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!

Can churches be too small?

StockSnap_QVIEE1UZSXIn my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?

I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?

Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.

But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?

Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?

Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”

The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.

Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’  they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.

luan-cabral-XVqwbImMR4M-unsplashThe biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).

We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.

To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):

“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”

Core commitment 4: Focused on making disciples

UnknownWe will remain focused on our mission of helping people become and continually grow as disciples of Jesus Christ:

  • We must live as missionaries in our communities, workplaces, schools, etc. We must be real, seeking to live authentic, Christ-like lives that will be witnesses of God’s love and truth. We must strive to truly understand the culture around us, so that we can more effectively communicate and live out the gospel in the context where God has placed us.
  • While we want everything we do to be well-organized and done with excellence, our priority must be what is most edifying spiritually, rather than what is entertaining or impressive.
  • We must follow and apply the consistent New Testament emphasis on teaching in the church. Our criteria for all ministries must be what best facilitates real worship and real learning and spiritual growth, rather than what is entertaining or impressive.
  • We must provide opportunities for genuine learning and spiritual growth for every age and level of spiritual maturity—from young children or non-Christian seekers to experienced believers who are biblically knowledgeable, and everything in between. Everyone in the church should be part of a process of growing as a disciple of Christ.
  • Every believer is spiritually gifted and has an important part to play in this transforming, multiplying life of the church. We must help the people understand their gifting, provide training in how to develop their gifting and opportunities to use their gifts to love and edify others.
  • The whole body does the work of ministry, not just the leaders. We must maintain a joyous expectation that every Christian be part of ministry. We must ensure they are not merely filling a needed ministry slot, but serving according to their gifting and passion. This is an integral part of the discipleship process.
  • We must be faithful to provide substantive, effective, ongoing training and equipping for leaders and teachers in the church. This too is an integral part of the church’s discipleship process.
  • We must intentionally foster a culture of discipleship (including evangelism) in the church. This should be a natural, organic part of everything we do, whether through structured classes or more relationally through informal fellowship.
  • We must design our church gatherings and ministries in ways that most effectively produce real learning, real spiritual growth and real disciples of Christ. We must be willing to reevaluate and change anything we do to make us more effective at fulfilling this vital, biblical purpose.

Open church meetings?: Misapplying 1 Corinthians 14:26

jriordan26z-eDoes the Bible teach that we should have completely open, spontaneously Spirit-led church meetings where everyone contributes? Many would say “Yes!” and point to one specific passage to support this teaching:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV

Now, we face a bit of a challenge with this verse because—by itself—it’s a little ambiguous (both in English and the original Greek). It could mean that, for the church to be built up, there needs to be freedom for all of these various ministry gifts to be shared with the body when we all come together. If this is our understanding, we would tend to read the last sentence as: “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up [emphasis added].” This is the way many do read the text (and the way I once read it). They then go on to discuss a number of serious implications for church ministry: e.g. the way church meetings are structured, the way they’re led, what size church gatherings should be for everyone to participate, etc.

But if this is what the verse means, we have an immediate problem. Because right after this verse, Paul begins to limit the involvement of people using their gifts during the church gathering. If the people were going to speak in tongues during the meeting, there could be only two or at the most three. If there was no interpreter, they must not speak in tongues. If anyone was going to prophesy during the gathering, again only two or at the most three could share with the rest of the body what was revealed to them.

At best, this is awkward. What of the fourth person who wanted to pray in tongues or share a prophecy? Was their gifting not part of the “everything [that] must be done so that the church may be built up”? What happened to the “each of you” that is apparently supposed to participate? This seems to be oddly contradicting what Paul just wrote. We need to take a closer look at verse 26 to make sure we’re interpreting it in context.

Let’s step back a little and get some more perspective. To whom is Paul writing this? To the church in Corinth. And what do we learn about these people in this letter? In the first few chapters, we see the Corinthians didn’t lack any spiritual gift, but they were very immature spiritually, fighting and quarreling with each other and causing division in the church. They seem proud of their giftedness, their wisdom and eloquence, but they’re really behaving like spoiled children. They’re fighting with each other over a number of different issues, and writing to Paul to settle these debates. Paul addresses each of their issues, every time correcting wrong thinking on both sides.

One of the issues they’re quarreling about is spiritual gifts. They’re eager to use their own spiritual gifts but suspicious of what others want to contribute. Paul responds to this problem in chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians. In chapter 12, he carefully explains to them that they are each part of the body, but they are each only one part of the body. They are all needed, and they all need each other. No part of the body is irrelevant, and no part of the body can function by itself.

Right in the middle of his response to this issue (in chapter 13), he interrupts his discourse on spiritual gifts to movingly insist on the preeminence of love—especially as it relates to using one’s spiritual gift in the church. The Corinthians were rich in giftedness but were decidedly lacking in love for each other. This is the heart of their problem.

This emphasis on love flows naturally into chapter 14. Paul shows here, over and over again, our criterion for what is done in the church gathering must be what most edifies the whole body. Why? Because of love! We love each other, and so we’re not seeking to gratify ourselves spiritually when we’re gathered with the rest of the church but to do only what will lovingly edify the whole body.

UnknownYes, we see in verses 1-25, this gift is good and that gift is good—but the most important thing is to edify the body, to lovingly build up each other. For the use of a gift to be edifying, it must be clear; it must be discernible and meaningful to those for whom it’s intended; the use of the gift must be orderly and not chaotic; it must be in harmony with the rest of the body; etc.

Now we come to verse 26. Paul tells them:

When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.

Notice he doesn’t say ‘when you come together, you must each have . . .’ This isn’t an instruction, it’s an observation; it’s not prescriptive, it’s descriptive. Remember who he’s writing this to. These are people who are eager to show their gifting, but not so good at loving each other and edifying each other. Of course these people are all going to come with something they want to share!

He continues:

Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

Now, again, the way this is worded can be understood in a couple of different ways. We can understand this to be saying: ‘You must do all of these things so that the church may be built up.’ Or it can mean: ‘You have all these things you want to share in the church gatherings. Whatever you do must be done so that the church may be built up.’ The emphasis would be on “so that the church may be built up” rather than on the “everything.” Which better fits the context of 1 Corinthians and especially chapters 12-14?

In the following verses Paul immediately begins limiting the gifting that will be shared during the church assembly. Paul’s main point in verses 27-40 is the same as it has been throughout the rest of the chapter. He’s not saying: ‘Here are a couple of restrictions, but otherwise everyone go for it!’ The emphasis he has come back to again and again throughout this chapter is: ‘Do what is most edifying for the body.’

Why should only two or three speak in tongues or prophecy? Because any more wouldn’t be edifying to the whole church. Why shouldn’t someone speak in tongues if there wasn’t an interpreter? Because it would only edify the speaker and not the whole body. Why must prophecies be evaluated? To make sure the content is true and edifying. So is Paul only restricting the use of these two gifts? No, the Corinthians were fighting specifically about tongues and prophecy. So, throughout chapter 14, Paul continually uses these particular gifts to illustrate his repeated point: The edification of the whole church is more important than everyone expressing their Spirit-gifting in the public gathering.

I appreciate the way the NLT translates this verse, making it very clear:

Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you [emphasis added].

I’m not endorsing everything done in traditional church services. (That’s a different post.) But we need to see how Paul concludes this whole section. He affirms for the Corinthians the great value of both tongues and prophecy. (Does he affirm these gifts for us today? That’s another post!) And then ends by instructing “be sure that everything is done properly and in order [14:40].” This is a clear command. But, as we’ve seen, to use verse 26 as some kind of command for open, spontaneous church meetings is to take the verse out of its context and misinterpret and misapply it. (And there is no other scriptural passage that teaches completely open church meetings.)

Ironically, some have forcefully insisted on this wrong understanding in ways that are Holding-Handsunedifying and divisive. By seeking to live out this passage without first making sure we correctly understand it, we can actually end up opposing the very message of this Scripture! Let’s make love our primary motivation in everything we do as a church. Let’s be ready and eager to use our spiritual gifting to bless and love others, but let’s make what is most edifying to the whole, gathered church body our standard for how we participate in and how we order our church meetings.

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Last week, we talked about how to read the book of Acts. [Following the story: God and his people, part 2.] We saw that we’re not supposed to model our behavior after everything some biblical character does. We’re careful to remember that stories are stories; they’re narrative in nature, not didactic (i.e. intending to directly instruct). This is especially necessary when reading the book of Acts because it portrays the early church rather than the Old Testament people of God. The inclination is going to be much stronger to pattern ourselves after what we see in Acts.

We looked at an important example of this last week. It’s no more appropriate for us to expect, in our everyday Christian lives today, the same signs and wonders we see in Acts as it was for Elijah to expect the same manifestations of God’s presence experienced at Mt Sinai. God never changes, but the way he works in and through his people does. God’s character and faithfulness are rock solid, never moving, never wavering. But his methods are often unpredictable. Rather than following the same formula every time, he seems to delight in surprising us!

So does this mean we can’t learn anything from Acts? Not at all. Just as with the Old Testament stories, the accounts of the early church tell of a unique period in history. God was doing something completely new and unprecedented in the lives of his people, and it’s important for us to understand this. When we read of the birth of the church in Acts 2, we see God inhabiting his people in a way that had never been true before. Through the Holy Spirit, we now experience an intimacy with God that transcends anything the Old Testament saints knew. This changes everything, and the letters to the churches explore this new relationship we now have with God.

But is this it? Is Acts only useful as history of what God was doing then? Can’t the stories of the early church teach us anything about how we should live as the church? Yes, they can. But we have to be careful. We need to know what applies to us, what does not, and why. To determine whether something in Acts applies to us today, we need to ask two essential questions:

1. Is this principle taught elsewhere, especially in the letters to the churches?

2. Is this a one-time occurrence, or do we see this principle consistently described through the book of Acts?

Let’s try these criteria on a couple of issues that are important for us today.

Proposed principle to consider:

The church is to be led by a group of co-equal pastoral leaders
with no one taking a distinguished senior role.

Can we use the accounts in Acts to teach this? Well, let’s look at our first question. Do we see the principle of shared pastoral leadership taught in the letters to the churches? There is no explicit command that the churches are to be led this way. But we do find an impressive number of references to teams of elders/overseers (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:17-19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Many of these passages describe aspects of their pastoral ministry, or give instructions regarding the appointment and pay of elders. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 provide the qualifications for elders.

Contrasted with these references, we find no mention of a sole church pastor or a designated senior leader in distinction to the elders, no appointment of such a leader, and no qualifications given for one. This overwhelming consistency over a broad range of New Testament authors and letters is hard to dispute. So we do find this principle implicitly taught in the letters to the churches.

What of our second criterion? Is there only an isolated example of this principle, or do we see it consistently described through the book of Acts? We find references to church elders in Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2-23, 16:4, 20:17-38, and 21:18. These references are all to groups of elders (plural), and again we see no reference to a sole or senior pastor/elder/overseer (even when we might expect such a reference). We observe Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in each of the churches they planted (14:23). We see elders deliberating with the apostles concerning requirements for Gentile believers (Acts 15). And we read instructions given directly to a team of elders (20:17-38), including the commands to pastor and keep watch over the church. Supporting this principle, in the early chapters of Acts we even see the apostles leading the church in Jerusalem as a group, with no designated “chief apostle.”

So this principle of shared pastoral leadership, with no senior elder/pastor, passes our test. There is no great cultural difference in the way we carry out this principle, so our churches today should be led in the same way. And it is entirely appropriate for us to use the stories in Acts in studying or teaching on this biblical principle. Do you see how we arrived at this conclusion? Let’s look at another test case:

Proposed principle to consider:

Baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs after salvation
and is always accompanied by speaking in tongues.

Many Christians use the book of Acts to teach this principle. But when answering our first question, we begin to run into problems. Do we find the principle that baptism in the Holy Spirit normally occurs after salvation in the letters to the churches? Actually, we see just the opposite. There is no reference at all in the epistles (i.e. the letters to the churches) to believers receiving the Spirit subsequent to salvation, and passages such as Romans 8:9, 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Ephesians 1:13-14 indicate that the receiving of the Holy Spirit is an integral aspect of our initial salvation.

What of the claim that every Christian should speak in tongues when they receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Here again, no passage outside of Acts suggests such an idea, and Paul pointedly opposes it in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. So not only is this principle not taught in the letters to the churches, the clear teaching we see in these letters contradicts this idea.

Then why is this teaching so prevalent? Those who support this principle do so by relying on the stories in the book of Acts. So let’s test this claim with our second question. When we look at the accounts in Acts of believers receiving the Holy Spirit, do we see consistency? There are four descriptions of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts: Acts 2:1-41, 8:4-25, 10:1-48 and 19:1-7. How consistent were these experiences? Let’s compare them:

Intentionally waiting for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them:
Chapter 2 account: yes
Chapter 8 account: no
Chapter 10 account: no
Chapter 19 account: no

A sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no

What looked like flames or tongues of fire appearing and settling on each of them:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no

Hands laid on those receiving the Spirit:
Chapter 2: no
Chapter 8: yes
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: yes

Receiving the Spirit after they were saved:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: yes
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no (I’ll discuss this in greater detail below.)

Speaking in tongues described as part of experience:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: yes
Chapter 19: yes

Prophesying described as part of experience:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: yes

How consistent are these descriptions? Not very. With this lack of clear consistency, along with contradictory teaching from the letters to the churches, it’s difficult to biblically assert this claim. “Still,” some might suggest, “something happened in each description that was dramatic enough to be noticed by everyone around. Maybe the principle is just that the receiving of the Holy Spirit will be dramatic and noticeable.” This does seem to be a consistent pattern in these accounts in Acts. Can we draw from this pattern to give us a normative teaching for us today? Or was there something unique happening here in the history of the early church? Let’s see what else we can observe about these stories.

Do we notice anything these accounts have in common? Well, each story is about a group of people receiving the Spirit. Of course, I’m not suggesting we can only receive the Holy Spirit in groups and that an individual is just out of luck! But there seems to be something significant to Luke (the author of Acts) about these groups receiving the Spirit of God. We have no description in Acts of an individual believer being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Do we see anything interesting about these groups? Actually, we do:

Chapter 2 account: original church (exclusively Jewish)
Chapter 8 account: Samaritans
Chapter 10 account: Gentiles
Chapter 19 account: followers of John the Baptist who lacked adequate knowledge of Jesus

Does this remind you of what we saw last week regarding Luke’s focus in writing Acts? Remember he didn’t give us an in-depth history of the early church, but instead a representative sample that showed the church expanding both geographically and ethnically—from Jews to Samaritans to Gentiles. Do we see this same focus in his descriptions of the receiving of the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. The book has more to tell us about the rapid expansion of the church than about historical peculiarities of the early church. In the same way, Luke seems to emphasize that this expansion was a work of the Spirit rather than giving us a definitive, normative description of how all believers receive the Holy Spirit.

When you think about it, there are very good reasons for these receptions of the Holy Spirit to be so dramatic and noticeable. As I already mentioned, God was doing something completely new in pouring out his Spirit on his people. It makes sense for this initial outpouring to be overt in its power and glory, just as God’s interaction with the Old Covenant people of God at Mt Sinai was overt in its power and glory. The Hebrew prophets spoke of a time when God would pour out his Spirit on all his people. Now this was finally happening, during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, right in the heart of Jerusalem . . . to the followers of Jesus. It was important that the Jewish people there saw what God was doing, and so this initial baptism of Christ’s church into his Holy Spirit was obvious and undeniable to all who witnessed it.

Who were the next people to receive the Spirit? The Samaritan believers. What do we know about them? Well, they were of a mixed race, partly Israelite and partly a combination of all the surrounding peoples. And they also had a competing religion they claimed was the true, original faith, with a competing temple and priesthood. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other and were suspicious of anything having to do with the other.

What would likely be the natural outcome if Samaritans accepted Jesus as their Messiah? Can you see how easy it would have been to have two competing Christianities right at the beginning—one Jewish and one Samaritan? So God didn’t immediately pour out his Spirit on these new believers. He waited until the (Jewish) apostles had come and laid hands on them. By laying hands on these Samaritans, the apostles were accepting them as brother and sister believers. And by the Holy Spirit coming to them through the apostles, the Samaritans realized they were under the leadership of the Jewish apostles and could no longer go their own way. But for this connection to be effective, the reception of the Spirit by the Samaritans (through the apostles) had to be undeniably obvious to both.

In the following chapters in Acts, as well as Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we see how difficult it was for the Jewish Christians to accept that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without first becoming Jews. They wrestled with this for a long time. So we see the great wisdom of God in interrupting Peter’s speech to the Gentiles in Acts 10, and obviously and undeniably pouring out the Spirit on these Gentiles as they placed their faith in the Christ whom Peter was preaching. God’s method accomplished its purpose: Peter couldn’t help but notice these people experiencing the outpouring of God’s Spirit, and had to acknowledge them as genuine children of God and his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jews from all over the world traveled to Jerusalem during the Jewish festivals. Many of them had been there for bits and pieces of the events we read in the Gospels, but they went home before taking in the whole gospel story. They enthusiastically shared what they had found with others, but their knowledge was incomplete. Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) was one of these Jews, and the people Paul spoke with in Acts 19 had this same limited understanding. Again, there was a danger of a competing, incomplete Christianity forming from these zealous, but unknowledgeable, followers. The receiving of the Spirit, through the laying on of Paul’s hands, showed that these people were now truly part of the body of Christ.

It’s crucial that we notice something else about these incidents of different, key groups receiving the Holy Spirit. Each one was historically unique and unrepeatable. The church will never again receive God’s Spirit for the first time. The church will never again expand to include, for the first time, a competing half-race to the Jews, or the first Gentile believers in Christ. There are no longer surviving people who experienced only partially the 1st century events recorded in the Gospels (and so might pass on a truncated faith). The descriptions in Acts of people receiving the Spirit are tied specifically to the context of the original expansion of the church, from an exclusively Jewish church to a universal one. Not only should we not try to find a normative description here for how believers receive the Holy Spirit today, there’s no way for us to base such a principle on these historically unique and unrepeatable events. [For a more detailed examination of these texts, see Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 by DA Carson.]

So the letters to the churches teach us that we receive the Spirit of God when we place our faith in Christ and become his. And we also learn that some will speak in tongues, and some will not. [Whether speaking in tongues is a valid gift for today is a question we’ll have to explore in another post!] Should this receiving of the Spirit be an overtly dramatic, sensational experience obvious to those around us? No more than we should expect God to speak to us from a burning bush. This is not to say we won’t experience God’s presence in powerful, explosive ways. We may, and we may not. We can’t dictate to God how he will move in our lives. If we insist on the safe and sedate—he may just shake us up! But if we demand “the stuff” we see in Acts, he may answer us with the sound of a gentle whisper. Never forget who’s God . . . and that he doesn’t seem all that interested in fitting into our boxes.

I know this post was a long one. Thanks for sticking with me to the end. I hope this will be helpful to you as you not only read and study the Bible, but seek to live out its truth in your daily lives.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we? Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today? [see above]

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle