In my previous post I mentioned that there are three types of tools I use regularly that help us study the Bible faithfully. They are: 1) Resources to help us investigate Bible backgrounds 2) Resources to help us investigate Biblical languages 3) Resources that help pull all we would investigate together.
In this post I will share about resources that help us investigate Biblical languages.
The Bible was translated into English. The Bible was not written in English. The failure to realize the implications of the previous two statements has not only been the source of one of the modern church’s most ridiculous squabbles but it has also been the wellspring of poor preaching and teaching over the years. The original languages of the Bible are Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic; not Shakespearean English. So when we study the Bible we are not trying to get back to the meaning of the words in the KJV, we are trying to bring out the meaning of the words that appeared in the Greek (NT) and Hebrew (OT) texts.
To help us in this task we need two things, a sample of modern English versions of the Bible that reflect a wide range of equivalence and a Strong’s concordance and/or a language dictionary that is coded to Strong’s numbers.
Translations and Equivalence
I am not an expert in Biblical languages by any means, but in what study I have done in this area, it has helped me to realize how difficult it can be to translate one language into another. As the old saying goes, something is always lost in translation. Like any language, Greek and Hebrew are very picturesque languages with words that can carry a wide range of meaning.
A close to home example of the task of translation is the Spanish word piñata. There is no English translation for the word piñata. Yet, if you were to ask some English speaking people to define piñata, one person might say, “It is a papier-mache container, usually shaped like an animal that is stuffed with candy.” Another person might say, “It is an animal shaped candy container that people hit at a party. When it bursts candy goes everywhere.” In this scenario, both descriptions are right. One description offers a technical, more literal description that helps us understand what a piñata is like. The other description offers a more functional description that helps us understand how a piñata is used. Both descriptions taken together give us a range of equivalence, or a range of meaning.
When speaking of Bible versions or translations we usually refer to them based on either dynamic or formal equivalence. Dynamic equivalence means that the translation of the word tries to render the meaning of a statement in a way that is most familiar to the reading audience. Formal equivalence means that the translation of the word tries to render the form of the statement that is closest to the original language, yet understandable in English. Although it is technically impossible to render a “literal” translation of the Bible that is readable by an English speaking audience, formal equivalence is generally what people refer to as “literal” translation.
Modern Bible versions exist on a scale somewhere between formal and dynamic equivalence. According to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, authors of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth translations such as the KJV, NKJV, and NAS exist on the scale closer to formal equivalence. While these translations are more literal, the intended meaning of the text may be lost in translation. Translations such as the NIV, TNIV, and NAB are exist closer on the scale to dynamic equivalence. These translations are usually more readable and easier to understand. While these translations make the text more understandable to the reader, the original form of the text can be lost in translation. Other translations such as the ESV and the NRSV are more central on the scale between dynamic and formal equivalency.
In Bible study, it may be helpful to compare translations that exist on various points on the scale of equivalency. I find it helpful to also have a more “free” translation on hand, what some would call a paraphrase. These translations are more thought for thought. Translations in this category would be the NLT or The Message. When I compare versions, I generally pull together the NAS, ESV, NIV, and NLT. By doing so it helps me to see the range of meaning that is present in Biblical words.
A good verse to use would be 1 Corinthians 13:12. This verse works especially well if you are accustomed to studying the Bible primarily in the KJV. By following this link, you can see that the KJV says, “Now we see through a glass darkly.” What does this mean? Does it mean that I am looking through a dark tinted glass, like sunglasses or maybe a dirty window? What does this mean?
By looking at some other modern versions, you see that the original word here is more equivalent to our word “mirror” which is indeed made out of glass. Yet, while this may seem more literal and technically more accurate, the word being translated here actually has nothing to do with glass at all. The word actually speaks of a highly polished piece of metal that would be used for reflectivity. Which also explains why the text reads that we see “through a glass darkly.” It doesn’t mean that the mirror is dark in color, the word more accurately rendered means that the image is blurry, you can’t see it fully. If you have ever used metal as a mirror you know that no matter how polished it may be, there is some distortion to the reflection. In this case we get the full intent of the author in the NLT which reads, “Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror.” Though the NLT is nothing close to a literal translation, we see that by moving further down the scale of equivalence, in this case, we get a more faithful rendering of the original text.
In the past several posts on teaching and Bible study I have argued for an approach that seeks to understand the meaning of the Bible in its original context. This keeps us from pressing on the Scripture a meaning that is skewed by our own experience and cultural reference points. Instead, by seeking to know what the intent of the author to his original audience, we actually uncover a more powerful meaning that brings out the eternal relevance of Scripture to our current context.
This all sounds great, but how does the reader make it happen? The key is tools. We employ great Bible study tools that will help us get a better understanding of Scripture in context. I would call your attention to three that I use regularly. 1) Resources to help us investigate Bible backgrounds 2) Resources to help us investigate Biblical languages 3) Resources that help pull all we would investigate together:
Resources that help us investigate Bible backgrounds.
Many would refer to this category as Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias. I chose not to use the term dictionary for sake of confusion and very few of the books that I employ for this task are called “encyclopedia” anymore. Most people think of a dictionary as a book that helps us with vocabulary, and while this may be true in the common world, in the Bible world, dictionaries are very encyclopedic. Confusing, isn’t it?
Bible dictionaries are thematically and contextually oriented. For instance, if you were reading Matthew 16:13, the passage in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of man is?” This is the same passage in which Peter makes the grand declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. To understand this passage more fully we can’t ignore the contextual clue that Matthew leaves us in verse 13, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked . . .” If we don’t care for a contextual reading of the Scripture we will ignore these statements completely, but they are important. Here is a snippet of what the Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary says about Caesarea Phillipi:
The site has been suggested as that of OT Baal-gad, Baal-hermon, or Beth-rehob, but pottery fragments found thus far do not pre-date the Hellenistic period. The earliest developments took place during that period in the area of the cave and the spring. Greek settlers named the site Paneion (also spelled Paneas and Panias) after the Greek god Pan; the surrounding territory was also known as Paneas. Niches were cut in the face of the bluff and around the cave, recognized as the sanctuary or dwelling place of the deity, and dedicated to “Pan and the Nymphs.” According to Josephus, the region was given to Herod by Caesar Augustus in 20 b.c.e. Herod in turn constructed a beautiful white marble temple dedicated to Augustus, and it most likely became the focal point of the cultic precinct.
It is significant then that the occasion for Jesus question was not Jerusalem, Nazareth, Samaria, or any other town but Caesarea Phillipi which was steeped in idolatry. If you look up pictures of Caesarea Phillipi you will see the Grotto of Pan still cut into the rocky mountainside. Here people would come to make offerings and seek answers. Here they sought prosperity and blessing from the gods. At the Grotto, they sought salvation. It is in this context, of countless gods that Jesus asks the question, “But who do you say that I am?”
Understanding this context not only makes our reading come alive, but it will also lend itself to more weighty teaching for those who are leading small groups within the church. As you will see, understanding this background does not restrict my application of this verse to our modern context, but it gives it greater application because it is more faithful to what God has said.
People haven’t changed. Though we may not cut a Grotto of Pan into the mountainside, we still have our grotto cut; a shrine to our would be saviors. We easily sell the future commodity of our soul to the decisions of politicians, the rise and fall of companies, or to the allure of popularity. If we could only catch a break, get noticed, or be the beneficiary of a decision that would bring a windfall our way everything would change. The problem is that it is not those outside of Christ who are caught in the chase for Pan, but it is those who would call themselves the disciples of Christ. Jesus didn’t ask “other men” who He was, He directed the question to His own.
Do you really understand what it means to call Jesus Lord? It means not only does Jesus stand alone, but it means that he does not save in the same way as the gods cut into the rocks of the countryside. His salvation is not first political, financial, physical - it calls for something much deeper. It calls for a collision with the soul, much like Peter had. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” That realization changes everything. According to the rest of Jesus statement in Matthew 16:13-20 the people who embrace Jesus’ “Christ-ness” births a powerful community that carries with them access to the Kingdom of Heaven. With such authority, they make a massive impact on earth. There is nothing in the Grotto of Pan for them. They have found so much more in Christ. Indeed, this becomes the plot for the rest of the gospel and on into the Book of Acts.
A Bible dictionary is a great tool for context. Here are a few recommendations:
Tyndale Bible Dictionary, The New Bible Dictionary, The Archeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, Holman Bible Atlas, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, New Nave’s Topical Bible.
I would also recommend, Ferguson - Backgrounds of Early Christianity, any number of “Life of Christ” books, and the IVP Bible Background Commentary.
Many of these resources may be accessed easily online. I will share with you this info. in a later post.
It has been several weeks since I posted in this series, but in the last piece I wrote about the importance of discovering the context of a passage in Bible study, especially for the purpose of teaching. Context is the story behind the story. It is the surrounding, perhaps unmentioned details that help give the story meaning. When a passage is taken out of context we commit a hermeneutical no-no in that we are then free to make the passage mean what we want it to mean. Yet, as we have discussed before, a passage never means what it never meant (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, loc 574 Kindle Ed.). Context is important. Allow me to demonstrate.
As a pastor I feel sometimes like a wedding groupie. If there is a wedding within 50 miles I’m probably going, either by invite or as the officiant. Over and over again I have heard Christian couples include a powerful Bible verse in their vows:
“Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
I am not trying to be critical. I get it. These are great words that seem to appropriately express the spiritual commitment of marriage. If you want to use these words in your ceremony, do it; I’m not knocking it, but you should be aware of the context.
The words are from Ruth 1:16. They were voiced by Ruth, not to her husband, but to her mother-in-law. They were not even said at a wedding, but after a funeral. Ruth’s husband has died. Ruth met her lat husband because her in-laws had left Bethlehem due to famine and had settled in the pagan land of Moab. Ruth, at the time she said these words was not a believer. She was a good pagan girl. I would argue even that when Ruth said these words she did not become a believer. She was simply expressing a common cultural formula to her mother-in-law.
In moving back to Bethlehem they were crossing a national border. In ancient pagan thought the gods were sort of caged by the borders. Each nation had their gods and if you wanted to escape the wrath of a certain god, you could move to a land out of his domain, where other gods ruled. Ruth was saying, “We are crossing the border. I want to be a part of your people by also receiving the dominion of the rule of their God.” The beauty of the story is that even though Ruth did not fully comprehend what she was saying, she would soon find that the benevolent rule and law of Israel’s God would indeed become her salvation.
When the verse is read in context it has a whole new meaning. I would even argue that it has an even greater meaning than one that we would supply for it. As creative as we may be, there is a power already in the Word of God that we cannot rival. As teachers and students of the Bible our task is not to supply meaning to the Word. This is called eisogesis (Greek preposition eis means “into”). It means to read meaning “into” the text. Our task is exegesis (Greek proposition ek means “out of”). As Exodus is the story of God pulling His people out of Egypt, so exegesis is the task of pulling the meaning out of a Scriptural text. The meaning of the text is already there. We do not supply it, we discover it!
In my last post on teaching in the church I discussed building a bridge between the message of the Bible to its original readers and the message of the Bible for today. The importance of this task is that it helps us teach what God has said, rather than using the Bible as a platform for a “What do you think?” session. Sadly, most small group meetings in the local church have become little more than opinionated socials. Building a hermeneutical bridge keeps this from happening. Though the Bible is an old book written to a very different culture, the gap here may not be as wide as you may think. Even still, it is not a simple task. It takes time and hard work.
Whether one is preparing to teach or engaged in personal study, the key to understanding the Bible is context. Context is the surrounding material that influences meaning. Statements taken out of context can be grossly misrepresented as the reader is suddenly given the freedom to provide his own context. For example, in a sermon on the topic of truth I shared on a Sunday night I made the following statement,
“If you stand and say that, ‘Jesus it the only way’ that’s really an uneducated, naive, ignorant position to take. It is intolerant, harsh and wrong. For us (Christians) to stand and say to a homosexual that, ‘homosexuality is a sin’ that is harsh, intolerant . . . that is something that is intolerant, passé, old fashioned and something you should not do.”
My statement taken on its own may lead someone to believe that I do not hold Jesus to be the only way of salvation or that do I not believe homosexuality is a sin. The statement, taken on its own, may also lead one to assert that I believe churches or Christians who hold to those positions are out of step with modern culture; and that if they are not to come across as harsh and intolerant they need to relax these views. Yet this is not what I was saying at all.
When a statement is taken out of context the reader is left to supply his own context and meaning. This is why I believe it is so easy for our culture to be deceived by the media. We receive our news in sound bytes. Our views are shaped by statements taken out of context. The clips provide the statements. The commentators provide the meaning. We never do the homework of context and the result is that we are easily led astray. This, in itself, is a discussion for another day!
My statement was given in a context which provides meaning.
There is the context of my theology. Does Brian Branam preach consistently that Jesus is not the only way of salvation or that homosexuality is not a sin? NO! I do not preach these ideas - AT ALL.
There is the context of the sermon itself. The context of the sermon was an apologetics piece on truth. By nature, the sermon lent itself to an attempt to represent opposing views.
There is a historical context. You probably did not hear many, if any, sermons quite like the one I was preaching in early colonial America. The challenges of our culture today are pluralism, relativism, and post-modernism. The historical timeframe of my sermon gives it meaning.
There is the context of the place in the sermon. I was in a moment of the sermon in which I was trying to establish how the exclusive claims of the Christian faith would be received in the public square. I attempt to dismantle these claims later in the sermon.
There is the context of the audience. The purpose of the sermon was to equip the Christian and challenge the skeptic to see truth as an unchangeable, objective, absolute, reality.
In context, my statements take on a whole new meaning. At the very least they cause us to investigate and assert, “There must be something else to this story!”
If my statements can be so grossly misrepresented, imagine what we are doing to God’s Word when we take no time to investigate context. We read the Bible like we watch the news, in snippets. We find a statement we like and pull it away from the rest. We are then left to manipulate it as we like as the reader provides the context. This is dangerous and misleading. As teachers we should know better.
The Bible has a context that we must investigate if we are to be faithful to teach what God has said. What are those contexts?
The general historical context - What was the world like when the text was written?
The context of the author - Who is the author? What was his experience? What else has he written? What was the author’s purpose for writing?
The context of the audience. What was life like for the original audience? What were they experiencing at the time they received the text? What was the occasion for them receiving the text?
The context of the text itself. Where does the text occur in the Bible? Where does the text occur in the book itself? What are the surrounding passages? What is the theme of the book? How does the text support the theme?
The literary context. What is genre of literature is the text? How was that genre generally used in the period in which it was written? What are the general rules of the genre in the time in which it was written?
I know it sounds like a lot, but investigating context is critical. I will attempt to show you why in my next post. It does take work, but not as much as you may think. It is here that good tools are important, which will lead us back to the place where this string of posts began - tools for teaching.
Yesterday I wrote about the importance of Bible study in the preparation of the teacher so that we may stay faithful to say what the Bible says. This is no easy task, but it is deeply rewarding.
Ultimately the preparation of the teacher has this goal in mind; we want to say what the Bible says, to us. This task is accomplished by building what is called a hermeneutical bridge. “Hermeneutical bridge” is a total nerd term, but it simply means that the teacher makes a connection between what the Bible meant to its original readers with the message of the Bible to its current readers.
Lest we think that the “hermeneutical bridge” is the proverbial bridge to nowhere, we build it with this governing principle: The Bible never means what it never meant.
Even though the Bible is an old, foreign text; building a hermeneutical bridge from the original historical context to our present context is not bridging the ocean, it is more like bridging a brook. You will find that truly, “There is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9).” People in the 1st century may have worn togas and driven chariots but a soul is a soul. Whether we are middle eastern nomads that live in tents or western cultured Baby Boomers/Busters/Gen X’ers who live in a two-story home, at our core, we have forever been the same.
The teacher that does not commit to building a faithful hermeneutical bridge pillages the Bible of its power. Let us say what God has said. In this way we are teaching the Bible rather than teaching what we think or feel. Many teachers offer their students little more than a hermeneutical bridge to their opinions. I mean no disrespect here, but this is unfaithful to the task of Bible teaching and truly, most often is a bridge to nowhere.
The power for life change is in the gospel, not in our opinions. Let us be faithful to study the Biblical text so that we may connect with what God has said. Why is the hermeneutical bridge important? Because what God has said, He has said. Or, a more accurate way of stating this truth is, what God has said, He is forever saying. When God called Jesus, “My beloved son in whom I am well pleased (Mark 1:11)”, He meant this for all time. God was well pleased with Jesus in 30-something AD. God is forever pleased with Jesus. This is not a bridge over an ocean, this is a bridge over a brook.
I am sharing with you a series of posts focused on teaching. When it comes to teaching in the church, we cannot continue as we are. Teachers are the tongues of the church. Even though they comprise a small part of the congregation, relative to the number of students, what they say and teach carries a great deal of weight within the congregation. So how do we improve our teaching?
In teaching the overriding goal is to teach what the Bible says as opposed to what I think it says or even what I think is relevant. Because we fear that we may “bore” our students with intricate Biblical detail or deep theological discussion we like to merely use the Bible as a moral reference point. The Bible provides a text that makes mention of our topic for the day, then, as a teacher it is up to us to fill the class time with relevant stories and piercing discussion questions. A cool class time this may seem, but great teaching this is not! This may be a meaningful way to treat Aesop’s fables, but it is not the way we should approach the Bible.
Studying the Bible isn’t easy. It is a great fallacy to believe:
Since the Bible is the Word of God it should be easy to understand. The problem here is that God has never been easy to understand. We are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to comprehending the mind of God (Rom. 11:34-36). At the same time we should be careful to say that the Bible is understandable. God has not communicated to us in code. He wants us to “get it!” Mark Twain said, “It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
The more spiritual you are the more of the Bible you will understand. This fallacy leads to two others:
I am having trouble understanding the Bible which means I must have a spiritual problem.
I am spiritual enough that I do not have to do the “unspiritual” work of academic study. I just need to read it and teach it.
If you suffer from fallacy 2A, see fallacy 1. Your problem is not spiritual as much as it is that you are probably an English speaking, Western Cultured person living in 2012 (I will say more about this issue and how it impacts Bible study later). If you suffer from fallacy 2B I prophecy that given enough time you will become a cult leader in the plains of west Texas and will have a fiery confrontation with the forces of Janet Reno. If your fate does not go to that extreme end I would prophecy that at the very least the people you teach are being cheated and misled. That glare on your student’s faces is not from sheer amazement at your spiritual prowess, it is the natural reaction of stunned shock and confusion that results from hearing a lesson that is nothing more than a gobbledy goop mess of errors.
Again, our goal as teachers is to “Say what the Bible says.” Obviously then we must understand what the Bible is saying. This comes, not from super spirituality, but from faithful, prayerful study. Paul told Timothy:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV)
The term “do your best” is literally, “work hard at it.” Timothy was Paul’s protege. He was a pastor. He had to work hard at it - just like the rest of us. Though great sermons can sometimes be mesmerizing to laypeople (as if the preacher has done something super spiritual), I promise you, great preachers are not naturally talented or super spiritual. Great preachers do the hard work of studying the Bible. If you are going to be a good, faithful teacher it will take more hard work and humility than super spirituality.
I am sharing with you a series of posts focused on teaching. When it comes to teaching in the church, we cannot continue as we are. Teachers are the tongues of the church. Even though they comprise a small part of the congregation, relative to the number of students, what they say and teach carries a great deal of weight within the congregation. So how do we improve our teaching? The answer is time, tools, and training.
In the last couple of posts I have been on the topic of tools for teaching, particularly the use of curriculum. In my last post I mentioned that too often curriculum has become the most misused tool for teaching in the church. Curriculum is a guide for teaching, it was not meant to replace our teaching. Ultimately, curriculum is another person’s experience with the Biblical text, which is profitable, but it is an experience that cannot take the place of our own if we are to be effective teachers.
I left off in my last post with the following question, how do we properly use curriculum as a teaching tool? To use curriculum properly we must:
Understand what a curriculum/writer is saying?
Understand how a curriculum/writer arrived at what they are saying?
Understand why a curriculum/writer would say what they have said?
Great teachers are structured in their approach and organized in their thoughts. It is difficult for any student to listen to a teacher they cannot logically follow. We call this chasing rabbits. Personally, I have never chased a rabbit, but from what little I know of rabbits, chasing one would be a rapid journey to nowhere. Teachers who chase rabbits lead their students down pointless paths that do not connect with anything. If you are going to be a great teacher you must keep one question in mind, what’s the point?
Curriculum is a great tool that helps teachers stay on point. Most lessons written in a curriculum give the teacher an aim, theme, or objective to achieve. In this way the writer should help us do the most important thing in teaching - match the aim of the lesson with the aim of the Biblical text. Great curriculums do this. Poor curriculums do not.
This is where the real work of a teacher begins. Early in the week he or she will consult a curriculum to see what the chosen passage and its corresponding aim or objective is for the class. Once consultation is made, then comes the moment that separates great teachers from mere curriculum regurgitators. Great teachers become great students.
Hebrew is an interesting language in that it has no vowels, only consonants. The other curious thing about Hebrew is that almost every word is spelled with three letters. Numerous words can be spelled with the same three letters. How does the reader distinguish the difference? Small dots and dashes called “pointing” supply the vowel sounds and can radically change the meaning of a word. One of the most curious lines of pointing intensifies a word. The word touch, intensified, becomes the word strike, or hit.
One of my favorite examples of intensifying Hebrew words is the word translated “to learn.” When the word “to learn” is intensified it becomes the word translated “to teach.” It is the same three letters only intensified. The message is clear. One has not truly learned what he or she cannot truly teach. The flip-side is most applicable to teaching in the church, we cannot truly teach what we have not taken time to learn.
We teach from an overflow. Curriculum points us in the right direction, but it is not a substitute for personal time and investigation spent in the text. A truly prepared teacher will use curriculum twice. He or she will use it to begin, inspire, or direct study early in the week, and he or she will use it again to refine and organize study late in the week. In between there should be a great deal of personal time with the Biblical text.
When we give time to study and we do not allow curriculum to be our crutch, we will begin to experience God’s Word coming alive in our own life. This is the process of incubation I wrote about a few weeks ago. When time is given to personal study and preparation throughout the week, our experience with curriculum changes later in the week. We have a better opportunity to understand three things:
Understand what a curriculum/writer is saying?
Understand how a curriculum/writer arrived at what they are saying?
Understand why a curriculum/writer would say what they have said
How so? Because we will find that we have walked the same path the writer has walked. We now have a shared experience with the text. When this is true, I find that curriculum becomes inspiring, not confining. Suddenly the writer is giving me great ideas on how to enhance my lesson, how to organize it, and how to communicate it effectively - no longer is the curriculum writer a dictator speaking to me in a foreign tongue. Suddenly, I see where the writer is coming from and he helps me instead of replaces me. Now my lesson is fresh and it is born from my own experience. It is not stale as I am only trying to regurgitate someone else’s experience with the Bible.
As great as this sounds, it leads us to another question. How do we study the Bible? Here is where the real discussion on tools begins.
Last week I spent time moving my family from Alabama to Georgia. After 3.5 months of being away from them I am glad to have my wife and daughters with me. So now that we have all the Branams in the same place; back to the blog and our discussion of teaching in the church.
When it comes to teaching in the church, we cannot continue as we are. Teachers are the tongues of the church. Even though they comprise a small part of the congregation, relative to the number of students, what they say and teach carries a great deal of weight within the congregation. So how do we improve our teaching? The answer is time, tools, and training. In my previous post I mentioned the importance of using tools to help us rightly divide the Word of God. What are those tools?
If we are to answer the question of “what are the tools?” we must ask another question, just what is it we are trying to do? The task determines the tool.
I am not a craftsman nor am I a repairman. As for tools, I own a drill, a screwdriver (phillips and flat), a hammer, and a wrench. I try to beat, twist, and pry every repair into submission. I destroy a lot of things. Along with my destruction of things comes a great deal of frustration because it takes too long to do what appears to be otherwise easy stuff. I am usually left beating things with the end of a screwdriver, trying to drive screws with a hammer, and tighten everything with a wrench. When the dust settles all that is before me are bent nails and a wide variety of bolts and screws that have been grossly stripped beyond their usefulness. My biggest problem in repair is that because I don’t quite know what must be done, I have no clue that they make the tools necessary to make the task much easier.
The right tool applied to the right task makes all the difference.
Most teachers are given some sort of curriculum to teach, but have never really been advised as to what it is that they are trying to do. The end result is that they approach Scripture like I approach repairs - we hammer the screws, twist the nails, and strip the bolts. The lesson is exegetically unfaithful and our students are no closer to Christ than they were when we began.
So what is it we are trying to do in teaching? The simple answer is that we are trying to say to our students what the Bible says to them. In this way, God speaks and lives are changed. So the tools we are to employ help us to do simply this; they are to help the teacher understand what the Bible is saying.
Curriculum is only a tool. Yet I believe it is probably the most misused tool in the local church. Here is where most teachers go awry with curriculum:
We endeavor only to say what the curriculum writer is saying. Many teachers caught in this trap would simply read a lesson to their students. Other teachers may not read the lesson to their students, but they may only regurgitate to their students what the writer says. There is no fresh experience of the teacher with the Biblical text. As the word “regurgitate” may insinuate, the end result is a lesson no one really enjoys because the material is far from fresh!
