Two months ago I raised a concern about a problem some churches struggle with in seeing limited impact of their teaching ministries in the lives of those who participate. I talked about some ways this problem has tended to be addressed, and my own conviction that there is a need for a better model or approach to our teaching if we hope to see real growth occur. Last month I introduced the basic ideas of “right-handed” teaching and discussed the first half of the model. This month I want to continue and complete my discussion of the model and then begin looking at how it works together. In the coming months I’ll be exploring the difference this all makes in what we actually do as we prepare to teach, as we teach, and as we follow up our teaching for more lasting impact.
A quick refresher: The “right-handed” teaching model uses your right hand as an image of the main elements. Your palm is the Holy Spirit as the power for all true transformation and a source of empowerment for your teaching. The thumb is a recognition of the importance of students being in “right relationship” with God, being a new creation, being in a new kind of relationship with God that opens them up to learn and be changed by God as you study His Word together. Your index finger is the need for “right knowledge,” a growing understanding of God’s Word, what it says and means, as a foundation for your growth and change. There are three more fingers to examine, and we need to look at how they all work together for a more transformative teaching and learning experience.
Middle Finger: Right Emotion – Orthopathy
One major theme that stands out in the Psalms is that knowing God has a strong impact on the affective part of our being. The knowledge of God at times produces fear, love, desire, contrition, and hope. Our hearts respond to the God we come to know through His mighty acts and through His Word. For those of us on this side of the cross, our hearts also respond to the love of God shown through His Living Word, Jesus Christ. We cannot look on this information and remain unmoved, or at least we should not.
Unfortunately, the type of Bible instruction that often happens in our churches is strong on the acquisition of knowledge about God and what He has said and done, but does not have much room for fostering the response of the heart to what has been learned. Without the engagement of the heart in the learning process, Bible knowledge remains facts that are affirmed as true, but the power of these truths to transform our lives is cut off. The heart must be engaged for real change and growth to occur.
Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia (1956) explored the role of the affective domain in effective education and developed a model for educational objectives in this area. From lowest level to highest they are as follows: receiving (awareness, willingness to hear), responding (active participation), valuing (seeing the worth or value of what is learned, acceptance or commitment to it), organization (prioritizing, comparing, relating, integrating values), and characterization (internalizing the values in a way that controls behavior, making it consistent). This taxonomy can be helpful for examining our Christian education practices as well. Are we content to have our students simply receive what is taught? Is being an active learner enough? Is valuing the lesson a good stopping point? How do we help students organize the various lessons they learn and internalize these values in ways that give guidance to their actions?
As I stated before, I believe that much of contemporary Christian education practice does not give adequate attention to the affective domain, being content to have students know the biblical lesson. Some teachers assume that the Holy Spirit will work in the heart, leading to transformation of life. This is seen as the Holy Spirit’s work, not ours. Other Christian educators take a different approach and encourage students to receive, respond, and value in some limited fashion the biblical lesson. In these efforts, some engagement of the heart may be promoted, but the lesson is left there, assuming the students will be led by God to live it out in appropriate ways.
Is there an appropriate involvement of the teacher in designing educational experiences to engage the heart and move toward life response, or is this meddling in the domain of the Holy Spirit? As one adult Sunday School teacher in my first church once told me, “I just teach them the truths of the Bible, it’s up to God to show them what to do with it.” I believe this to be a wrong understanding of our roles as teachers. We do not attempt to usurp the Holy Spirit’s role in the heart of our students, but we encourage them to be open to the promptings of the Spirit and to follow through in obedience to His leading. The Apostle Paul did not just give God’s instruction to those he wrote to, he pleaded with them, exhorted them, urged them, and appealed to their consciences to move them to accept, value, and live out that instruction.
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men. (I Thessalonians 5:12-15)
God desires to take our growing knowledge of Him, and by the working of the Holy Spirit in the heart, transform us into people who have godly emotions, like sorrow for sin, love for God, thankfulness for His grace, compassion on others in need, love and esteem for our brothers and sisters in Christ, love for our enemies, and hatred of sin and injustice because of its impact on others. The fruit of the Spirit’s work in our lives is described both in terms of internal characteristics, like love, joy, peace, and patience, and external manifestations of the Spirit’s transforming work in our interaction with others, like kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The Holy Spirit uses those who teach and preach to help learners both to know God’s instruction, and then to value it, to be open to God’s renovating work in our hearts that will become the basis for actions consistent with who we are becoming, people who love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who love our neighbors as ourselves. But, stopping our teaching with a change of heart is not enough, we must go on to the involvement of the remaining fingers.
