Over the next several months, I will be addressing the problem of the shallow impact of many teaching ministries in our churches and ways that we might “Teach Deeper” for greater openness to God’s transforming work. In this second blog I share the first half of a proposal for how to understand the goals of our teaching to more naturally help those we teach both understand and begin to respond to God’s Word in ways that can lead to lasting change.
In last month’s blog I described a problem of some teaching within the church that shows little lasting result in terms of either knowledge of the Word or life transformation. I described how Christian educators have tended to respond by proposing some combination of teaching for orthodoxy (right knowledge), orthopraxy (right behavior), and orthopathy (right heart or affect). While a combination of all three can improve our teaching efforts, there is still a challenge of how to integrate them together, the proper flow in our teaching, and how to maximize the lasting impact of our teaching. Too often our teaching sessions major on learning and understanding the biblical information and we struggle to find the time and means to adequately address appropriate affective and behavioral responses.
I said that I believe there are two missing pieces to this three-fold vision of the Christian education effort that can be critical for genuine life transformation. This blog presents the first half of a proposal, a framework for thinking about sound educational ministry practice that has potential for helping us address the problems of ineffective Christian education in our non-formal and formal settings. The model has five elements with a general flow from one element to another, but it is not necessarily a sequential or developmental model. This model reflects my understanding both of how people grow spiritually and how God works in human lives to bring about that growth. It reflects my evangelical understanding of God’s redemptive and sanctifying work in human lives, the role of Scripture in that effort, and some educational processes that contribute to genuine heart and soul transformation.
A Proposal: “Right-Handed” Christian Education
The “Right Hand” Illustration
Take a look at your right hand, opened, palm up. You see five fingers growing out of one palm, each connected by a common nervous system, common cardiovascular system, and interconnected bone and muscle tissue. They can be viewed as separate fingers, but in reality they are all connected. Each contributes its own actions, but most of the time they are used together. In an interesting play on words, the “right-handed” imagery can help us understand these five elements of “right” teaching. Your open right hand is the illustration I will use to explain my proposal for “right-handed” Christian education. The five fingers are:
- Ortho-cognatio, or “right relationship” (1st new element)
- Ortho-doxy, or “right knowledge”
- Ortho-pathy, or “right emotion”
- Ortho-boule, or “right will” (2nd new element)
- Ortho-praxy, or “right practice”
These five fingers share a common connection to the palm of the hand, which is where we will begin. (Please note: this use of “right-hand” is simply a rhetorical devise, not intended as a contrast to “left-handedness.”)
Palm: The Transforming Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Teaching and Learning
When it comes to the functioning of the hand, all five fingers tie into, and grow out of, the palm of the hand. The coordination of the movement of the fingers is rooted in their being connected together by the palm. They don’t work apart from this connection, for it brings with it live-giving blood, bones for strength, and a nervous system to coordinate movement. So to, in our educational efforts to promote spiritual growth, nothing we do works well apart from being connected to the on-going work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as teachers and learners. It is the life-giving Spirit who animates us, who gives us spiritual life and makes spiritual growth possible. Without this connection, we teach in our own power, trying to persuade others to change and grow spiritually in their own power. We may succeed at teaching principles and encouraging moral behavior, but the transformation of the person, the change of the heart toward maturity in Jesus Christ that results in a lifestyle worthy of the gospel; this is beyond our ability.
As teachers in Christian education, we recognize that all we do needs to be animated by the life-giving work of the Spirit. As Paul wrote in Colossians 1:28-29: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” We labor, we strive, according to the power of God’s Holy Spirit who works within us, and within those we teach. This foundational truth is critical for understanding how our teaching is to be carried out, and how the various elements I am about to describe more fully work together, infused with the power of the Holy Spirit who is in the business of sanctifying us, transforming us as new creatures into the likeness of Christ.
Thumb: Right Relationship – Orthocognatio (Missing Element One)
One of the features of your hand that distinguishes you from most animal life is your thumb. The hinge of your thumb allows it to move in a different range of motion from the other fingers. We call it an “opposable” thumb because it is capable of being moved to touch the ends of our other fingers. This makes it the most critical and versatile digit on your hand. In like fashion, this first “finger” of “right-handed” Christian education is versatile and critical to the functioning of the hand as a whole, and the potential for usefulness of the other fingers.