We allow the curriculum to become the class.Teachers must do more than accomplish lessons, they must teach the Bible. The point of curriculum is to help you become a better teacher, it is not to replace you as the teacher. Curriculum should help guide us, it is not there to remove us. Curriculum gives us suggestions on how a well prepared and managed class could go, it is not giving us a mandate on how a class must go. Teachers who fall into this trap may be robotic, detached from their students. The teacher may also find himself or herself constantly frustrated because there is not enough time allowed for the class to accomplish all that is outlined in the curriculum. In trying to accomplish a pre-planned agenda they distance themselves from discussion, the real needs of the students, or the student’s learning styles. Remember, curriculum writers may know the Bible, but they don’t know you or your students.
A well prepared teacher who uses curriculum rightly is able to discern what is best from the curriculum for their students (I will address this as I continue to post on this topic). They are selective and are able to use the curriculum to enhance their teaching rather than dictate their teaching. Remember, you are not teaching curriculum, you are teaching the Bible!
We study curriculum rather than study the Bible. I often see teachers in the church come to class with a quarterly in hand, ready to teach, but with no Bible. The sight of this grieves me. It tells me first of all that the curriculum has been on their study table while their Bible has remained on the shelf. If one’s Bible is not brought from home, one’s Bible is probably not used at home. The sight of the Bible-less teacher also tells me that that teacher is prepared only to cover the lesson rather than to really teach the Bible from the overflow of their own personal interaction with the Word of God (I will address this idea in later posts as well). Again, curriculum should not take over, it is a guide not a replacement.
I know I said previously that it is important to read and study what God has said to other people, but if I stood in the pulpit week to week and simply read or quoted other preacher’s sermons, they may be Scripturally faithful, they may make good points, but they would not be fresh because they are not mine. I have said only what God has said to another person, but I have not said what God has said to me, nor have I said what God is saying to the people He has entrusted me to teach.
Curriculum is a great tool, but if it is misused it bends, twists, and drills the life out of the Bible rather than exposes the life that is in the Bible. If we are to rightly apply curriculum to our teaching, we must understand it for what it is. It is a guide, a suggestion, another writer’s experience with the text. It is to enhance our teaching, not to replace it. So how do we properly use curriculum as a teaching tool? We must:
Understand what a curriculum/writer is saying?
Understand how a curriculum/writer arrived at what they are saying?
Understand why a curriculum/writer would say what they have said?
Last week I mentioned that when it comes to teaching we cannot continue as we are. Teachers are the tongues of the church. Even though they comprise a small part of the congregation, relative to the number of students, what they say and teach carries a great deal of weight within the congregation. So how do we improve our teaching? The answer is time, tools, and training.
The Bible is a living Word. It speaks, but this does not mean that it is easy to understand. Many people mistakingly believe that because the Bible is spiritual in nature that with a little prayer and righteousness one will gain mysterious insight into the Word of which the natural man is not privy. This is the stuff from which cults are born!
While it is true that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” he also tells Pastor Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” The phrase “rightly handling the word of truth” is taken from the idea of a butcher carefully cutting the meat. If he is not skilled in his craft filet mignon becomes ground beef. The Word of God is full of filet mignon but unfortunately many of our pulpits and lecterns in the classroom are full of ground beef.
So when Paul is saying that truth is spiritually discerned, we know that he is not saying that academic work has no place in teaching and preaching. Let us not forget, Paul was himself a great scholar (Acts 22:2-3, Gal. 1:14, Phil. 3:5-6). The work of the Spirit in helping us discern spiritual truth speaks more to attitude and receptivity rather than to understanding. An atheistic Bible scholar (and there are such things) can use tools to help understand the Bible, but he will disregard it as authoritative truth for his life. The problem in modern Christendom is that many of our teachers have a spiritual attitude and receptivity to the Bible as authoritative truth, but they lack the tools, or perhaps even disregard them altogether, that would help them to properly understand it.
A great teacher or preacher approaches his or her study of the text, every element of it and the use of the tools as Spirit work. When I was a much younger, naive, idealistic, sophomoric, college student I remember raising the issue of study as simply trying to listen to what the Spirit says to you. I insinuated that in the end, we didn’t need all the books and tools that seem to go along with Bible study. “All we need is the Spirit.” In humility and wisdom my professor kindly retorted, “But why should we be so prideful to think that what the Spirit has said to others is of no value?” Ouch!
So what are the tools (the things that the Spirit has said to others) that will help the teachers in the church move from good, to great?
Last week I mentioned that when it comes to teaching we cannot continue as we are. Teachers are the tongues of the church. Even though they comprise a small part of the congregation, relative to the number of students, what they say and teach carries a great deal of weight within the congregation. So how do we improve our teaching? The answer is time, tools, and training.
It takes time to be a great teacher. It goes without saying that the longer you teach, the more you should improve in your teaching. It is not unusual for beginning teachers to struggle, so give it time. Yet this is not the investment of time to which I refer.
Study Time -
Again, it goes without saying that teachers should spend time in study. Great teachers do not cram. They are disciplined and calculated. Great teachers are great planners. They are able to say “no” to things that threaten time in study. Life is full of interruptions. Yet even then a great teacher is able to manage his time in such a way that time lost to interruption is somehow regained later on. I will talk more about study in a later post.
As a pastor on a constant schedule of producing material I have found that the greatest time I spend preparing through the week is not in study, but in what I call “incubation.” Incubation is the time a teacher spends allowing what he or she has studied to seethe in the soul and intersect with life. It is not time in a book, it is time in the car. It is time over coffee. It is time in conversation. It is time grilling with the family. If a teacher will commit himself to study early, he will be amazed at how many great thoughts about the upcoming lecture or lesson will be birthed at odd and unexpected moments. Be sure then to have a notepad handy. Or in the digital age, to have your smartphone handy. My iPhone is full of notes born during incubation, at odd moments in the day.
The late Stephen Olford once taught preaching students the concept of “incarnational preaching.” His idea was that sermons must be conceived in the soul of the preacher much like Jesus was conceived in Mary. Literally, the Word must have time to incubate, to grow to full maturity before it can be born in health.
In his biography of James A. Bryan (1863-1941), pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL for 52 years, Hunter Blakely shares that “Brother Bryan” as he was affectionately known, had very few books in his personal library. Though a Princeton graduate, Brother Bryan’s habit was not to spend a great deal of time in books, but rather with people. He would give himself to study of the passage he was to preach early on Monday morning. He would then spend the rest of the week talking about it in conversation in a street car or as a devotional piece for firemen or at the dedication of the opening of the new factory. In this way the passage had ample time to incubate in the pastor’s soul and to intersect with daily life before it was birthed in full health before the congregation on Sunday.