Ring Finger: Right Will – Orthoboule (Missing Element Two)
In The Screwtape Letters (1952, pp. 69, 70), C. S. Lewis has Screwtape, a senior demon, offer this bit of advice to Wormwood, a novice tempter, regarding how to keep a man’s repentance from turning into genuine spiritual growth:
The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel. (emphasis mine)
Lewis describes a disturbing truth. If we have our hearts moved, prompted by God in some way, but we fail to respond and act on this feeling, over time we may develop a hardened heart that loses its ability to be moved, much less move us to action. Our attitudes can become jaded, cynical, and resistant to the renovating work of the Holy Spirit. I believe this is one of the foremost dangers of contemporary Christian education. Even when we take the time to encourage the response of the heart to the biblical lessons we teach, if we do not focus on helping students change in intention and find appropriate ways to put these lessons into action, we may actually be contributing to a deadening of the spiritual senses and the marginalization of faith in life. Our students can become used to hearing biblical truths and feeling some kind of response in the heart, but it then stays there as good intentions that are not realized. What helps us move from the attitude of the heart to the actions of faithfulness? A bridge is needed between feelings of the heart and a person’s obedient actions. This bridge is the formation of the will, what Dallas Willard has described as critical to the “renovation of the heart” (Willard, 2002).
If actions flow only from the feelings of the heart, these waver and fade too easily. We may live faithful lives when we are excited about our walk with God, and disobey when we are discouraged or feel distant from God. What is needed is the formation and strengthening of our will to help our actions grow naturally out of our renovated heart. Our actions are not to be disconnected from who we are, but a manifestation of who we are becoming by the grace of God. They need to be more like the skin that grows on us and less like a shirt we put on and off. This kind of organic unity moves from heart to action through the will. The action has not yet been taken, but the will has been set, commitment has been made in a personal way, making the action flow from our being, not imposed from the outside.
An example of this is shown in II Corinthians 8:1-5, when Paul praised the churches in Macedonia for their sacrificial giving in response to the need of the church in Jerusalem.
Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability they gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God.
This attention to the formation of the will is often a missing piece in contemporary Christian education. We tend to move quickly from what the passage says to acting on it, bypassing the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and will of our students. This kind of renovation takes time, encouragement, deliberate attention and self-examination. Time must be spent examining our response to what we are learning, seeking to understand how God desires us to change in attitude and action. We need to build in time for that examination, for identifying appropriate responses, intentionally choosing them, and encouraging follow through and accountability. The formation of the will is tied closely both to the attitude of the heart at one end of the bridge, and to the active response of obedience at the other end. If either is neglected, it will not stand, and it is the only way across the chasm for sustainable growth.
Little Finger: Right Behavior – Orthopraxy – and a “Coaching” Pedagogy
When the previous four elements have gone well, we have set the stage for “right behavior.” This is not a mechanistic kind of obedience, but actions that flow out of a renewed mind and heart, out of a character that is being transformed by God. It is more like the skin that we are surrounded by and less like a shirt we put on and off at a whim.
It is very easy to get students to do different actions, like giving money for missions or assisting with a service project, but actions alone are not the goal of our instruction. We are after the transformation of students into people who live out faithful actions because of the work of God within them. It is far easier to produce legalistic Pharisees than to teach for genuine sanctification. Doing the right things is easier than being the right kind of people.
Acknowledging this, it is still true that obedience, the putting into action of what has been learned, is the ultimate feedback for Christian education. In a combination of the actions taken and the heart attitude shown in doing them we can see the degree to which learning has taken place, learning that produces spiritual growth. But this is where contemporary Christian education practice often falls down. If our teaching always stops short of active response, or if we never revisit our actions to examine them in light of what our Scripture lesson pointed us to, we will never be able to assess our learning and growth. Too much teaching points toward action, but never gets to it. Or, if students identify responses to a lesson, we don’t take time in future class sessions to share what happened when they attempted them. We lose a critical opportunity to troubleshoot problems, affirm and encourage faithfulness in difficult situations, clarify misunderstandings, and pray for God’s ongoing help through His Holy Spirit as we strive to live in obedience to His Word.
Paul took time to review, to revisit lessons learned by those he taught, and to correct or affirm and encourage them in ongoing faithfulness. One example of this is found in I Thessalonians 4:9-12,
Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you; so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
Paul’s example points to a “coaching” approach to teaching, one that provides feedback on the full learning process. A “coaching’ pedagogy involves instruction (we’re good at this), demonstration and modeling (by the teacher or another mature Christian), practice, feedback, and reinforcement (time to try it out and share the results), and repetition and overlearning (habit formation) (Leyda & Lawson, 2000). People who are learning truths that point to new life responses need someone to “coach” them through the process of learning new habits, of practicing and developing new ways of living. They need a coach to help them review how they have lived out what they have learned, offer counsel, consider options, affirm effort, and maintain a vision of the goal of Christlikeness. When this happens, people are better able to persevere in the challenging effort of changing old habits and establishing new ones. Without it, lessons are forgotten and we get into a pattern of ignoring the connection between what we are learning and what we are doing. James warns us of the dangers of believing but not doing when he said,
What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2: 14-18)
Much of our educational efforts in churches do not help with this process of living out what we are learning. We are too busy going on to the next lesson each week to take time to review past lessons and examine our lives in light of them. We settle for communicating information and affirming understanding. Do we really expect changes in attitude and behavior to result from our teaching? Are we afraid to look at what people really do with what they learn? Is our teaching to partner with God in the sanctification of His people, or to maintain the status quo? Our actual teaching practices speak loudly about our expectations. I am afraid we have too often settled for too little. A more appropriate model for instruction that builds upon growth in knowledge, a stirred heart, and the setting of the will to act, would be this coaching model. I will be describing this approach to teaching in more detail in future months, and looking at practical ways to put it into practice.