Foundational to any spiritual growth is beginning with a vital connection with the God who desires our growth. We were separated from God by our sin nature, but through Christ’s atoning work on the cross we are able to receive spiritual life, to be brought into right relationship with God. Jesus said that we must be born again (John 3:3). Paul describes it as being “in Christ.” This new “right relationship” is the catalyst by which all genuine spiritual growth is made possible, through the church’s teaching ministries, worship, times of prayer and fasting, or any other practice. God is at work in the lives of your students and you as the teacher. Our only hope for spiritual growth as a result of our teaching ministries is because when a person is brought into right relationship with God, the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit is now able to work to transform the person as a new creation in Christ. As Paul explained his own relationship with God he said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live; yet not I but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
So what does this mean? It does little good for me to teach people to act like Christians if they are not yet Christians. Any movement forward must come from recognizing that they are not capable of growing spiritually with God apart from God’s work in their lives. I am not trying to get people to manage their sin, but to have it forgiven, to be cleansed from all unrighteousness, and to enter into a new relationship with God as their Father and Lord. They must see that without God’s power operating within them by the Spirit they cannot change in any meaningful way. Sinning less does not make us sinless, and no amount of self-improvement changes our basic standing before God, or opens our lives to His transforming work.
Am I saying that it is useless to teach those who are not yet believers? No. But we must understand that the beginning place for genuine, long-term spiritual growth comes from this vital connection of being brought into right relationship with God. With those who have not yet placed their faith in Christ, we point them to the one who has the power to transform them. We teach both the gospel message, and the call to walk with God in our lives so that He can transform us. We don’t confuse them by teaching them that if they behave in certain ways God will then be pleased with them. We help them first see the bad news of our fallen condition and the necessity of being in right relationship with God through Christ, and we encourage this faith response. When this happens, and the Holy Spirit indwells them, we can now have hope of encouraging genuine spiritual growth through our teaching ministries as God uses them.
Index Finger: Right Knowledge – Orthodoxy
Both the Old and New Testament are filled with calls for God’s people to know Him and to know His Word. The Psalmist put this passionately in Psalm 119: 1-12:
How blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, who seek Him with all their heart.They also do no unrighteousness; they walk in His ways.Thou hast ordained Thy precepts, that we should keep them diligently.Oh that my ways may be established to keep Thy statutes!Then I shall not be ashamed when I look upon all Thy commandments.I shall give thanks to Thee with uprightness of heart, when I learn Thy righteous judgments.I shall keep Thy statutes; do not forsake me utterly!How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Thy word.With all my heart I have sought Thee; do not let me wander from Thy commandments.Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee.Blessed art Thou, O LORD; teach me Thy statutes.
Again, as Paul explains in Romans 10: 1-17, having religious zeal is not enough; it must be guided by right knowledge.
Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. . . . if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” . . . How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!” However, they did not all heed the glad tidings; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
The knowledge of the gospel message is foundational to any saving faith response. For those who have already placed their faith in Christ, knowledge of God’s Word is critical for ongoing spiritual growth. Again, as Paul explained in Romans 12:1-2,
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
The renewal of the mind is the means for our transformation, and this has been a hallmark of evangelical Christian education. We must study the Scripture to come to know both God and ourselves. We see who God is, His character and actions, and we see who we are before God, needing His grace and power. The study of Scripture is foundational to our spiritual growth. We must grow in our knowledge of God’s Word if we are to grow in our knowledge of Him and move toward greater maturity in Christ. We cannot get very far in our spiritual growth without this strong foundation. So, we teach the Word of God, but merely knowing the Word is not enough. All of us have been exposed to Scriptural teaching that has not impacted us very deeply. The renewal of the mind is more than filling it with information. It involves the other fingers as well (heart, will, behavior). That is where we will pick up the model in the next entry in this blog. For now, let me leave you with some questions for reflection.
Questions for Reflection:
This first half of the model for teaching for deeper impact addressed the palm (Holy Spirit), thumb (relationship with God through Christ), and first finger (knowledge of the Word) for “right-handed” teaching. How are these aspects showing up in your own teaching ministry?
- In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul wrote: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” When you are preparing your lessons, and as you approach your teaching time, how are you drawing on His power to mightily work within you as you teach? To what degree has your teaching become “in your own power,” as opposed to drawing on God’s wisdom and strength for the task? What would it look like for you to be more dependent on God’s power in your teaching?
- What spiritual disciplines are you practicing to be more sensitive to God’s guidance in your teaching? If this is an area you feel you need to develop, where might you start?
- If you have “not yet Christians” in your group, how does your teaching hold out an invitation to a better way of life, and point them toward the author of that better life? Do they understand their need both of forgiveness in Christ, and the possibility of new life in Christ? Are you helping them see that trying to be “good” is not enough?
- To what degree are you spending enough time in the Scripture of your lesson so that your own knowledge and understanding of it deepens, allowing God to teach you and help you appreciate the significance of the text for your own life, and then the lives of those you teach?
- Are you helping those you teach to reflect on how God’s Word is a powerful force for their transformation? Are they seeing God more clearly because of what they are learning? Are they learning to see themselves more clearly as well? This is foundational to the rest of this model for teaching.