For a Sunday Sermon I try to finish my exegesis of the passage (the book work) by Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday morning at the latest. I then try to talk through the passage (usually with my wife) or to use something from the passage in conversation a few times through the week. It is in these conversations that I usually have my “aha” moments when it all comes together.
Poor teachers begin their preparation at a time that should be dedicated to finalization. It is in the process of finalization that we give ourselves to prayerfully asking, “How will anything I have studied this week make a ‘hill of beans’ difference in the lives of any of my hearers?” Or if you are less Southern fried than I, a more proper question may be, “What difference does it make?” It is here that the teacher will find that his or her most difficult task is to trim down and cut away great notes and nuggets that may be wonderful truths, but are not necessary for the moment. It is hard to say to these great notes, quotes, and stories, “Not this week.”
Great teachers teach from an overflow. They always have way too much. We do not put lessons together to merely “fill time.” We aim to teach well because someone is graciously giving us “their time.”
During finalization you are trimming down, bringing cohesiveness to your lesson, and developing a strategy to drive home the point. Great sermons and lessons bring the hearer to a verdict. They not only share information, but they make an argument. If ample time is given to study early in the week, incubation throughout the week, the process of finalization will be an experience of joy without pressure. Here we are not trying to produce a lesson, we are merely trying to refine our argument.
Start early in the week. Do the academic work it requires to be a great teacher, but also be sure to give the passage time to incubate in your soul. Great lessons are not conceived on desks, but in the course of daily life, in conversation, during interruption, in the most unexpected moments. The culminating act of preparation should not be cramming, but finalization. Great teachers do not aim to “share it all” but to “share the best.” Great communicators make an argument and drive the hearer to a verdict.
A few weeks ago I began a discussion of the importance of youth education in the church, seeking particularly to drive home the point that we should expect more for them and from them. If our students are to leave the church as modern day Josiahs rather than Jezebels we must give serious consideration to the matter of education in the Christian church and home. (See previous posts)
If we are to take corrective measure we must evaluate several aspects of education: teaching, curriculum, the relationship between the church/school and home, and finally the disposition/dedication of the learner. Let’s consider these matters in order; first of all, the teacher.
James says in James 3:1, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” This verse in itself does serious damage to the modern day philosophy of the typical Baptist church, that “almost everyone” should serve as teachers. The foundational element of Christian ed. in most churches, particularly Baptist ones, is the small group. In the traditional setting these are typically referred to as Sunday School classes. Success is measured in numerical growth. Numerical growth comes by multiplication. Classes are challenged to start new classes. The commitment of the structure is to gain more and more students by offering more and more classes. The end result is a fully graded Sunday School slate for children and a plethora of targeted classes for adults that range from everything as mundane as the “Your Married and 30 So Go Here Class” to the “We Ride Harleys on the Weekend Road Warrior Class.” In the melee of multiplication there is great excitement but a vitally important element is most often ignored that results in a growing-church that is 100 miles wide and 1 inch deep. What have we neglected? We have succeeded in multiplying students, but we have failed to do the serious work of grooming truly gifted, Biblically sound, Christ-centered, expositors of the Word of God - real teachers.
It seems that the early New Testament church suffered from the same struggle. There was an ever growing need for learning and discipleship and a corresponding famine of real teachers. To solve the issue, they like we, must have found the first willing soul and given them a quarterly, or in the case of James a papyrus scroll of copied text. Yet we must remember, a quarterly in a willing hand does not a teacher make! So James was honest about the situation and tells the church plainly that not everyone who currently fills a teaching position is qualified to teach. “Not many” or “Not as many of you should become teachers.” Though James is direct, his counsel is given in love. Though he is judging them, he is not abandoning them, “my brothers.” Though he is harsh, he is concerned, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” I do not think James is necessarily saying that they should quit and never teach again. I think what James is saying is that in the very least they should not continue teaching as they are without giving more serious consideration to what they are doing. Why?
Teachers are the tongues of the church.
Beginning in verse 2 James launches into an exposition on the danger of the tongue. The working metaphor is that little things can make a big difference. A tongue is one of the smallest body parts, but is powerful through speech. A rudder is a small part of the ship, but it determines its course. A bit is only a small piece of metal, but it has the power to steer a horse. A spark is only a tiny momentary flash of heat, but it can quickly turn a field into flame.
Teachers, comparative to the numbers of students may be few, but they hold a great deal of sway over the actual outcome of discipleship in the church. Teachers are the tongues, rudders, bits, and sparks of the church. We need then to be diligent not only to start classes, but to train teachers. Faithful to the metaphor in James 3, perhaps we should do something relatively small that will pay big dividends in the direction of the church. I am like James. I am not calling on teachers to necessarily quit, but I am calling on our teachers to give serious consideration to what they are doing. We cannot continue as we are. A small amount of regular time devoted to training, oversight, and faithful exposition of the text could make a big difference in what we are hearing from the tongues of the church. In the end we will begin to see a big difference in our students. Great teachers inspire great students. Let’s be more diligent in the task of grooming faithful teachers.
In 2008 I attended the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum hosted by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. One of the keynote speakers was Bart Ehrman, bestselling author of Misquoting Jesus and several other volumes that basically seek to undermine the trustworthiness of the Biblical text. Though Ehrman is a noted atheist who has renounced his faith in God, Christianity, and the Bible, he is the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill and a noted New Testament lecturer. How ironic.
In his opening comments Ehrman stated,
“I teach at the University of North Carolina and I’m teaching a large undergraduate class this semester on the New Testament. And most of my students are from the South, most of them are raised in good Christian families, and I have found over the years they have far greater commitment to the Bible than knowledge about it.”
Ehrman then went on to share that during the previous semester he started off the first day of class, with 300 students, by asking, “How many would agree with the proposition the Bible is the inspired word of God?” A large amount of hands were raised. “How many have read the DaVinci Code by Dan Brown?” Again, a large response. “How many have read the whole Bible?” Only a scattered amount of hands were raised. Ehrman then stated, “I’m not telling you I think God wrote the Bible; you’re telling me you think God wrote the Bible. I can see why you would want to read a book by Dan Brown, but if God wrote a book wouldn’t you want to see what He had to say?” Ehrman chuckles.
Christian education in the church and home has indeed become laughable. However, the result is no laughing matter. After hours and hours of commitment to church attendance, Sunday School classes, discipleship courses, and camps, most of our students who go on to study in universities enter a severe crisis of faith within five to ten minutes of entering classrooms under the tutelage of a scholar like Bart Ehrman. By the end of the first lecture most of what our students have been taught in Sunday School has been dismantled. By the end of the first semester our precious church kids are practical atheists. They no longer read the Bible, attend church, or hold fast to Christian values. In their minds, men like Ehrman give them good reasons not to.
We know this is a problem. We have known this for decades. Yet what changes have we made in the educational process of raising children in church to answer this crisis? The changes have been non existent to barely noticeable. We are sending our sheep out to the slaughter having been versed in Bible stories, but with no real theological training, no real knowledge of the Biblical text, and no lasting commitment to Christ. We are twenty years away from being nearly gone because we are educating ourselves in such a way that will eventually lead to our extinction.
The survival of the Jew as a people is nothing short of a historically verifiable cultural miracle. Apparently the Mayans have sent word to us that the world will end in December of this year. Do you know any Mayans? They didn’t survive. The Mayans have gone the way of countless civilizations that either disappeared off the face of the earth or were absorbed into more dominant empires. Civilizations do not die by bullets and bombs. Civilizations die by ideas. The Jews have suffered exile, captivity, persecution, and numerous holocausts through the centuries yet they continue to exist. The Jews have been the marked target of culture and race supremacy in almost every crisis they have suffered, yet each of the historical regimes and empires that have attempted to wipe the Jew off the face of the earth are gone and Israel is now a sovereign state. How did they do it? Education.
The intelligentsia that has hijacked American universities and pop-culture have leveled a deliberate assault against the integrity of the Bible and the validity of the Christian faith. Currently we are not under the threat of bullets and persecution. Yet if we do not get serious about educating our students in the church and home, we will be annihilated by ideas.
The example of ancient Jewish education in the home and at the house of God is at the root of the call of the Biblical text for parents and churches to pass on the precepts of our faith to our children. Deuteronomy 6:7 commands the people to teach the word of God diligently to their children. The term “teach diligently” literally means to sharpen. It is the same word used to describe the sharpening of an arrow or a tool for effective, penetrating use. It implies that the lessons of God’s Word will not only be shared, but that they should be shared repeatedly. Each time they are shared the more potent the application of the lesson becomes. By the time Jewish children left the home they were to be effective carriers of the Word of God fully equipped to teach the generation that was to follow them. In this way, no matter the context, whether in exile or under persecution, Israel would not only survive but her people would remain sharp.
Dr. Ron Moseley writes an insightful article about the process of ancient Jewish education. Moseley states, “The goals of Jewish education may be broadly summed up: (1) to transmit knowledge and skills from generation to generation; (2) to increase knowledge and skills; and (3) to concretize cultural values into accepted behavior.” The end result was an education in the Scriptures that led to Scriptural living. The seriousness of the course is seen in the expectation for education at various stages of a child’s life. At age 5 one was considered ready to study the Scriptures. At age 5, children were taught first from the Book of Leviticus so that they may understand how to remain ritually pure in their approach to God. After Leviticus children were led to the Psalms so that they could begin to understand the nature of God. At age 10 children were educated in the Law and expected to obey it. Moseley goes on to lay out the ancient Jewish system and uses it as the historical context for understanding the New Testament instructions concerning Christian education.
“At the age of fifteen one was ready to study of the sages, at the age of eighteen, for marriage, and at the age of twenty, for pursuing a vocation. Yeshua (Jesus) is called both the son of Joseph the carpenter and Yeshua the carpenter (Book of Mark). Obviously, Joseph had followed this pattern and taught his son his vocation. At the age of thirty one entered the full vigor of his ministry. It was at this point in Yeshua’s life that we see Him entering the full ministry. At age forty one reached a place where he had understanding, and at age fifty the individual was worthy to counsel others. It is in this setting that the Biblical injunction for the older (age fifty) men to counsel the younger men and the older women to counsel the younger.”
When describing the current state of Christian education in the home and the church the “sharp” is not the word that immediately comes to mind. If anything we could say, it is that we have become dull. How can we possibly call adequate the process currently taking place in the home and the church if our students are arriving to universities saying they believe the Bible is the Word of God, but never having been challenged to actually read it all the way through? Yet reading the Bible all the way through would be a nice improvement, but it is hardly a worthy goal. The goal should be for our students to have such a thorough knowledge of the Word of God that it literally becomes a “working knowledge”, one that is applied to life, vocation, and culture. This was the goal of ancient Jewish education. One has not learned what one cannot apply.
Ehrman is right in what he insinuated in his opening comments. If we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, we should not only be committed to it, but we should be committed to knowing all we can about it. The current approach to Christian education is dull. It is not working. Our students are being dismantled in secular culture instead of penetrating it. Like the Jews, we should seek to integrate a thorough Biblical education into every aspect of life and vocational training. We should want more than just kids who attended Sunday School and church education programs, we should want our children to be sharpened by the experience. We need a better way.
The statistics vary depending on the study sample, but some estimate that as many as 82% of teens who attend Southern Baptist Churches will leave the church within one year after graduating high school.There may be many causes of our failure, but I suspect part of the problem is that student ministry has become like most facets of church life. We major on experience rather than expectation.
What if we approached student ministry with a new set of standards? What if student ministry moved away from presentation and into exploration? What if we made less of the party and more of the search? What if we did not just desire, but actually expected 20 year olds to enter the third decade of their life with maturity, responsibility, and the ability to make a difference? What if we spent less time and effort on entertaining students and invested more in strategically equipping them?
The Bible says of King Josiah,
For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy (age 16), he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year (age 20) he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved and the metal images. (2 Chron. 34:3)
The story of the years of Josiah’s life between 16 and 20 read very differently than what we see happening to most students in American churches. According to statistics, our students move into their twenties and spiritually fail. They leave the church not to purge pop culture of the high places, but rather our students are leaving the church for the high places. The interesting context of this passage is that had Josiah built more high places rather than purge them, it would have been par for the course. Had he done so, Josiah would have simply been following the path of most of the kings that preceded him. It is time for us, like Josiah, to change course. Yet, the statistical trends of American student ministry have become so common, that when a person leaves the church at 20 we no longer mourn it - we expected it.
In his later teenage years, before he was considered to be a man, Josiah broke the mold and invested four years of his life in a search. This time in his life equipped Josiah to be a very different king. Josiah gives us serious cause to think critically about the current state of American youth ministry.
I am not raising a new issue here. Currently there is great debate about the reformation of student ministry in the American church. It looks as if we are nearing the end of the youth camp, youth concert, youth movement era that started with Youth for Christ and will probably draw to a close when the Newsboys are invited to be on the next Gaither Homecoming tape. What is happening now is what happens with every movement and philosophy in the evangelical church. Someone dares to break the mold and contextualizes the gospel to answer the challenges of the culture. For some time it actually works with explosive growth. For the next 30 years everyone else does their own version of the same thing. The movement then becomes the mold and for those who are born of the mold and not the movement, they are deceived into thinking that “this” is the only way the gospel works. Fifty years later someone comes along once again daring to break the mold. Great debate ensues and . . . off we go again into new forms of contextualization.
I am not a movement maker, but I do know that the great debate that eventually breaks the mold, in its initial stages, usually centers on methods. This is a waste of time and a grave mistake. Currently, my observation of the great debate surrounding student ministry is that we are indeed wasting time. We know there is a problem, but we are not talking about the right issue. My opinion is that our problem in student ministry is that while it may be true that some of the methods are somewhat dated, our greatest problem is with the content, not the method. Student/youth ministry isn’t bad. There is nothing inherently wrong with camps, concerts, and the myriad expressions of youth church life. Yet student/youth ministry without theological weight, Biblical content, purposeful training, and an expectation for Christ-like maturity is heresy, not ministry.
If we are to really break the mold of student ministry and produce twenty-somethings who will not leave the church for the high places, but will instead purge pop culture of the high places, we need to take notes from Josiah. We need something that calls for us to truly seek the God of David. What does this mean?
The Bible does not reveal to us the method nor the curriculum for Josiah’s seeking, but we do know that the object we seek determines the nature of the search. Josiah sought for the God of David; that much is clear. What if we reoriented student ministry to bring teens to the same destination that Josiah’s search took him? Josiah’s search for the God of David brought the young king to a place where he:
Took on the responsibilities of leadership earlier rather than later. Josiah became King when he was 8 years old. I am not advocating that 2nd graders take the throne, but I do believe we are producing people of low responsibility because we are meeting them with low expectations. What if we desired more from teens in church than mere attendance? What if we expected them to contribute? The principle here is that by the time Josiah was 20, he was not only King, but a highly effective one. When our 18-20 somethings leave student ministry, how effective are they expected to be? While our 16 year olds are in student ministry, how much do we expect them to contribute to the greater whole of the Body of Christ? If we are honest here, the answer, we expect a 16 year old to contribute little to nothing to the rest of us. I have fallen into this trap and I am ashamed. It is time to reform student ministry around the idea of equipping teens to make a contribution to the Body of Christ. It is unnatural and unbiblical for us to do anything else (1 Cor. 12:7). If we desire for our teens to become young adults, like Josiah, who contribute to the Kingdom, we must invest something in their lives in their late teens that will equip them to be highly effective. We must also place an expectation on them that indeed they will contribute.
Clearly forsook the immoral trappings of pagan pop-culture. For too long student ministry, and greater “churchianity” for that matter, has been overly concerned with saying “Don’t” and not very proficient in explaining “Why not.” Josiah’s search for God showed him that morality was not merely a negative issue of why we should not, but a positive issue of why following God is a better way. In the end Josiah was so convinced that living for the one true God was a much better way that he saw it as a needed reform that would make a positive impact on his kingdom. Telling teens the world is “bad” isn’t enough. We need to equip them. Josiah did not leave “student ministry” afraid of pop-culture; Josiah left his teens years able to discern, confront, and change pop-culture. We do not need students who are simply morally constrained, but we need students who are morally convinced.
Restored the Temple of God as the proper place of worship. The word “worship” over the last 50 years has eroded into describing an event that is little more than a performance based presentation of songs about God. This same approach has filtered into youth culture. Though we are desperately seeking to escape the trappings of performance based “worship” experiences, we are not willing, nor equipped to forsake what’s wrong and rebuild what’s right. The restoration of the Temple was not an exercise in architecture, but one of theology. Rebuilding the Temple forced Josiah to study and to know God. Building a place to worship God forced Josiah to explore not what pleased man, but what pleased His God. Worship is not worship if it is not for God, about God, on God’s terms, and according to God’s Word. Worship is Spirit and truth. A Temple rebuilt without the Word would simply be a man-made religious castle. Most of our songs and presentations we mistake for worship are nothing more than the empty castles of man-made religion. We need students who are theologically astute, who do not merely hear rhythms, but pay attention to words. We need students who are not only equipped to play good music, but who are equipped to employ their hearts deeply into thinking rightly about what pleases God.
Took seriously the Word of God. Perhaps Josiah’s greatest discovery is when Hilkiah finds the “Law of the Lord given through Moses (2 Chron. 34:14).” For a young man who was on a search for the God of David, finding God’s book was the same as hearing God’s voice. Our students need to hear the voice of God again. The impact of the Word of God in his life at this moment was unmistakable. He tore his clothes and then sought to further reform the Kingdom according to God’s Word, eventually re-instituting the liturgical calendar including the Passover (2 Chron. 35). If we want our students to take God’s Word seriously as young men and young women, we must expect them to take God’s Word seriously as young students.
My experience with student ministry has been that we are more concerned with convincing our teens that the Bible is cool than we are with helping them to become good students of it. Our teenage years, especially the later ones, are some of the most inquisitive seasons of our life. It is here that we really begin to question what is real. Where we have failed in youth ministry is that we are following the lead of public education and we are “dumbing it down.” If we are no longer calling it youth ministry but rather “student ministry” why don’t we actually help our youth become the students we claim that they are? Why don’t we spend more time helping students find the answers they seek in the Bible rather than merely telling them great stories? Why aren’t students challenged to memorize Scripture, explore historical backgrounds, or dig deep into the text? I will tell you why. We don’t think they can. Yet, when Josiah finally encountered the Word the reformation of his life was complete. Until our students are sufficiently introduced to the Word the reformation of their souls has yet to even begin.
The end result of student ministry in America will not change until it moves from experience to expectation. We are in desperate need of reform. It is time to move the debate from methodology to one of content. No matter how we change the approach, we need our students to do more than simply get excited about God, they need to encounter Him. Josiah did what all teens do. He searched. But unlike what most teens are finding in the American church, Josiah’s search led him to real truth and radical life change. If anything Josiah proves to us is that teens can do what we expect they can’t, this is why we now have a method of youth ministry desperately void of meaningful content. Yet students can be challenged. They can be theological. They can be serious students. They can take on responsibility. They can search hard for the God of David and find Him. They can enter their 20’s well equipped to confront pop-culture and make a positive impact on the kingdom.