The Relationship Between the Five Fingers and the Palm
In considering the functioning of the five elements of the educational model described these last two months, it must be remembered that they are an organic unity, drawing life and strength only as they are connected to the palm, allowing the Holy Spirit to work within each element and use them for His sanctifying purposes. Though there is a general flow from one finger to the next, it is not a lock-stop process. Lessons don’t have to start with a study of the Scripture. They can begin with actions, stirring up a motivation to learn more from God’s Word. Or they can begin with an examination of the heart in comparison with the message of Scripture, showing the need for a change of will and actions. What is critical is that the five fingers function together. To leave one out is to miss the opportunity for transformational teaching.
- Without a right relationship with God, Christian education becomes moral education without genuine transformation of the person.
- Without right knowledge from God’s Word, we lack guidance to know and do God’s will.
- Without right passion or heart, lessons become facts to file away, giving a false sense of religious pride.
- Without a right will, our best desires will not see the light of day in our actions.
- Without right behavior, we can deceive ourselves that we are growing spiritually when actually we are stagnant at heart.
When all five elements are incorporated into our teaching ministries they will become more fruitful, more usable by the Holy Spirit to contribute to His sanctifying work in people’s lives. This “right-handed” Christian education model draws life and power from the Holy Spirit who indwells us, who has given us God’s Word and illumines our lives as we read it, who is able to transform us from the inside out, including our attitudes and will, and strengthen us to live according to what we learn. Lessons become more memorable, more influential, forming our understanding, attitudes, will, and actions.
In the Old Testament, when something is associated with God’s right hand, it implies a source of power. As the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 63: 7-8, “When I remember Thee on my bed, I meditate on Thee in the night watches, for Thou hast been my help, and in the shadow of Thy wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to Thee; Thy right hand upholds me.” When our educational ministry efforts draw on the power of God’s Spirit in each of the five elements described earlier, we will find greater transforming power. May God help us to develop our teaching to reflect these critical areas. When this happens, we may see the realization of Paul’s own goal for his teaching: The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (I Timothy 1:5).
That completes the “right-handed” teaching model. Beginning next month I will look at some of the implications of this model for how we prepare our lessons, teach our students, and follow up in a “coaching” way to reinforce and implement what we learn together from God’s Word. For now, let me encourage you to reflect a bit on what I have addressed in this blog.
Questions for Reflection:
This second half of the “right-handed” teaching model has addressed the middle finger (right heart or passion), ring finger (right will), and small finger (right behavior). How are these elements showing up in your teaching ministry?
- As you think about your teaching sessions over the last few months, has there been adequate time to explore and encourage reflection on what students are learning so that their hearts are engaged and responsive? If not, what is preventing this?
- Do you have any sense that your students are desiring to respond to what they are learning, to somehow live differently because of how God is moving in them? If you are not sure, how could you begin to open up space to see this more clearly?
- In your teaching, do you work toward helping students identify appropriate responses to what they are learning? Do you take time to encourage this, facilitate it, and allow students to share how they are putting into practice what they have learned? Does this feel like meddling to you?
- How might attention to the formation of the will help strengthen the impact of your teaching? What in your teaching approach would have to change if this were to become a priority?
- Where have you seen real growth and change in your students? How did you see it? Praise and give thanks to God for His transforming work!
References for Teaching Deeper Blogs 1-3
Blackaby, H., & King, C. V. (1990). Experiencing God: Knowing and doing the will of God. Nashville: Broadman and Hollman.
Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, handbook II: Affective Domain. New York: David McKay Company.
Lewis, C. S. (1952). The Screwtape letters. New York: MacMillan Co.
Leyda, R., & Lawson, K. (2000). Exploring a “coaching” model for promoting spiritual formation. Christian Education Journal, 4NS (2), 63-84.
Foundation Publications, Inc. (1995). New American Standard Bible. Anaheim, CA: The Lockman Foundation.
Steele, L. (1990). On the way: A practical theology of Christian formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing.
Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the heart: Putting on the character of Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress.