Interactive teaching, part 3: Challenges of interactive teaching

Photo by ronnarong

We’ve looked at some of the benefits of interactive teaching. So let’s consider some of the challenges of teaching this way:

“It takes a lot more time.”
This is true. If you’re studying a passage of Scripture, and you have people respond to you and invite them to raise their hands and ask questions, it’s going to take longer than if you do all the talking. You should know that going in. And this is going to frustrate some people, especially those who prefer a short, streamlined service where they can get in, get done, and get out. (Some of my friends refer to this as “drive-thru church.”) So you need to be clear about what your priorities are, and why. What outcome are we seeking? Are we willing to do almost anything to draw a large crowd, or are we focused on what will be most effective at making faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who are continually learning, growing and maturing?

“Overly talkative people will dominate the interaction.”
This is a real, ever-present, danger. This kind of format can draw people who are looking for a soapbox, a platform from which to opine and share with everyone their incredible wisdom on just about everything. Others, in their enthusiasm, may forget any self-restraint and eagerly answer every question asked of the people and pepper the teacher with a barrage of questions. Again, this is something pastors and teachers are just going to have deal with when teaching interactively. And you must actually deal with it.

Part of the way we serve the church is by providing gentle leadership to the whole study process. We’re not just teaching a particular passage, we’re teaching how to study the Bible, and how to interact as we study together as a church. From time to time, I have to begin with a reminder: “Don’t forget, questions are welcome, but only questions. There are just too many of us for everyone to be able to share their views and insights on the passage we’re studying. So you’re welcome to respond—briefly—when I ask you guys questions, and feel free to raise your hand and ask a question when something isn’t clear to you, but please hold onto your comments and insights until after the service. We can discuss as much as we want then.” You’ll be continually seeking balance in this area. It’s a bit like parents finding the balance between being too strict and being too permissive. At times we have to do some course correction to bring us back into balance. But this is another thing an interactive teacher must deal with. (And you’ll have to learn the art of gently and inoffensively interrupting someone who’s having difficulty ending their comments!)

“Someone might say something inappropriate.”
Not only is it a distinct possibility that someone eventually might say something in a less than appropriate manner during an interactive study, it’s very likely! Or at least it should be. Why do I say that? Because we’re trying to reach the same range of people that Jesus reached. He spent quite a bit of time with prostitutes and tax collectors, and I doubt whether their language and manners were the most genteel. What’s more important to us, that everyone act like good religious boys and girls in church—even the non-Christians—or that people are genuinely grappling with, and being changed by, the truth of Scripture at a deep heart level? If a non-Christian is doing this in our midst, and they process some of this out loud in their response or question, sometimes that may be expressed in ways that might make us uncomfortable. And that’s good! We need to be uncomfortable! And we need to sacrifice our comfort in order to reach people, both outside and inside the church.

Of course, there’s a balance to this, too. If someone is repeatedly dropping F-bombs, it might be necessary to have a gentle, respectful chat with them. But an occasional inappropriately worded response or question can be encouraging confirmation we’re actually reaching some of the people we say we want to reach! These are the kinds of problems the church should be encountering.

“But if I let the people ask any questions, they’re going to ask something I can’t answer.”
Good! That shows they’re really thinking about these things. A good question to which we don’t know the answer should never threaten us—unless we’re pretending to know everything! Of course, we need to be “laboring in the Word,” pushing up our sleeves and doing the hard work of studying the biblical text. We need to be prepared to teach a passage of Scripture, not just deliver a message. But, if we see ourselves as fellow students of Scripture who are still learning and growing ourselves, a new and probing question concerning Scripture should delight us! And our enthusiasm will be infectious. The people will see that this isn’t about being self-righteous and assuming we have everything nailed down. Studying Scripture is about the joy of discovering more about God and knowing more deeply his love, truth, life, grace, holiness, etc., etc. (And—notwithstanding the value of models for us to observe and of wise counsel—the best way to learn to answer tough questions is by answering tough questions!)

“This would be hard to do in larger churches.”
The size of a group will obviously affect how interactive it can be. We have the freedom to be much more interactive in a group of 10 or 12 than we do a group of 100 or 200. So the level of interaction will change in a way that fits the group with whom you’re working, but you can still be interactive in your teaching even with very large groups. You just have to think through how you’re going to do it. (Do you use roving microphones? Do you have set times during your study for questions and answers? etc.) If you think your church service is just too large to effectively teach interactively . . . then maybe your church service is just too large.

“I tried to teach interactively, but I couldn’t control the study.”
There are different issues that people confront when they teach interactively. The first is that teaching interactively is, in many ways, a very different process than monologue teaching. It’s like the difference between swimming and surfing. I can swim from point A to point B, and it’s a fairly straightforward process. But surfing is entirely different. Surfers don’t let the wave take them just anywhere, they’re still controlling the surfboard. But they have to ride the wave to get where they want to go. Surfing requires a different skill set, and the same is true for interactive teaching. It’s part art form. Someone who truly loves teaching (not just speaking), who loves to help people learn, who’s thrilled to see that light bulb moment when someone really gets it—these people usually take to interactive teaching pretty quickly because it’s so much more effective at fostering real learning and growth. They also know that new skills (e.g. how to go from someone’s rabbit trail back into the flow of the passage in a way that feels smooth and natural; how to correct someone who’s wrong but still encourage them to keep thinking and questioning; etc.) have to be learned and practiced, they don’t develop automatically.

Other people, though, find it very difficult to relinquish this much control. For some, it’s not a matter of developing additional teaching skills; they just hate teaching this way. For them, it goes against the grain. If we’re honest with ourselves, it can be hard to put all that time and effort into preparing to teach a passage of Scripture, only to have someone steal our thunder by knowing an answer to a question or by seeing something important in the text. It can grate on us when the people ask questions at the wrong time and mess up our outline, or when they don’t word things the way we’d like them to. There may be (at least) a couple of different reasons why these kinds of things bother someone. Maybe we’re struggling with a pride issue in our hearts. This is something that all of must confront in regards to our ministry. How much of my motivation and the way I respond is generated more from pride than a desire to lovingly serve. Does it bother us when we don’t get the credit for something we know, or for a helpful insight into the meaning of a Scripture? These can be warning signs that we’re too focused on ourselves.

This kind of struggling is also an opportunity to take another look at our gifting. Maybe teaching isn’t really our gifting at all. I know people who think they should be teaching, but they don’t really like working with people! (Here’s a hint: that doesn’t work!) Some love the activity of studying Scripture, but they’re frustrated with trying to help others learn. Some love the creative process of crafting something and then presenting it in front of an audience—intending to truly move and inspire them—but they feel ill-equipped to handle any kind of interaction. In cases like these, the individual and the church would be much healthier if these people determine their strongest areas of gifting and passion and find ways to use these gifts to most effectively love and edify the church body. There’s nothing wrong with having gifting other than teaching!

Don’t forget to exhort.
Scripture doesn’t just call pastoral leaders to teach the church, but also to exhort the church. Teaching in the church shouldn’t be merely a transfer of information, teaching should bring about real spiritual growth and life change. There should be an element of coaching in our teaching. As teachers in the church, we should be encouraging and urging people (and ourselves) to take what we’re learning and faithfully live it out in our daily lives.

“But some people won’t like it.”
No matter what we do as a church, we can’t please everyone. If some people are going to be displeased with us, let’s make sure they’re displeased with us for the right reasons! If we’re seeking to be biblically faithful and as effective as possible at helping people come to faith in Christ and helping each other grow and mature in the faith, then it’s much easier to deal with it when people don’t like that approach. Some people will be drawn to interactive study of Scripture, and others won’t. Some will tell you, “I don’t want to hear all these other people. You’re the pastor or teacher, I want to hear you.” That’s when we need to be very clear about what Scripture calls us to do, and the most effective ways to fulfill this calling. We must never fail to consider the input from others in the church, but we also don’t decide what’s best based solely on majority opinion. The fact is, we Christians often don’t know what’s best for us. So we’re continually driven back to the Word, and we seek to live out what the Bible teaches as wisely as we can.

Ministry is rarely, if ever, neat and tidy and quickly concluded the way we see in many books and conferences. Real life is messy, and real ministry to real people is messy, too. Don’t forget: Jesus didn’t disciple 12 units; he discipled Peter; and James; and John; etc. He discipled 12 individuals (and many others, as well). We, too, are teaching very different people with different backgrounds, different levels of knowledge, different levels of spiritual maturity, different personalities and ways of learning, etc., etc. Some may prefer the antiseptic security of what can be neatly contained and packaged, but what is messy can also be organic and thriving and vibrant. There must be order to what we do, of course, but we can easily have so much order—so much of our control—that we choke off the life.

In his excellent book Teaching to Change Lives, Howard Hendricks asked:

Wouldn’t it be great in our churches if people would simply stand up when they didn’t understand what the speaker was trying to communicate, and say, “Wait a minute. I have no idea what you’re talking about”? It would guarantee no one would go to sleep!

As a young teacher, I read this and wrote in the margin, “Why not?” We need to refuse to be bound by the sacred cows of either what is traditional or what is trendy. We need to be willing to take a fresh look at Scripture, in its context, to see how we can be more faithfully biblical, and also be seeking how we can be most wise in applying scriptural church principles in our current context.

In the case of interactive teaching, it can be thrilling to see people become active participants in the study of Scripture, to hear their excited questions as they come to better understand Scripture for themselves—and better know God through his Word. But you should also know this. Once people take some sense of ownership in their own process of learning and growing, and they get used to being able to raise their hand and ask a question when something is confusing or needs to be clarified, it’s extremely difficult for them to return to sitting quietly as part of a passive audience. And once you teachers begin to witness this dynamic process during your teaching, when the people start seeing what you want them to see in the Scriptures (rather than you just telling them), when they get so into the flow of the passage that they’re naturally asking questions that lead right into the next verse or paragraph, when you see the exhilaration of a Christian personally grasping a key biblical concept or understanding a knotty passage for the first time—not only will it be worth dealing with all of the challenges we’ve listed, but you’ll likely find it impossible to ever return to teaching without the interaction!

Interactive teaching, part 2: Why teach interactively?

In the last post, we saw that Scripture doesn’t call pastors to preach, in the familiar sense of delivering sermons, but there is a repeated call for pastors to teach the church. I noted that—contrasted with preaching—teaching has different priorities, a different focus, and different expectations. So we should want to see this kind of teaching modeled for us in the Bible, right? How did Jesus and Paul teach? What can we learn from their examples?

I want to focus on a characteristic of their teaching that isn’t discussed very often. If we read the text carefully, we begin to see references to the interactive nature of both Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching. We know from historical studies that the format in the synagogues of the first century was interactive. They even arranged their seating in the round to facilitate this interaction. We see evidence of this interaction in the synagogues in such passages as Mark 3:1-5; John 6:25-59; Acts 17:1-4; 17:17; 18:4-6; 18:19; 18:28; 19:8-9. Read through the Gospels and see how many times Jesus asked questions and answered questions—often answering questions with questions! And we see him doing this in one-on-one conversation, in small groups and in large group settings. He did most of the talking, to be sure; these weren’t large group chats, but they were interactive.

Notice in the passages above how often it says that Paul reasoned with the people in the synagogues. The Greek word used here is dialegomai. From this word we get our English word “dialogue,” and it had the same kind of meaning in the first century. It meant “to discuss,” so what we see happening in the synagogues in these passages was very interactive.

We see Paul teaching interactively in the church, as well, in Acts 20:7-12. We often joke about this being the favorite verse of long-winded preachers because it shows Paul preaching all night long! The problem is this isn’t quite accurate. The same Greek word is used here as above, plus another one with a similar meaning. What Paul was doing wasn’t preaching to the people, he was dialoguing with the people. He didn’t preach all night long, but he did talk with the people all night long.

So what happened to this interactive style of teaching? How did monologic preaching become the norm? Over time, leaders in the church began adopting more of a Greco-Roman emphasis on eloquent rhetoric. This became even more widespread after Christianity was legalized and “the Church” even became seemingly predominate. Huge numbers of people joined the Church (without necessarily becoming truly Christian), churches began building large cathedrals, the bishop had already become the preeminent person in church life, and now eloquent sermons with all the desired rhetorical flourishes took the place of simple, interactive teaching. The Reformed churches, with their intellectual strengths, retained and even intensified this focus on monologic preaching, viewing it as virtually indistinguishable from the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of the Word. Over the centuries, some groups followed a more interactive teaching model, and there’s been renewed interest in interactive teaching the past few decades.

But why teach interactively? What are some of the benefits of interactive teaching? Here are a few:

It’s a much more effective way of learning.
Studies have consistently shown that the more we’re actively involved in the learning process (rather than just passively listening), the more we retain and apply what we’ve learned. First, people remain engaged at a much higher level when they realize people can ask questions, and that the teacher may ask the people questions—and expect an answer! It avoids the problem of people not understanding something, being frustrated at not being able to clarify what’s confusing them, and then zoning out because they’re lost in the sermon and no longer able to follow. And the truth of Scripture just has greater weight to a person when they’re part of the discovery process. Rather than telling everyone, “. . . and this verse shows again that Jesus is God,” it makes much more of a lasting impact for someone to respond to a question from the teacher with, “Wow, this is saying that Jesus is God!” Rather than truth being something they’re told, they’re now apprehending the truth in a deeply personal way. They now own it, and are responsible for doing something with it.

A monologue is just about the least effective way to teach anyone anything, but strangely it’s the most common model we find in the church. The more people actively participate in the learning process, the more they truly learn, the more they retain, and the more they apply what they’ve learned in their lives.

Interactive teaching also keeps the focus rightly on the text of Scripture.
This is true even in the preparation process. Rather than putting a great deal of time and effort into crafting a beautiful speech, I need to understand as thoroughly as possible the whole passage we’re studying because I can get questions on anything in the passage. Rather than being immersed in my message, I have to be immersed in the text itself. Secondly, the focus during the study time is not on my rhetorical skills, on how funny or moving I am, but on how clearly they understand the Scriptures. This way of teaching helps the teacher become more invisible and draws the people’s attention to the scriptural text, the Word of God.

This form of teaching can also inspire people to study the Scriptures on their own.
Rather than saying to themselves, “I don’t know how he got those points from this passage, but that’s beautiful,” it can cause people to say, “Oh, wow, I’m seeing where the text is making this point! I’m following the flow of this, and actually understanding it! This is great!” To borrow from the old saying, instead of giving them fish, this helps them learn how to fish for themselves. [Side note: using a translation in our teaching that the people can actually understand—without the need for the teacher to translate the translation(!)—helps greatly with this also. It’s wonderful to hear people tell me they’re understanding what they read in Scripture on their own for the first time.]

This kind of teaching also encourages more people to become teachers.
The unpleasant truth is that there are just not that many truly great preachers. Many churches endure preaching every week that is painfully subpar. This reality is even more evident today when we can watch the best preachers online anytime we like. And the pressure is real and somewhat understandable; after all, if you’re doing all the talking, you should be really good at it! But the encouraging thing is that there are a whole lot more people who can be effective teachers than can be excellent preachers! And seeing excellent teaching will often excite them that they can do this, too, instead of concluding that they could never do what the preacher does.

This way of studying the Scriptures seems much more authentic to a lot of people.
To many—especially those without a church background—a typical church sermon can feel canned and artificial. At best, it’s still a presentation, and they already get bombarded by too many presentations. But if people are studying the Scriptures and allowing people to ask any questions or make any challenges they want about the text in question—that feels real. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me something like, “Wow, you really take the Bible seriously. You’re okay with us checking everything out and asking you hard questions.”

For the reasons above (and I’m sure there are more I could have included), this kind of teaching can be a more effective component of making genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. But do we really want active participants . . . or do we actually prefer a passive audience? Do I want them to be moved by my message, or by the Scriptures themselves? Is it more important to me that they appreciate my opening and my closing, that they laugh and cry and are appropriately moved in the right places? Or is it more important that they’re actually learning and understanding more of the Word of God? Do I want them leaving being impressed with my preaching or excited / challenged / motivated by the truth of God we’ve studied together in Scripture? Please understand, I’m not at all suggesting that those who preach traditional sermons have wrong motives! I’m saying that interactive teaching is much more conducive to right motives. It helps get the focus off of us, and it becomes all about assisting the people of God to better understand and live out the Word of God.

So why wouldn’t we teach interactively? In the next post, we’ll look at some of the challenges of interactive teaching.

If you’re thinking of benefits of interactive teaching I didn’t include, please add a comment below and share them with us!

