Chapter 1. Shallowness in Biblical Teaching

Chapter 1

Shallowness in Biblical Teaching

"Get Your People Pumped!"

That was the title of the training event the ministry team leaders in our church chose to attend. They picked it above all others because it was close by and promised them hope in turning around our stagnant ministry programs.

We were greeted with colorful banners and exciting music. The circus atmosphere quickly woke us up after our early morning, one-hour drive. Soon we were captured by the frenzy of a crowd of excited people swaying to the music from the loud worship band. When the main speaker took the stage, he captured the attention of the audience with jokes, affirmations, and drama.

Suddenly we were told to form small groups based on a number printed on our handouts. After a few minutes of bedlam, each participant settled into a circle of strangers to engage in a formatted "get to know one another" activity. Just when some connections were being made, we were thrust into a new learning activity. This time it was a brief skit, followed by a clip from a contemporary movie showing the desperate needs of people in our culture. While I don't remember the details of all the experiences of the day, I do remember the Bible lesson theme. The focus of the lesson was Jesus' illustration from Matt 7:24-27 of building a house on the rock rather than on the sand. A dramatic skit on stage etched that theme in my mind forever. Using huge LEGO bricks, two teams built similar houses on different foundations. One built on a pile of foam balls and the other on a pile of bricks. When a large industrial fan was turned on, accompanied by fierce storm sounds from the audience, the result was graphic. The house on the foam balls fell with a crash, and the house on the bricks stood firm.

We were then formed into new small groups near our seats to speculate what the different foundations represented from the dramatized story. While the text was displayed on a screen with a PowerPoint image, little direction was given to the small groups as to how to analyze Jesus' illustration. In fact, the groups were asked to focus mainly on the dramatic presentation to discover what the sand and the rock might represent.

The leader roamed around the small groups looking for a consensus from the groups in answer to the main question. He then called the groups together to sing that old Sunday school song, "The Wise Man Built His House upon the Rock." Then he asked the groups in a loud voice, "Who is the Rock?" To which the crowd responded, "Jesus!"

He repeated the question and asked the audience to respond at least four times. The scene reminded me of a high school pep rally.

The seminar concluded with the small groups coming up with creative ways to help people in their various ministries reach out to unbelievers and draw them to Jesus as their foundation instead of the superficial foundations of the world. Some of the more creative groups were asked to present their plans in front of everyone. In conclusion, we were challenged to go back to our churches and more intentionally design strategies to reach people who did not know Jesus.

While my leaders definitely picked up some valuable ideas and methods to pump up their people, I left the seminar with a deep sadness.

It wasn't because of the new and creative ideas and methods. As an educator I know how important it is to engage the learner in the lesson. My sadness came from the superficiality of the whole learning experience. I was disappointed by the lack of depth relationally, educationally, and theologically. The whole experience left me feeling empty.

Is it possible to be pumped up, yet empty?

The real heartbreaker for me was the superficial and inaccurate way Scripture was used. A more thorough analysis of Matt 7:24-27 within its immediate scriptural context would reveal that Jesus was challenging His audience to a different theme from the one identified by the seminar leader.

(Before reading any further, see for yourself. Answer the question posed by the seminar leader, "What did Jesus use the sand and the rock to represent?" Start reading in v. 13 of chap. 7 to understand a little more of the context of this illustration in vv. 24-28.)

It is clear after studying the context and the specific words Jesus used in vv. 24-27 that to build one's house on the rock had deeper implications than a simple declaration of a belief in Jesus. In vv. 15-20, He challenges His followers to look out for false teachers who will wear sheep's clothing to cover up their real identity as wolves. He concludes the illustration in v. 20 with the statement, "By their fruit you will know them." His point is that we have to be wary of people who claim to be His followers but do not display any evidence in their lives. The issue is deception. In vv. 21-23, Jesus goes on to explain that it is not those who say they follow the Lord who will get into heaven but only those who "do the will of my Father." Jesus' next illustration, of the houses erected on sand and rock, builds on the two previous illustrations. The context reemphasizes the obvious point of the story of the two foundations. There is no stability in simply calling Him "Lord" or doing religious deeds for Him. Rather, security only comes to those who build their homes on the rock, by acting on or putting into practice His words. The central theme of this passage is not simply to believe in Jesus as the rock. Rather, Jesus is challenging superficial believers to understand that the only way they can be secure is not merely by listening to His words but by putting them into practice. Believing in Jesus means listening to Him closely and doing what He says. Even a child can understand this principle.

