Discovering Interactive Teaching
by Brian Anderson
The modern day "sermon" lies at the very heart of most contemporary "worship services." It comes replete with many distinguishing characteristics. It often takes the form of a lengthy gospel message, being a "preaching" rather than a "teaching." Additionally, it is usually delivered in a monologue lecture format, with no opportunity for feedback or dialogue from the congregation. Furthermore, there is no opportunity for anyone to question the teacher, evaluate the teaching, or spontaneously contribute an insight on the subject being taught. Morever, many believers today tacitly assume that the pastor is the only one who is uniquely qualified and gifted to teach the Word of God to the congregation. Finally, we assume that the way pastors deliver their teaching to the church is virtually the same as the way Christ, His apostles, and the early church taught their congregations.
In this chapter I would like to evaluate each of these traditions. My purpose in doing this is not to criticize or judge others. Rather, it is to stimulate us all to rethink the manner in which we minister God's Word in His church that we might do so in a more Biblical manner. After taking a good hard look at the ministry of God's Word in the early church, I have concluded that much that takes place in the contemporary church has little, if any, basis in Scripture. Instead, it appears that hundreds of years of ecclesiastical traditions have blinded our eyes from seeing many simple and beautiful principles tucked away in the New Testament scriptures.
Priority of Teaching in the Church
First, let's examine the commonly accepted supposition that states when the church gathers preaching should take center stage.
After examining all the New Testament passages which list the words "preach" and "teach" and their derivatives, I made some interesting discoveries. The first discovery was that the New Testament speaks far more of "teaching" than "preaching." There are only fifteen references to Jesus preaching, while we have 58 references to Him teaching. In the pastoral epistles, where we would expect to find that which should characterize the ministry of God's Word in the church, there are three references to preaching and fourteen references to teaching believers. Of the three verses which speak of preaching in the church, only one actually refers to preaching. The normal Greek word for preach (kerusso) occurs only in 2Tim.4:2. The other two references in the pastoral epistles which speak of "preaching" are translations of different Greek words. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul refers to elders who labor in preaching and teaching. The Greek word for "preaching" is logos, which means "word." Actually, Paul was merely describing elders who labor in the word of God. In Timothy 6:2 Paul urges Timothy to "teach and preach these principles." The word for "preach" is the Greek word parakaleo, which means "to exhort, comfort, or encourage." Paul was actually urging Timothy to teach and exhort by means of the principles he had just enumerated. Thus, it appears that our emphasis on preaching in church meetings has been misplaced. The New Testament gives a far greater emphasis to teaching than to preaching.
The next discovery I made was that when the content of preaching was stated, the overwhelming majority of the time it was the "the gospel" or synonymous terms (the kingdom, Christ, repentance, peace, the message, the faith). On only a few occasions does the Scripture speak of preaching "the word," and even in these it may refer to the word of the gospel. On the other hand, "teaching" seems to have a much broader content. Although it can include gospel instruction (Mt.9:35; Acts 5:42; Acts 17:19), it often focuses on doctrinal and ethical instruction which believers need to understand in order to follow Christ. Whereas "the gospel" is usually the subject of preaching, "the word of the Lord" is usually the subject of teaching. In fact, of those passages in the New Testament in which it could be determined, "teaching" is mentioned seventeen times in an evangelistic context, while it is mentioned fifty-seven times in a non-evangelistic context. On the other hand, "preaching" is mentioned ninety times in an evangelistic context, and only four times in a non-evangelistic context. Furthermore, of the passages in the New Testament where a specific audience can be determined, sixty-two times preaching is delivered to the unconverted, while delivered only eight times to the saved!
Thus, although hard and fast lines of distinction cannot be drawn between preaching and teaching, the general tenor of Scripture indicates that "preaching" is most often the proclamation of the gospel to the unconverted, while "teaching" is the communication of the whole counsel of God, both of the gospel to the lost, and of ethical instruction to the saved. Indeed, for every time the word "preach" is found in the context of the gathered church, the word "teach" is found 6 times.
This biblical data should compel us to re-evaluate our long held traditions. Although we assume that when the church gathers, preaching should dominate, the New Testament itself instructs us that when the church gathers, teaching should prevail. It appears that our traditional church practices are exactly opposite to the practices of Jesus and His apostles.
C. H. Dodd, in noting these distinctions between preaching and teaching has written:
The New Testament writers draw a clear distinction between preaching and teaching. . . Teaching (didaskein) is in a large majority of cases ethical instruction. Occasionally it seems to include what we should call apologetic, that is, the reasoned commendation of Christianity to persons interested but not yet convinced. Sometimes, especially in the Johannine writings, it includes the exposition of theological doctrine. Preaching, on the other hand, is the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world...
The verb "to preach" frequently has for its object "the Gospel." Indeed, the connection of ideas is so close that keryssein [to preach] by itself can be used as a virtual equivalent for evangelizesthai, "to evangelize," or "to preach the Gospel." It would not be too much to say that wherever "preaching" is spoken of, it always carries with it the implications of "good tidings" proclaimed.
For the early Church, then, to preach the Gospel was by no means the same thing as to deliver moral instruction or exhortation. While the Church was concerned to hand on the teachings of the Lord, it was not by this that it made converts. It was by kerygma [preaching], says Paul, not by didache [teaching], that it pleased God to save men.
We have already seen that the purpose of the church meeting is not the evangelism of the lost, but the edification of the saved. Therefore, we must return to the Biblical pattern of teaching the saints when we assemble, rather than preaching gospel messages to them. When believers gather to listen to gospel messages Sunday after Sunday, they tend to stagnate spiritually. The blessed good news is always precious and refreshing to a child of God, but if he is to grow in grace he must be taught the whole counsel of God. If we desire strong, maturing churches, we must return to the priority of teaching when the church assembles.
Style of Teaching In The Church
Having ascertained that teaching is the primary Biblical method for building up believers, we need to examine how it should take place. In order to do so, let's examine the teaching style of Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul.
The Teaching of Jesus. Occasionally, Jesus taught using a monologue lecture format. We have examples of this style of teaching in His Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5-7), and in several of His parables (Mt.20:1-16; 21:33-44; Lu.16:1-13; Lu.18:1-8). Interestingly, Jesus used this style of teaching only about 10% of the time. The other 90% of His teaching included interaction with the people He spoke to on some level.
Sometimes Jesus would teach by throwing out a question to ellicit a response or to get His hearers to think. On one occasion the Master asked His disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Mt.16:13). On another, Jesus inquired of the Pharisees, "What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?" (Mt.22:42). In both of these situations, Jesus asked questions in order to teach others about His true identity.
Sometimes Jesus taught important truth by responding to questions. In Matthew 15:1-11 the scribes and Pharisees inquired of Jesus, "Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." This question set the stage for Jesus to impart vital instruction on the authority of Scripture above tradition. When Peter asked Jesus, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" (Mt.18:21), Jesus responded with His powerful teaching on the parable of the unforgiving servant. It was in response to His disciples' question, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" (Mt.21:20) that Jesus gave His famous teaching on faith. In fact, Matthew chapters 24 and 25 are Jesus' response to the question, "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Mt.24:3). Christ's instruction on the vital importance of attending upon Him and His word arose because of Martha's question, "Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me" (Lu.10:40). Even the famous parable of the good Samaritan was given in response to a lawyer's question, "And who is my neighbor?" (Lu.10:29).
At other times, Jesus would teach in a dialogue format. For example, when a rich young ruler came to Jesus asking what good thing he should do to obtain eternal life (Mt.19:16), He responded by saying that he must keep the commandments. When the ruler asked which ones Christ meant, Jesus responded by listing several commandments. The ruler stated that he had kept them all, to which Christ told him to sell his possessions, give them to the poor and follow Him. This is one of the most instructive and important of Jesus' teachings, although it doesn't fit within our modern mindset of what a sermon should look like. Christ's teaching in this instance was highly interactive. He was simply having a dialogue with the ruler, but in His dialogue, He was giving tremendously important teaching, not only for the young ruler, but for all who would read His words throughout time. Kevin Giles provides us with an excellent summary of Jesus' style of teaching:
Questions were also a very important part of Jesus' teaching method. He was not content to teach a passive audience; he sought interaction and questions were his main tool to achieve this. Sometimes he drew from his listeners the answer he wanted, sometimes he replied to a question with another question, and at other times he used the question as a rhetorical device. This forced people to think about what they were saying.
Another distinctive quality of Christ's teaching was that He seized teachable moments to instruct others. When Christ taught His disciples, He didn't rent the local synagogue and hold verse-by-verse Bible studies on Tuesday nights from 7:00 - 9:00 p.m.! Rather, His teaching was informal and situational. As He spent time with His disciples, various situations would arise which Jesus would use as a platform to instruct them. He seized teachable moments throughout the day. Instead of saying, "Men, we will now learn," Christ taught His disciples in unplanned, spontaneous situations throughout the day. When He saw how a poor widow gave her last two copper coins, He called His disciples over and taught them that her gift was greater than all the wealthy contributors (Mk.12:41-44). When Jesus was invited to eat with a Pharisee named Simon, and a penitent woman came in and wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, Jesus used the opportunity to teach Simon that the one who has been forgiven much will love much (Lu.7:36-50). On another occasion someone in the crowd urged Jesus to make his brother divide the family inheritance with him. At this, Jesus responded with His teaching on the parable of the rich fool (Lu.12:13-21). When the invited guests at a dinner were picking out the places of honor at the table, Jesus used it as a springboard to teach on humility (Lu.14:7-11). Indeed, Christ gave the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes when they saw how he received sinners and ate with them (Lu.15:1-3).
The Teaching of Paul. As we have seen, one of Paul's common methods of evangelism among the unsaved Jews was to enter the synagogue on the Sabbath and reason with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2,17; 18:4,19; 19:8). The Greek word for "reasoned" in these passages is dialegomai, from which we get our English word "dialogue." According to the New Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, dialegomai means: 1. to ponder, revolve in mind. 2. to converse, discourse with one, argue, discuss. In other words, when Paul went into the synagogue of unbelieving Jews on the Sabbath, he did not preach a monologue sermon. He "reasoned" with them. He read the Old Testament scriptures and explained how Jesus had fulfilled them. When the Jews shot back arguments or questions, Paul would respond with logical and persuasive proofs from the Scriptures. There was a two-way flow of communication taking place. Dialegomai is used again in Acts 24:25, "And as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, 'Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you.' Dialegomai is translated discussing here, implying that there was a two-way interchange between Paul and Felix. Thus, evangelism for Paul, involved interaction and exchange, not merely a one-way monologue. Indeed, Kevin Giles states:
From Paul's epistles one might gain the impression that when he speaks of proclaiming the Gospel he is alluding to a declarative proclamation. However, the book of Acts suggests that Pauline teaching-preaching was often an interactive process. Could Luke be indicating this was a normal teaching procedure? This would be a plausible conclusion to reach.
But more appropriate to our discussion at hand, the word dialegomai is also used of Paul's teaching ministry in the gatherings of saints. Acts 20:7 records, "And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight." Although Paul surely did most of the talking at this church meeting, the word dialegomai used here implies that there was interaction, exchange, and two-way communication taking place. Surely, Paul did not speak for twelve hours straight! In a meeting like this one which took place in the upper room of a home, dialogue, discussion, questions, and comments by the entire church would be quite natural.
In Acts 19:9 we read that Paul took some of the disciples aside and reasoned daily with them in the School of Tyrannus. Again dialegomai is used of Paul's ministry of the Word among them. In both Acts 19 and Acts 20, we catch a glimpse of Paul's style of teaching believers. Like Jesus, Paul utilized mutual participation in the teaching process. Could it be that they understood that people learn quicker and retain more when they personally participate in the discovery process? Perhaps we can learn a lesson from their ministries.
Questioning Of Teaching In The Church
In the early church, whenever a brother or sister would speak forth a word of prophecy, the rest (of the men ) were responsible to pass judgment. "And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment" (1Cor.14:29). Evidently, the men in the body were to evaluate the messages by using the yardstick of Old Testament Scripture and apostolic teaching to discern whether any of it was not from God. Again, Paul urges the Thessalonians, ". . . do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil" (1Thess.5:20-22). Furthermore, the apostle John exhorts, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1Jn.4:1). The early church, then, was under an apostolic mandate to sift, test, and sort the messages delivered to see whether they came from God or not.
Since no man speaks today with an infallible understanding of Biblical truth, the same apostolic injunction holds true today. When someone expounds the Scriptures and exhorts God's people to apply them to their lives, the congregation has the responsibility of testing, evaluating, and judging the message. In other words, God's people should have the freedom to question their teachers. In too many Protestant churches, the pastor has taken the place of the Roman Catholic pope. Whatever he says must be received as gospel truth. If someone voices an honest objection to a pastor's interpretation, he will quickly find that his opinions are unwanted! However, pastors do a great disservice to the body of Christ by demanding that their congregation receive their teaching as infallible truth, instead of encouraging them to examine the teaching to see whether "these things be so" (Acts 17:11). If a congregation is committed to speak the truth only in love, these times of evaluation and questions will not tear down, but actually serve to build up the body of Christ.
