for three terms a year. Scheduled on Sundays before the Morning Service, and with a gap for refreshments to which everybody was invited, the Learning Centre (LC or “Elsie” to her friends) offered a choice of three or four 45-minute seminar-style courses. Courses were led by the ministers and by church members, some based on books or on teaching videos from London Bible College. Approaching half of the morning adult worshippers would come out early for these courses and some of the materials were published in Handy Extra Learning Pack 1 (Baptist Union 1992). Memorable courses included ‘The Last Things,’ ‘The Story of the Baptists,’ ‘Christianity and other religions,’ ‘Deacons’ dilemmas’, ‘Training church leaders’, ‘Christianity and the Arts,’ ‘The Church around the world,’ and ‘The Gifts of the Holy Spirit,’ – to name but a few. Each course was supported by participants notes and pointers to further reading and resources. All kinds of such materials are now available online from other ministers. Whether institutionalised or occasional, learning in small groups is always worthwhile.

Making disciples one-to-one

Most churches already have some learning opportunities targeted precisely at the needs of individuals or very small groups – baptism and membership classes, wedding preparation and not forgetting the many one-to-one counselling situations in which appropriate teaching often plays a vital part. There are also great blessings when Christians care for one another and pray together in prayer partnerships or ‘Spiritual Friendships.’ Much less common, but equally useful, are relationships where a believer meets with a more mature Christian for what some call ‘Mentoring’ or ‘Christian Formation’ or, with a different intent, Spiritual Direction.  The Masterlife course has proved very helpful to many. In search of a format to create such sustaining relationships, and at the same time for a way for the minister to be more involved in the spiritual journeys of church members, Brentwood Baptist Church created a guided course in discipleship for mature Christians entitled Fan the Flame. Over five or ten weeks participants follow a series of daily Bible readings and short articles on five vital themes: Knowing God better; Becoming like Jesus; Living in Christ’s Body; Becoming a Servant; and Be filled with the Spirit. At the end of each week the person meets one-to-one with their Guide, either the minister or somebody else who has already completed the course. The meetings combine discussion and prayer focussed entirely on the spiritual and emotional growth of the participant. Many ministers might feel that life is too busy to devote a series of five meetings to a single individual, but that investment of time is so worthwhile! Over the last four years, it has been my great privilege to share in the spiritual journeys of almost 50 people through Fan the Flame and some of them have then been Guides to others. Looking back over 26 years, I believe those meetings have been perhaps the most valuable expression of my ministry. Part of the calling of a minister is to the intentional process of making disciples and finding ways to accomplish that would fill a gap in many churches.

Individual study plans

All ministers long that their congregations would be studying and learning for themselves at home. Even when churches offer libraries of excellent books and DVDs, so many Christians prefer the very variable offerings of Christian television and radio. To encourage personal study and reflection, I offered my church Individual Study Plans (ISPs). These are a novel and very simple way to revisit old sermons and Home Group studies. Each ISP is based on an Outline which guides the student through questions, sermons, study notes and recommended books on a particular biblical, practical, pastoral or theological theme. The topics range from ‘The Way of the Cross,’ ‘The Work of the Holy Spirit’ or ‘The Last Things,’ to ‘God in the Workplace,’ ‘Belonging to the Church’ or ‘Issues in Pastoral Care’. There are devotional subjects such as ‘Praying the Prayer of St Francis,’ ‘Growing in Holiness’ and ‘How to Worship God Better’, and themes around Evangelism and Social Justice including ‘Questions Seekers are Asking’ and ‘The Emerging Church.’

Best of all for the convenience of the users and the future of the environment, all 34 Outlines (so far) are provided on one CD-ROM in the form of Microsoft Word documents which most home computers can read. This also contains over 300 sermons, Leader’s Guides for more than 200 Bible Studies, and dozens of other resources ranging from short hand-outs to extensive articles. Paper copies of the ISPs are provided for anybody who prefers them, but many people appreciate the freedom which studying at the computer offers. For example, a simple word search can immediately identify all the resources which relate to a specific topic, or even a particular Bible book, anywhere on the CD-ROM. Anything we can do to encourage our members to study for themselves will be a blessing to them and to our churches.

Colossians 1.28 explains Paul’s philosophy of ministry: “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” More than thirty times the New Testament shows us that a major task of Christian ministers is to teach. If we want to present our church members mature in Christ, then courses in small groups, one-to-one relationships and encouraging personal study can all help to fill the learning gaps.

Peter Thomas

Minister of North Springfield Baptist Church, Chelmsford

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You are reading Three Ideas for Filling the Learning Gaps by Peter Thomas, part of Issue 57 of Ministry Today, published in April 2013.

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