A few years ago I was teaching an Introduction to New Testament class for my local church. We would meet for two hours every Wednesday evening over the summer months. Some nights there would be fifteen or more people present and other nights it would be three or four of us. It didn’t matter who was present (though I wanted people to be there, the crowd size wasn’t important…at first) as long as we enjoyed learning together.
Two things upset me though:
(1) A “leader” in the church went out of his way to inform me that it would be a waste of time to come hear me teach when, “I can listen to [insert a prominent evangelical scholar] on my iPod.” Sure, I knew the person he referenced was a far more learned man than myself, but did he have to say that to me? What about learning as a community? What about supporting a twenty-something seminarian that could use the inspiration that comes from knowing people appreciate what you are doing? Those words stung for a while, especially as the the summer progressed and the class began to dwindle before its assigned completion date.
(2) There was a leadership meeting that same day of the week the hour prior to my class. If it were not for the words of one leader I may not have been bothered as I saw leaders leave the meeting headed toward their car rather than the sanctuary where I was teaching. I began to wonder if more people thought about me the way this person did.
I began to question whether or not one could do serious educating in a church context. I was convinced that if the leadership thought the classes were irrelevant then most people in the church would think the same. I know people go crazy on Sundays when the pastor preaches David v. Goliath type sermons, but it seemed like the average Christian has little interest in topics like the historical background, literary outline, and themes of the Book of James. I knew better than to delve into deep speculative things like the formation of the Pentateuch. I was aware that this type of pure academia was meaningless to most Christians. I wasn’t teaching that kind of content though. I thought I was teaching people how to be better readers of the Bible.
Admittedly, I set my eyes on teaching in an academic context someday. I knew that as a student I was appreciative of my professors and I was willing to spend a lot of money to hear them teach. Why should I waste time teaching people who don’t care?
Now I am not saying that I won’t teach in an academic context someday, but as I’ve grown older and matured (a little) it has become painfully obvious that it is not as simple as (A) go to seminary + (B) go earn a doctorate + (C) make some connections and apply for jobs = viola! employment teaching biblical studies. I know that it is a saturated job market with few openings and I am aware that there are people who are far more intelligent and qualified than myself seeking work.
This may be a good thing for the local church though.
Wouldn’t the local church benefit from having highly qualified resident scholars directing their education departments or functioning as teaching pastors or associate pastors?
Then the horrifying memory of being considered irrelevant by the leaders of my church returns to my mind. Maybe the local church has no interest in these types of people. Maybe the paranoia caused by pastors who speak against education of this sort has inflicted so many congregations that there is no more room in the church than in the college or seminary?
Is it possible that doctrinal wars will make it as hard to find a job teaching in a local church as it is to find a job teaching at a seminary? Won’t nasty words like “inerrancy,” “evolution,” “emergent,” and “love wins,” cause people to reject you before hearing your thoughts on this or that matter?
Since I am unemployed I have a lot of time to think about topics like this one. I may as well blog about it, right? And if you are thinking about it let me know your thoughts.
This is how I aim to approach it:
Pt. 2: What are pastors seeking as concerns the education of their church?
Pt. 3: What do congregations need to know?
Pt. 4: How do teachers educate the church, introduce them to important topics, yet avoid drowning people in jargon?
Pt. 5: How can teachers present the thinking of biblical scholars (especially the ideas presented by critical scholarship) to the church while recognizing that the church is a community aimed at strengthening people in their faith, not eroding their confidence in the Gospel?
Pt. 6: How can teachers educate people without conforming to the pressure to provide quick-and-easy apologetical answers (something like what you’d find in a book written by Josh McDowell) that come across as disingenuous to people who are critical thinkers in our local congregations?
Pt. 7: Should a church budget to hire educators when administrative pastors, small groups directors, and other “titles” seem to be more conducive to “building a church,” at least as many Christians understand the aim of their church’s existence and growth?
Note: I am not a fool. This series of posts will not be providing answers as much as asking questions. Remember, I’ve done several years of graduate school and I can’t find a job with a community college, a church, or anywhere in the great San Antonio area. Obviously, I am not an expert, but I do want the best for the church, and I do want to be intentional when it comes to educating members, and I think that critical thinking about our faith is better for discipleship than purely apologetical thinking.
The greatest connections I’ve made as pastor of my church have been:
1. Having some of my seminary professors come and preach in my church. They do PHENOMENAL stuff and the “blue collar” congregation (and many that may be classified as “special needs” in some way LOVE THEM.)
2. As an adjunct in a college, I still give my congregation the best possible stuff I can, and I also think it helps me be a better adjunct.
I could only DREAM of college profs actually wanting to be part of my church. I sure could use them! They stick to the bigger churches, though.
Do you know if larger churches find way to supplement the income of these teachers? I know it is getting harder and harder to find full time teaching jobs. Two-thirds of graduate level professors are adjuncts now. Could that have something to do with it?
Shared vision seems to be a big deal. I have a friend that is a professor and teaches in the biblical studies area. We were talking about this and he think that many of the pastors at the churches where he has attended have either be intimidated by him because they were not as educated or they just didn’t value education.
Personally, my church has for fairly high level trainings for lay leaders in bible and theology but I have not been able to go to any of them for the past four years because randomly they keep having them during the times when I am committed to a small group (and keep switching days when I have switched small group days).
But when I have friends that have enjoyed teaching, it has always been because the pastor valued education and encouraged the people in the church to pursue education. I don’t know anything about your church situation. But depending on who the leader is that expressed a lack of desire, I would seek another church. It is not that they have to attend your teaching all the time, but if they aren’t supportive, it isn’t going to get better.
I’d respond to the leader, “Why go to church and hear your pastor preach; you should listen to Matt Chandler or Tim Keller on your ipod.” In Vanhoozer’s theology class his vision is for the evangelical pastor to be a public theologian and he has expressed that he would like to see more people to get their PhD’s/ThD’s and pastor. Look forward to reading your thoughts on this.
I really like the model of the scholar-pastor or pastor-scholar. Looking forward to this series!
Admittedly, this is a very challenging time for churches that want more of an educational ministry than the typical, “How to get/be/have/become, etc.” classes. As you recall, the challenges can be daunting, in terms of the level of maturity of the class members, the scarcity of resources in smaller, urban churches like ours, the (oftentimes) poor commitment to attendance, and even the emotional/spiritual needs that would take precedence over a Sunday’s study and lecture time. So, with limited resources available, and those challenges at work, my two concerns have pretty much been that 1) the teacher is afforded opportunity to grow in his/her teaching skills, including not only the dissemination of information but also the increasing of credibility and reputation as spiritual leader to the class members, and 2) that church is offered the opportunity to attend classes and increase their knowledge AND find spiritual growth in community. You did a great job of pulling both of these things off at Grace Bible, Brian. We miss you much.
Also, your comments brought a question to my mind: To what degree do you (pursuing a career in post-grad academics and in local church ministry) identify your current goals and activities as responses to a personal call of God on your life? To me, as a pastor, the issue of finding a church, getting a job, etc., while critical to me, was not as important as determining whether or not I honestly could claim that God had called me. For me, once I became comfortable in my own skin as a person called to preach–it became an issue of God’s responsibility to place me where and when and with whom He desired. My job seemed to be to keep myself fit for duty, when given an assignment. (Does that seem naive?) So, do you view your goals and desires in that framework?
Speaking as someone who has been blessed in ministry by your gifts, noted your reputation with our dear church members, and who observed you teach for a couple of years, I would heartily concur that God has called you into His work–in exactly the field that you’re pursuing!
It seems to me that we need to ask, why we are teaching the Bible, firstly. And then figure out what the Bible is for. Assuming your church is the standard Evangelical stereotype, there are some things you don’t want to do. While it might be fascinating that there are 3 or 4 or more Isaiahs, we might want to know how that realization impacts the pew’s view of inspiration and all the stuff that hangs off it. Helmut Thelicke has a nice treatise for new theologians that speaks in this direction.
Once we have figured out what the Bible is – what it is trying to do, we teach that. Delving into literary styles and redactions is done in support of the Bible’s purpose rather than for their own purpose.
The Bible is a tool for a purpose greater than itself. In a congregation teachers serve that greater purpose, not the tool.
At this point I am ‘church shopping’ (for lack of a better term) so I have no context, but I have tried to maintain a foot in academics and a foot in the life of the church. I can see how it may be hard for some pastors to trust educators. On a positive note, pastors care about the people and they are watching for them. On a negative note, many pastors want to be the doctrinal end-all, so trusting someone else means admitting there are other people with other views…some that might be more informed than the pastor. A pastor who balances watchfulness with epistemic humility will do good for their church!
Ha! I wish I would have been that quick, but it shocked me, so I was silent. I like Vanhoozer’s vision. I wish more people could see it.
Thank you, I miss teaching that class. I hope to find a place where I can resume this task. Honestly, I do feel that my educational pursuits are a “calling” of sorts. I am cautious with that language, b/c I know “calling” can sometimes be used to sanctify all kinds of dreams and pursuits, but if I didn’t sense that this was something I am “to do” for the Kingdom I would have quit a while ago. Education is a tough, time consuming journey!
GBC does a great job of giving young teachers a place to practice their vocational giftedness. I wish there were more churches who had the same goals.
Well, now you’ve gone and complicated matters! 😉 No, indeed, you are correct. We need to think about what the Bible is and does in the context of the church. It is not one and the same with what the Bible does in a classroom….even of a confessional institution.
Brian, I’m not sure how larger churches handle it. Some profs are just attending larger churches. Some get in and teach Bible classes. I know I’ve been asked to teach Church History at a larger church next year. I have no idea if they’re paying me. lol
You’ve got a big heart to say yes w/out knowing whether or not there is monetary compensation!
Wow. I’m dumbfounded a pastor would say that to you … Simply listening to the podcast is the Greek method .. (the expert) stands up and broadcasts, (the student) passively listens. With the possible exception of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus engaged in dialogue with his audience.
If your goal was to engage your congregates, you were certainly following the example of Jesus. Your pastor was likely mistaken.
Secondly, who says your congregates wanted to listen to the same ‘expert’ on your Pastor’s ipod? Perhaps they wanted to engage with you? Perhaps you have a way of explaining difficult theological concepts simply and unpretentiously.
With respect to learning, we learn from making mistakes, being wrong. Accordingly, the best method for getting people to think is ‘point’ ‘counter-point’. Unfortunately, this takes something of a thick skin.
I should clarify that he wasn’t a pastor, but he was part of the leadership! I think you are correct. While there is something wonderful about being able to listen to great teachers on an iPod, it doesn’t substitute for learning with others, especially learning with those with whom you are living the faith!
The question you poised, ‘What about learning as a community?’, I find particularly interesting. As a UK Baptist, theological learning has to take place in community: this is the first part of the Declaration of Principle of the Baptist Union of Great Britain that all Baptist churches who belong to the Union sign up to:
1. That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.
So if our people don’t have some theological depth then we could sink into heresy pretty quickly. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how badly educated people are (‘My faith is just a simple faith’ they say) yet they still come up with orthodoxy. Something about the Holy Spirit being at work ,I think, yet it seems to make people reluctant to learn how to become better readers of the Bible – in fact, I often get tales of the good old days when the pastor didn’t even have a college degree but – wow – church rocked and God was there! Is it laziness? Fear of old comfort blankets taken away as their faith becomes more complicated? I really don’t know but as someone who loves learning and study I find it baffling.
I am still learning how to balance sermons – providing teaching that doesn’t scare people so much they can’t see beyond it. My husband misjudged it last Sunday with a very mild introduction to more recent theological thinking about the Fall – everyone just fixated on that part of the sermon rather than the application and other points he was making.
You live in a very different church context to me – many pastors don’t even get a full stipend/salary themselves here so any college professors would be expected to pitch in and provide theological education as part of their contribution to church life as members just as the people doing the visiting, preaching,cleaning and catering offer their skills and time for free.
I think that teaching by means of sermons can be quite difficult. I know as a listener that I have stumbled over controversial points to the point where I missed most of the rest of the sermon’s content. When I taught at my last church in Oregon I was graced with the class that met downstairs where people could stop me, ask questions, and openly discuss among themselves. Sermonizing is a far more difficult art form!
Interesting point about pastors not making much themselves where you live. I think we may be approaching that reality in some places, but there are a lot of large churches with multiple people staffs, so I think the church here has the opportunity to hire people who focus on teaching/education. Whether or not they prioritize doing so is another topic!
There isn’t a culture in the UK for separate Bible teaching classes as there is in the US which is why the Sunday morning sermon can be problematic – you are trying to do too many things in one go! Additional teaching tends to happen in smaller Bible study groups which are usually led by someone who isn’t theologically trained or, if they are, they have the same problem – people shy away from too much of what they see as ‘academic’.
I find it bizarre that if you have the resources to provide good theological education that you wouldn’t want to do this – it would be fantastic to be able to teach non academics indepth theology. I wish you well in your search for a post! If you get too fed up, try crossing the pond!!
Brian, I’ll share my experiences with teaching at your local church. First off I feel that ou need the Sr. Pastor to buy into its importance. Even if he doesn’t mandate it from his leaders or the congregation. Second, you have to be faithful in your commitment to teaching regardless of the attendance (which it seems you have been). Third, be patient (i.e. ignore them) with the ignorant and focus on those that are coming. Help them see the importance of what you are teaching and hopefully they will become ambassadors for your program. Word of mouth is powerful. Fourthly, know that it’s not seminary and figure out what to teach and what to leave out. I would advise that you keep the teaching at the undergraduate level. Offer different
These things have been paying off for me. Although I have had the support of our senior pastor, over time has seen the importance of this. He wasn’t able to attend last years Theology Matters Seminar, but he was able to attend our last one this month. When it was over he told me we need to make this mandatory for our leaders and future leaders, and emphasize this more to our congregation. He was very impressed with Dr. Fred Sanders presentation skills, and the other presentations the following day. He also drops in now and then to our class through out the year, and he dosent allow anything else to be scheduled when we have our classes. Now being an associate pastor helps with the planning, however he stills signs of on it. I have a lot more to share but it’s getting to long.
Ha…I didn’t finish one of my thoughts. “Offer different…” I was suggesting that you offer two teaching tracks, one where they just audit it, they just show up and listen. The other track would be a certificate track where there are reading requirements, and they also write a paper with a 1000 words or so. Or you can have them take a test.
Agreed, the Sr. Pastor has the respect of the people (usually), so if a teacher hopes to have the people’s attention it is important for the pastor to show his support.
As to the different tracks idea, I think I did offer that one summer when I taught on the Book of James: everyone chose bookless-paperless track! LOL.
This is a sensitive subject for me. I have the unscientific opinion that not many in the church are very serious about really studying the Bible. They seem satisfied being fed 1-2 a week by someone else and find it uninteresting and feel little need to really “work hard” (2 Tim 2.15) at learning the Word and preparing themselves to be able to give an answer to those who want to know about their faith (1 Peter 3.15). Someone referred to the American church as a ”dumb” – meaning, I take it, mute. They have little to say and don’t want anyone to ask them anything about their faith. No wonder we have little impact in our culture.
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