Way back in 1982 when the earth’s crust was still cooling and the T-Rex walked among us, Amy Grant recorded a song called “Fat Baby” on her epic Age to Age album. It was a playful rebuke of Christians who constantly take in spiritual food at church with a constant craving for more, but who never do anything with it. It portrayed some believers as perpetual spiritual infants who sit in high chairs to be spoon fed by clergy. Rather than the church being a people living out a mission, this song pictured the church as an overfed, underworked, developmentally-delayed infant by choice.
Well, that song may have been something of an exaggeration, but many of us who have served in congregational ministry have had similar thoughts. When church gatherings become a passive experience people attend for their own enjoyment (i.e. to “get fed”) instead of equipping events for living out mission, we should not be surprised when we end up with a lot of petulant, puffy, Peter Pans.
“Going to church” can feel like getting stuck in the 5th grade forever. How many times can we study Genesis or Romans before we move on to doing something? The missional move has been a needed corrective and we do need to get people out of the building in service. But, what is less often considered is that we need to change what we do when we gather as well. We still tend to over-teach our people and under-train them.
The typical highly involved church member gets lots of Bible study, but they tend to get it at a surface level. They get a lesson in Bible class, another in the sermon, and another at mid-week in a class or small group. Then they likely have a women’s or men’s group and often their own personal Bible reading. However, the typical church does not align their teaching or sequence it in any way. There is no developmental aspect or tying it together with a larger purpose. Even more rare is the church that provides any meaningful training to their teachers. It shows. We just assume more Bible will produce better believers. Yet, experience shows us that information rarely leads to transformation without some form of imitation. That means working it out deeply with others in reflection and practice.
What we need is less surface Bible study and more in-depth encounters that lead to practice. One way this can be done is to align the preaching, Bible classes, and small groups so that they cover the same material but in different aspects and take the church through an in-depth journey together. The preacher who is studying to prepare sermons can easily write curriculum for Bible classes that takes the study to a deeper level (with staff help). He uncovers far more material than he can fit meaningfully into a sermon anyway. That is why he typically preaches too long. If the classes are extensions, he can trust some of the background people need will be covered there and speak more about relevant application. Then small groups can process what people are doing during the week to obey what the church is learning together. It can be practical confession, reporting on progress, sharing of wisdom and experience, and community forming as it builds on the assumed learning happening on Sundays.
To make this workable, Preachers have to be released from preparing additional classes on other subjects. They have to be viewed not just a feeders or expert speakers but as trainers. We need to teach people to feed themselves and feed others. In this model, the preacher becomes an equipper of teachers and small group leaders who can lead training classes for Bible class and prepare the materials for people to process. Then instead of people learning 4 or 5 unrelated things each week, all of which are soon forgotten because there is no means of application, the church learns a few things well together and the door is opened wide to visible, obvious means of putting what they learn into practice in real and meaningful ways. Now we have something to come back and celebrate and that celebration feeds into the mindset that we learn in order to do rather than learn in order to learn (Ephesians 4:11-16)!
There are numerous challenges to making this switch. First, churches must accept that they need to do less and do it better. It means churches must study fewer topics but study them deeper. It means releasing the preaching minister and related staff from other duties to be an equipper and not just expert proclaimer to passive listeners. Finally, it means that we create the expectation that our teaching will lead to obedient action which we can then process together, pray over in small groups and celebrate as a congregation when God uses us to do His will in the world. When the teaching ministry is aligned in this way, we can get past the Fat Baby syndrome and better prepare our people to live out the gospel by deeper training.
One warning: Many churches have a value system that will scuttle any such move. Because we often value a traditional way of doing things, we carry that value out to the neglect of 99 other more important things. Or, because we value “sound doctrine” so much we don’t even give room to put our faith into action in meaningful ways. This is likely one of the reasons why so many young people leave the church…we have made little to no attempt to connect what we are talking about with what is going on in the real world or how they can be a part of something meaningful and self-less.
The key here is giving up on the old modern notion that insight is cure. It is not. One distinctive insight from the Gospel is that until truth assumes flesh and takes action in the world commensurate with that truth, nothing meaningful happens. We are embodied creatures who believe in resurrection. Our teaching needs to get out of our buildings and take form in the world. The way we do that teaching should be commensurate with that belief. That means, how much we know is less important than how much we do with what we know.