A new hybrid model for doing church

Something interesting happened to us during the pandemic. But first, some background: Our church, The Orchard, has two characteristics that make us a little different from many other churches—not unique, but out of the ordinary. We don’t have a senior or lead pastor as most evangelical churches do. Instead, we have a team of pastoral elders who all share in the shepherding of the church. (I’ve previously written quite a bit concerning this leadership model.) We also study the Bible interactively in our church services. We elicit responses from the people and encourage them to raise their hand when they have a question. I’ve taught this way throughout my ministry, but for some reason I’ve never posted anything here about it. [I’m thinking my next blog post should be on interactive teaching.]

When everything shut down last year due to COVID, we began meeting online for our weekly church service the same as everyone else. We met via Zoom so we could continue to study interactively together. I started receiving inquiries from people who had been part of the church we served in Puerto Rico. They were looking for something more interactive than what they had available from streaming church services, and were curious if we were doing anything online. At the time, we were very focused on making sure our online church service felt as familiar as possible to the people here—felt like “us”—so I was hesitant to have large numbers of people temporarily join our service. (Like many others, we were expecting to get back to “normal” in a few weeks or maybe months.) So I started an online Bible study on Sunday afternoons for people outside our area who were desiring more of an interactive study.

This study continued throughout the year, with the repeated disclaimer that it wasn’t a church. A few months ago, a good friend from the study (and one of my former co-pastors in Puerto Rico), challenged me about this. He pointed out the close, regular fellowship we had, and the way we worshiped and studied Scripture together. He asked why this couldn’t be a church. That gave me pause. I had never been impressed with the idea of an online church before. It seemed a lot like passively watching a church service on TV, which is great if you can’t physically get to a church gathering, but really just a temporary substitute. But with this kind of challenge, I needed to have solid reasons why this kind of online gathering couldn’t be an actual church.

This began some intensive discussions. More and more we discussed the possibility of a hybrid church model with a primary gathering online that would include people from many locations. This service would be focused mostly on interactive, expositional study of Scripture. Along with this larger service would be local fellowships, meeting in person in each location during the week, that could better do things such as worshiping through music, sharing in communion, baptisms, eating together, sharing testimonies, deeper discussion of questions, encouraging one another, etc. These local fellowships would likely look very different in each location, with maybe 20 people meeting in a living room in one town, and 4 people meeting at Starbucks in another.

The more we discussed this possible hybrid model, the more excitement grew about the possibility of making this group a church. Most of these people were motivated by a love of interactive study of Scripture (It’s hard for some people to return to passively listening to sermons when they’re used to raising their hands and asking questions!) but also a shared conviction regarding church polity. Many expressed how important team pastoral leadership is to them. One obstacle, though, was the difficulty in me personally being part of planting a brand new kind of church while serving as a pastor of another. I didn’t feel I could do that and faithfully serve both.

But, in The Orchard, we were having a series of interesting discussions of our own. Other than the offices, our building had sat unused for almost a year, and we were getting close to the end of a multi-year lease. We were beginning to discuss whether we should continue leasing the building. We loved the space we met in, with couches and chairs arranged almost in a circle to make it look more like a large living room or coffeehouse. But the pandemic had helped us remember we’re not dependent on any particular space. A building can be a great resource, but the church isn’t a building. So we had been discussing alternatives such as renting some space once a week in which to meet, or buying a house and converting it into a church property. These ideas fit with our “strategically small” approach of limiting the size of our church service, but also planning for multiple services to allow further growth.

One of the things we had repeatedly discussed was how to best get the word out about who we are. We had experienced many people visiting us just because we were another church in town to check out. We wanted to let people in the community know some of the distinctive characteristics that make us who we are as a church, so those who were seeking this kind of church would know about us. In fact, last year we had planned a whole series of mailers describing different aspects of who we are that make us a bit unique in this local area, and were poised to begin sending them out (literally the following week) when everything shut down because of the pandemic. So we had been looking for people who were looking for a church like us, and now there were people from outside our area who were eager to be part of a church like us! We began discussing the possibility of The Orchard actually becoming this hybrid church.

Eventually, after discussions among the church leadership and then the congregation, we decided to take this step. We now have a primary service online on Sunday mornings (10 am Eastern and Pacific) that includes brothers and sisters from mutliple states plus Puerto Rico. We’re seeking to incorporate leaders from other areas into our church leadership team. Our most recent addition to our pastoral team is Jack Foster, a brother from Puerto Rico. We’ve given up our building here in Sacramento, and now lease a small office. Our local congregation is becoming one of the local fellowships. The online group is really melding into a cohesive church family. We recently had one lady who’s been part of the church here for some time move to Grand Junction, CO, and she’s very happy that she can still be part of our church!

This has been a real paradigm shift for me. The biblical model of one church in each town has always been compelling to me. But, then again, there was no way for them at that time to have any larger context for a church congregation. Geography was the natural and necessary division for individual churches. But when we see, for instance, how Paul longed at times to be with the Thessalonians or the Corinthians, if he had a tool such as Zoom that he could have utilized, I’m sure he would have! Especially since we were already to some extent outside of the norm due to our team leadership model and interactive teaching, a hybrid model that includes a translocal congregation actually makes sense. But we’re definitely in uncharted territory, so we are constantly aware of our dependence on God and his wisdom and leading. It’s amazing that we would never have considered any of this if it hadn’t been for the COVID shut down, but that shows how God can use times like this to slow us down and get us to consider new and possibly more effective ways to faithfully be the church. We’re excited to see where we go from here!

Can churches be too big?

architecture-building-chapel-532720Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?

When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).

In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”

O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.

But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.

audience-backlit-band-154147Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.

Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.

The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:

Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with “the expert,” and more interaction with your classmates.

Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?

I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”

Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.

It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)

nicole-honeywill-dGxOgeXAXm8-unsplashThis helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”

Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).

So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible

Our church’s study time is interactive. I often ask for a response from the people, and they can raise their hands and ask questions during the teaching. This past Sunday, the interaction got a little more intense than usual. There was some question as to the interpretation of a particular passage, but the underlying tension seemed to be more about how we view the authority of Scripture. Since this is a vital issue for us as believers, we’re going to explore this topic for the next three weeks.

We begin by making clear our position on the Bible. While we have people attending our church who hold differing viewpoints (whom we love very much), our church is an evangelical Christian church. We believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, and that it is without error. We accept Scripture as the final authority for the Christian faith, for our church life and ministry, and for our individual Christian lives. We measure every idea, tradition and action according to the standard of the Scriptures.

So the question for most of us isn’t whether we believe the Bible. We do. We have faith in the Scriptures as God’s Word to his people. But a question we should explore is: What kind of faith do we have in the Bible?

What kind of faith do you have?
There are two different kinds of faith, and we need to know which kind we have:

objective faith

This kind of faith is focused on the object of our faith—who or what we believe in. It’s faith that is justified because the object of our faith is trustworthy. It’s a surprise to many non-Christians that they use faith all the time. When you go to work every morning, you do this because you have faith in your employer. You believe they’ll keep the business operating and pay you at the appropriate time. If you had good reasons to not believe this, you probably wouldn’t keep going to work. This is objective faith. You go outside of town and climb up into a hollow, metal tube, which is controlled by someone you don’t even see, and expect this contraption to take you hundreds or even thousands of miles over sea and land—and even get you to your destination in time to catch another metal tube! Why do we do this? Because we have a sufficient faith in the airlines to transport us from one point to another.

The Christian faith is an historical faith. It’s based on a real, historical person and event. At the heart of our faith is the person of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. We make this truth claim and put it out there for anyone to examine and either verify or refute. [For more on this, see In search of Jesus.] If someone suggests it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus rose from the dead or not, we’re quick to point out that the actual, literal truth of the resurrection is the basis for our faith. As the apostle Paul said, if Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith is useless, we are still guilty of our sins and we are to be pitied more than anyone in the world (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). If the resurrection is not true, then at best we’re just playing church, believing in a myth. The Christian faith is an objective faith; it’s focused on the truth we believe (not on the mere fact we believe something).

subjective faith

Have you ever heard someone say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, just whether you sincerely believe”? This is subjective faith. The emphasis isn’t on the trustworthiness of what we’re placing our faith in. It’s really a faith in faith itself. When a friend or family member patronizingly pats you on the hand and says, “I’m glad your faith works for you,” their understanding of faith is a subjective one. When people speak of a blind leap of faith, they’re referring to this kind of faith.

The problem with subjective faith is clear. If the emphasis is on the faith itself, and if it doesn’t matter if the object of one’s faith is trustworthy or not, then we can just believe any ridiculous thing we want. You want to believe that UFOs are coming to pick you up, or that the rock in your backyard is your god? Go right ahead! As long as you sincerely believe! Subjective faith is irrational faith. People who have this kind of faith aren’t willing for the object of their faith to be examined and verified or refuted. Because the issue for them isn’t whether the object of their faith is trustworthy or not, it’s just that they believe.

What kind of faith do you have in the Bible?
Read the following dialogue and tell me what kind of faith this is:

“Why do you believe the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says it is.”

“But how can you be certain about what it says?”

“Because it’s the Word of God.”

Do you see how this ends up going round and round in circles? (That’s why it’s called “circular reasoning.”) In this case, the believer isn’t really giving an answer. Their answer is essentially that they believe the Bible because they believe the Bible. It’s a non-answer. What kind of faith is this? This is subjective faith, isn’t it? The focus isn’t really on the trustworthy nature of the Scriptures, but on the individual’s faith. I believe because I believe. Is this the kind of faith we find modeled in Scripture itself? Let’s see:

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.

Luke 1:1-4

This is the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus. Notice that others had already written Gospels. But Luke still takes the time to investigate everything carefully. Why? Why not simply believe? Why not believe the Gospel accounts just because they’re Gospel accounts? Why not tell his friend to believe what he was taught because that’s what he was taught? No, Luke takes the time to be certain of the truth he believes and that he presents to others. He’s actually so bold as to examine the Gospel accounts and verify whether they are indeed trustworthy. Is this a good thing? Absolutely.

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Acts 17:10-11

“Aha!” someone might be thinking, “See, they searched the Scriptures.” But let’s think about this. Who were these people? They were Jews. So what Scriptures would they have been searching? The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. As Jews, they already accepted the Old Testament as God’s Word. But what was Paul presenting to them? The New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. And did he insist they believe this gospel based on what the New Testament witness said? No, that would be circular reasoning. It would be irrational. He allowed them to examine his message using the truth they already had.

We see something similar in the way Paul addressed Gentiles in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He begins by relating to their worship of an unknown God, offering to explain this unknown God to them. He speaks of how there is one God who created everything and everyone, and how this God desires for all people to come into relationship with him. Along the way he quotes from their own writings. He ends by telling them of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. But notice he never once expects the people to believe what he’s telling them because “the Bible says.” Everything he says is very biblical, but he doesn’t appeal to the Scriptures as authoritative. Why not? Because these people have no reason yet to accept the Bible as authoritative!

We need to remember the instructions we receive in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way.

A big part of our Christian hope is what the Scriptures tell us, and we need to be prepared to explain to people why we can draw this hope from the Bible, why it’s trustworthy. And we need to offer more than just that it’s the Word of God.

A test case
Imagine you’re having a discussion with a Mormon and a Muslim. Each of you has a different faith and you use different books as your highest, most authoritative guides. So you gently and respectfully challenge your friends as to why they believe in the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an. They each say they believe in their Scriptures because they’re the Word of God. Do you accept their claims? Why not? If you disagree with them only because you believe the Bible is the Word of God, you’re at a stalemate, aren’t you? Each of you believes in your holy book simply because you believe in your holy book.

But let’s say you’re familiar with both religions’ books, and you know of serious problems with these books that would cause a person to doubt whether they are, in fact, God’s Word. So you share your concerns with your friends, right? What are you expecting of them? You want them to listen to your challenge of their holy books. But to really listen to you they must be willing to consider the possibility their holy book is not actually the Word of God. They must be so committed to the truth they’re willing to reexamine their beliefs to make sure they’re truly sound.

Are we willing to do the same thing? Are we willing to not only respect another person enough to hear out their challenge of our Scriptures, are we willing to respect the Bible enough to see whether it stands up to the challenge? If not, what are we afraid of? If the Bible is the Word of God, won’t it be able to withstand any challenge?

In the study of logic, there’s a fallacy known as ‘invincible ignorance.’ This is the attitude that “I already have my mind made up, and I’m not going to listen to anything different.” It’s an adult’s way of plugging their ears and yelling so they can’t hear what you’re saying. Some may act like they’re listening politely to you, but eventually you find they’re not willing to truly hear anything different than what they already believe. This is an irrational, subjective faith. It’s not healthy and it’s not the faith the Bible teaches. We must be prepared to put the Bible through the same rigorous tests we require of the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, or any other supposed holy book.

But are we now judging Scripture?
We often emphasize that Scripture tells us when we’re right or wrong; we don’t judge when Scripture is right or wrong. And this is true of the Bible in the same way it’s true of other standards on which we rely. I’ve often compared Scripture to a level, or a scale, or the instruments in an airplane. But do we place automatic, blind faith in these standards just because they’re supposed to be reliable? My father introduced me to the idea of a level. My first trust of a level was as much a trust of him as it was the level. But then he demonstrated the level for me, and I saw for myself how it could show whether a surface was truly level or whether it was slightly off. After using it a few times, I trusted it absolutely. But I was convinced of its trustworthiness.

We may think we trust the Bible just because it’s the Bible, but if we think back to when we came to faith in Christ (or came back to faith in Christ), most of us had some reasons why we began to believe the Scriptures. Now we may have had different reasons. Maybe you believed the Bible is the Word of God because your parents told you this, or a pastor or church leader. Maybe you felt God speaking to you through the words of Scripture. Maybe you were like Luke and the Bereans and you examined the claims of the Bible carefully before placing your faith in the Scriptures. But we all had some reason for our initial belief.

Now, do we ever reevaluate our trust of a standard? What if you stepped on a scale and it said you weighed 43 pounds? Would you start celebrating because your diet is going a lot better than you imagined?! Or would you suspect something is wrong with the scale? If you just filled your car with gas and then the indicator still reads empty, do you go back and fill up all over again out of blind faith in the gas gauge?

Fine, but should we ever reevaluate our beliefs? Yes, if want to have confidence in what we believe. Should such an idea scare us? Only if we’re more committed to our beliefs than we are to the truth. Some Christians have the mistaken idea that if we really have faith we’ll never feel doubt. But faith isn’t never having doubt; it’s being convinced despite our doubts. We don’t want to be wishy-washy, constantly switching back and forth between believing and not believing. But there are times when Christians reexamine what they believe—and this is healthy. Facing our doubts strengthens our faith.

When a believer experiences doubts about the truth of the resurrection, we don’t rebuke them for their doubts or blithely dismiss the challenges they’re facing. No, we help them work through the questions and issues; we show where the truth of the resurrection is so sound it can withstand any of these challenges. Many scholars who are now highly effective at studying the historical evidences for the resurrection began as Christians with serious doubts.

What about the Bible? If we read a passage in Scripture that is deeply troubling to us, is it sinful for us to reconsider our belief in Scripture as the inerrant Word of God? No, it’s simply being intellectually honest. Of course, we shouldn’t immediately reject the Bible as infallible just because we’re struggling with a certain passage. But by reevaluating the nature of Scripture, we’re demonstrating that our faith in the Bible is not a blind, irrational faith, but one based on the trustworthiness of the Bible itself. If this trustworthiness is challenged, we must reevaluate it. We are people of faith, not fanatics who arrogantly refuse to consider the possibility we’re wrong. And by reexamining the trustworthiness of Scripture, we gain a stronger, more mature faith in the divine nature of the Bible.

There once was a man who believed he was dead. His doctor had tried everything to convince him that he was actually alive, but to no avail. Finally, he had the man read books all about blood, and how it works in the human body. The man finally conceded the fact that dead people don’t bleed. So the doctor pricked the man with a needle and showed him the blood trickling down his thumb. To which the man exclaimed, “Oh my goodness—dead people do bleed!”

This is invincible ignorance. It’s the irrational faith of a person who will not even consider the possibility that what they believe may not be true. This is the faith of the cultist, not of the Christian. We seek a mature faith in Christ and the Scriptures, not a childish faith of sticking our fingers in our ears and outshouting any opponents.

Should a Christian ever reevaluate their faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God?

If there is absolutely nothing that could cause you to reconsider whether the Bible is the Word of God then you’re probably more committed to your own personal beliefs than you are to what is actually true. As shocking as it might sound, if the Bible isn’t true, we shouldn’t want to believe in it. Our first commitment must be to truth itself. This helps ensure we’re worshiping the true God rather than our own preferred beliefs.

Thankfully, we have very convincing evidence that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, without error and trustworthy as an infallible, authoritative standard for our faith and lives, leading us to the one true God. What is this evidence? Why do we believe the Bible? We’ll begin exploring this next week.

Believing the Bible series:

A matter of faith: Believing the Bible [see above]

The Bible: Are we really reading what they wrote?

Why we can trust the Bible

What do we do with difficult Scripture passages?