As Christian educators we must be careful not to distort or water down the message of the Word of God in an attempt to be relevant or overly simplistic.

A generation ago the major problem with biblical teaching was that it often lacked cultural relevance and practical application. In both secular and religious education, content was taught as an end in itself. Wilhoit used the term "transmissive approach" to describe this traditional schooling model of education that "put a high value on the retention of factual information." Yet as a result of the influence of secular educators such as John Dewey and religious educators such as Larry Richards, there has been a shift of focus from content itself to using content to enable students to "make sense out of the world" or, for Christians, to guide them in their Christian pilgrimage. For the most part this shift made education more useful and practical by focusing more on process and application. This has been largely positive for the church. It has engaged more students in active learning and applying biblical truth to their lives. Yet, as with any major change, there is a tendency for the shift to go too far. The focus on process to the neglect of content is a shift neither Dewey nor Richards would embrace. Both of them maintained a high value on both content and application. In many Christian education settings, biblical teaching has become too shallow biblically, relationally, and educationally. In an attempt to pander to the needs of busy teachers and students who crave instant gratification, we have abandoned the high biblical standards for "correctly teaching the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15). In an attempt to be relevant and practical, we have sometimes glossed over the objective facts and principles of the biblical text. In an attempt to produce visible tokens of student learning, we have ignored the need for more lasting fruits of changed character.

To address this problem of superficiality in Christian teaching, I have identified six faulty but commonly held principles that may influence our approach to teaching the Bible within our culture: (1) All fun activity equals good learning. (2) All interaction equals good learning. (3) Keeping students busy is more important than accurately teaching biblical facts and principles. (4) Simple points are more important than biblical depth. (5) Since most people learn through their experience, experience must be the basis of truth. (6) Accomplishing measurable behavioral objectives is more important than changing students' character.

While each of the statements may contain an element of truth, each also contains serious errors that fall short of scriptural teaching standards that will transform a person's heart and life into the likeness of Jesus Christ. These statements may serve as warnings to each of us to evaluate carefully our presuppositions about teaching and learning before we begin to teach.

Partial Truths of Good Learning

1. All Fun Activity Equals Good Learning

While the enjoyment of a learning experience almost always increases the level of student learning, not all fun activity can be equated with good learning. Students can have a good time and learn negative values. Children could have a lot of fun playing a game such as dodgeball, but if a few children were allowed to cheat without being confronted, the overall experience could certainly be negative for many of the participants. It is even possible that the children who had the most fun could be those who were cheating.

Youth pastors often make this mistake in designing fun activities for their students. They sometimes design fun excursions like trips to amusement parks, sports activities, or movies, purely as fun events to attract unchurched students. In themselves these events could be designed as positive learning events. Yet if they are not organized well with biblical goals and objectives, they could easily degenerate into opportunities for the students to learn negative values and behavior. Fun activity is of great value when it affirms biblical principles.

2. All Interaction Equals Good Learning

One of the most positive developments in Christian education in the last 50 years is the growth of small groups. More intimate settings with a smaller group of children, students, or adults allow people of all ages the opportunity to interact and learn more effectively. In order to grow as a disciple of Christ, each believer needs to be connected to a small group of fellow believers in order to confide in others. Yet not all small groups are positive learning environments. Not all interaction, even within a church or parachurch setting, is necessarily positive. Gossip, backbiting, criticism, cockiness, and cliquishness can squelch the learning within a small group. Not all interaction promotes positive learning.

A small group of adults getting together regularly may spend a great deal of time sharing personal concerns and needs, but if the effect of the communication within the group doesn't reinforce biblical values and principles, the learning is more likely to be negative. If what the adult participants take away from their Bible study has no connection to what the text actually says within its grammatical and historical context, they could be seriously deceived. If a group allows its members to gossip repeatedly about other people in the church, they could subtly contradict the principles they profess.

It is not always healthy for a group to get together and simply share their feelings and perceptions about the Bible. If they fail to examine the facts and principles of the biblical text itself, they may fail to learn the truth God has for them in His Word. Recently I was observing a youth group in which the leader divided the large group into several small groups to discuss their observations from the scene of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Their guide was a list of generic questions designed to help the students identify the observations, meanings, and applications from the story. Yet without any real leaders within the groups or an intentional focus of the questions, most of the small groups missed the main point of the whole passage. Little attempt was made before they broke up to guide students toward the most significant discoveries in the text. As a result, the students focused on random details and insights rather than Jesus' main intention in this dramatic event. As valuable as the students' ideas are, little is gained if what they learn has nothing to do with the central meaning of the text. In fact, what they learn may even be contrary to God's Word if it is based on inaccurate observation or interpretation. Inductive group Bible study needs to be structured in some way through the carefully designed questions of a leader or in a written guide to ensure that the participants are moving toward the intended meaning of the text or story. This guidance will help ensure that the participants arrive at a right understanding of the truth of the text. While interaction is necessary for effective learning, it must reinforce biblical values and principles. Heart-deep teaching must go beyond just good discussions and personal sharing.

3. Keeping Students Busy Is More Important Than Accurately Teaching Biblical Facts and Principles

This subtle error in educational practice stems from the mantra of "active learning" that is continually repeated by curriculum guides and trainers. While active learning is extremely important for learners of all ages, it should never minimize the value of the biblical text. In training teachers, I have observed that some spend more time thinking up creative learning activities than they do researching and thinking about the main biblical point they are trying to teach. Many pick a creative, active learning experience related to a theme before studying the biblical text they will use to teach it. As a result, the text often appears to supplement the activity rather than provide the rationale or principle behind the activity. In such cases there is a tendency to alter the biblical text's main idea to fit the illustration or activity.

Teachers and curriculum writers must spend enough time digging deep into the Word of God to discover the necessary facts, principles, and Big Idea of a text before designing creative activities to help their students learn at a heart-deep level. Even then, teachers must assess the outcome of the activity to make sure the students will go away accomplishing the biblical goals of the lesson rather than just focusing on the activity. Student activity, disconnected from principles derived from God's Word, does not result in heart-deep learning.

4. Simple Points Are More Important Than Biblical Depth

With the tantalizing options of technology available today to make presentations clear, concise, simple, and impacting, some teachers are substituting simplistic, predigested points pillaged from the Internet for truths taken from their experiences with God and their personal study of His Word. Sometimes the mystery and ambiguity of God's revelation is sacrificed at the altar of time, language, and text message-patterned attention spans. Without minimizing the educational value of keeping things as simple as possible, simple points should always illuminate rather than hide biblical truth.

Jesus was the master of communicating simple points, yet His simplicity never came at the expense of depth. While each of His parables and stories had a simple Big Idea, His simplicity was never a mask for "dead-end" thinking. Jesus' simplicity served as a "trailhead" to mark the beginning of the path that learners should take to change their hearts, minds, wills, and actions. Jesus' simple stories and pointed challenges served as catalysts for "heart-deep" change rather than simple points to take home and put on a shelf. Take for example Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan. It would have been difficult for people to listen to Jesus tell this simple story and walk away without their hearts being changed. We must never be satisfied with a simple, polished, professional, PowerPoint presentation that impresses our audience without challenging people to a change of heart.

5. Since Most People Learn Through Their Experience, Experience Must Be the Basis of Truth

While most people learn through their experience, the basis of truth is not our experience. Truth is truth whether or not anyone experiences it. It does not mystically become truth through our experience. While it is important for us to experience truth in order to know it personally, the validity of truth does not depend on our experience.

In John 14:6, in response to a question from one of His followers about heaven, Jesus declares, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Jesus is making an objective statement about the nature of truth: He is the truth. The validity of this statement does not depend on whether people actually experience Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life whether anyone follows Him or not. Yet if people are to know truth, they must know and experience Jesus personally. People do not get to heaven by simply acknowledging the fact that Jesus is the way to get there. That would be as absurd as saying an alcoholic could be delivered from his addiction by simply acknowledging that he or she has a problem.

In order to understand this fallacy, we must separate "the nature of truth" from "how we know truth." The "nature of truth" is objective and propositional. Yet "how we know truth" is both objective and subjective. While the nature of God is objective and propositional, knowing God has both objective and subjective experiential elements.

Jesus explains this principle in His response to the many Jews who had begun to follow Him. He says, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32 NIV). In order to be true disciples of Jesus, we must know the truth personally, a task that demands a personal, experiential response of holding to Jesus' teaching. The result of this deep, heart-motivated response of obedience to Jesus is true freedom. While the basis of truth is objective, knowing truth demands a response that is both objective (He tells us clearly what to do) and subjective (we must do it experientially). Yet the fact that we must experience truth in order to know it does not mean our experience is the basis of truth.

In order to understand the dynamics of heart-deep teaching, we must affirm the value of both objective, propositional truth and the experiential way we come to know truth. Heart-deep teaching depends on both.

6. Accomplishing Measurable Behavioral Objectives Is More Important Than Changing Students' Character

While few teachers would say they believe this statement, their practices in the classroom may prove otherwise. Time restraints, large classes, lack of consistency in teachers, and shallow relationships often make it appear as if all teachers care about is getting the students to accomplish short-term objectives. While short-term, measurable objectives are important, they should never displace the long-term goals of changing character. Intentional "heart-deep teaching" demands that the teacher plan both short- and long-term goals and objectives around the overarching mission of changing students' character.

It is too easy for a high school Sunday school teacher, in a lesson on witnessing, to be satisfied if each of the students shares his or her faith story with one person that week. As good as that accomplishment may be, it must be followed up with a variety of other learning experiences if it is to change the hearts of the students toward their unsaved friends. In the same way, children may be able to draw cute pictures in children's church about helping their parents with the dishes or taking out the garbage, but if they seldom help their parents at home, the exercise has little value.

There is no question about the value of encouraging students of all ages to put into practice the goals and objectives of a lesson. Yet teachers must be intentional about sequencing various learning activities challenging the mind, the emotions, the will, and the actions of their students. Behavioral objectives must never be isolated from the other dimensions of the person that also influence the heart to change. Rather, they need to be integrated with objectives from these other dimensions to produce a change in heart.

Teachers need to plan strategically to use an assortment of short-term and long-term learning activities to accomplish their learning goals and objectives with the ultimate goal of changing the hearts and character of their students. They should never be satisfied with mere external tokens of change.

In this chapter we have identified six faulty principles influencing Christian education practice that contribute to the problem of shallowness in biblical teaching today:

The solution to this problem of superficiality in teaching is not simply to unload a large quantity of "predigested" content on the students. Rather, the solution demands a return to the biblically based goals of education that focus on transforming the hearts and entire lives of people. The goal of Christian education must be to transform the heart so that every aspect of the person becomes progressively more Christlike. Anything less denies the radical transformational power that Christ gave us through His grace and Holy Spirit. Learning must penetrate the surface of the mind, the emotions, the will, and behavior. Heart-deep teaching must affect the innermost core of the person.

Application Questions

1. Identify an experience you have encountered related to each of these common yet faulty principles of teaching the Bible:

All fun activity equals good learning.

All interaction equals good learning.

Keeping students busy is more important than accurately teaching biblical facts and principles.

Simple points are more important than biblical depth.

Since most people learn through their experience, experience must be the basis of truth.

Accomplishing measurable behavioral objectives is more important than changing students' character.

2. What are some of the causes of superficiality in biblical teaching in our culture?

3. How would you characterize the depth of biblical teaching you have experienced at the different stages of your life from childhood until the present?

4. Identify and describe a Bible teacher from whom you learned much and under whose teaching you experienced life change.

5. How would you characterize the level of biblical and personal depth at which you normally teach?

6. What would you need to change in your life and ministry in order to teach at a deeper level and to reflect a stronger personal commitment to biblical truth?