Source Of Teaching In The Church
Who is supposed to be doing the teaching in the church meetings? The ones primarily responsible for the teaching ministry of the church are the elders. Paul describes the elders as those who "work hard at preaching and teaching" (1Tim.5:17). He states that one qualification for an overseer is that he must be "able to teach" (1Tim.3:2). In Ephesians 4:11 Paul informs us that the risen Christ has given some as pastors and teachers. Since the terms pastor, elder, and overseer are interchangeable in the New Testament (Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5-7; 1Pet.5:1-3), these passages teach us that the elders of any local church should provide the backbone of its teaching ministry.
Are elders the only ones who should be involved in teaching? Apparently not. Although no man should take up a teaching ministry without solemn reflection (James 3:1), the Scriptures inform us that many within the body can participate in this role. In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul describes a church meeting where each one contributes to the meeting, including bringing a teaching. Paul, when addressing the whole church at Colossae states, "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Apparently Paul was exhorting the whole body to use the word of Christ in the songs they sang to the Lord, thereby teaching and admonishing one another. In Hebrews 5:12 the author writes, "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food." It appears that the author of Hebrews assumed that after a period of time, his readers would be involved in teaching one another. Tragically, instead, they were in need of milk themselves. From Romans 12:7 we learn that there will be those in the body who have a gift of teaching, but are not necessarily elders. Furthermore, in Romans 15:14 Paul directs the church, "And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another." Paul was convinced that the entire church, not just its elders, were able to admonish one another.
Therefore, although the elders of any local church will no doubt provide the backbone of its teaching ministry, others within the body who have the gift of teaching should be encouraged to use their gift for the benefit of the church. Furthermore, although not everyone will be recognized as a teacher in the church, there is a broad kind of teaching that all can and should participate in as they encourage, exhort, and admonish one another.
Evolving Of Teaching In The Church
The Greek word dialegomai is used as a synonym for homilein (Acts 20:7,11; 24:25-26), which has for its root meaning, "the coming together of people in 'intercourse, meeting, discussion, and conversation.'" It is a term of intimacy and familiarity, of friendly converse and persuasive argument with overtones of serious intent and instruction. Homilein has come into English as our word "homily." Indeed, homilia, in the post-New Testament period, became a technical term for the 'sermon' given when the church gathered. Thus, the teaching (homily or sermon) in the post-apostolic church, still included the idea of discussion, interaction, and conversation. From this we can conclude that teaching in the early church was far less formal, and much more participatory than the contemporary model we are familiar with. The church father, Justin Martyr, about the year A.D. 138 wrote of the simple "talks" given when the church met, "On the day named after the sun, we hold a meeting in one place for all who live in the cities or the country nearby. The memoirs of the Apostles or the Writings of the Prophets are read among us as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the overseer gives a talk urging and inviting us to imitate all these good examples." Additionally, Edwin Dargan has written:
In form the sermons of the early time were unpretentious addresses, as their name "homilies" - conversations, talks - sufficiently indicates. They were without much logical order, and give little if any indication of a previously prepared outline.
The oldest known homily (from the middle of the 2nd century), though not endowed with great rhetoric or eloquence, is inspired by moral earnestness and triumphant faith. The homily was read from a manuscript and addresses the hearers simply as "brothers and sisters." It ends with the stirring doxology, "to the only God invisible, the Father of truth, who sent forth unto us the Savior and Prince of immortality, through whom also He made manifest unto us the truth and the heavenly life, to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen."
Dr. John Ker, in his book, Lectures on the History of Preaching, has written:
The preaching [of the early post-apostolic church], so far as we can judge from what remains of it, was far beneath the epistles of the New Testament in spiritual grasp, and very different from sermons of the present day. Of the teaching of the Apostolic Fathers, as they are called, and of their immediate successors, little remains to us. What we have is of a very simple kind - good, pious exhortation, without much force of thought or breadth of vision, and without any effort at artistic presentation.
What happened then, to change the style of teaching in the church of Christ? Why are modern day preachers so self-conscious when they step into a pulpit? As the clergy became more and more prominent in the church during the second and third centuries, they began to monopolize the teaching ministry of the church, with the result that teaching was refined into the "sermon." Philip Schaff has written:
The sermon was a familiar exposition of Scripture and exhortation to repentance and a holy life, and gradually assumed in the Greek church an artistic, rhetorical character. Preaching was at first free to every member who had the gift of public speaking, but was gradually confined as an exclusive privilege of the clergy, and especially the bishop.
After Constantine's Edict of Milan, many Christian "sanctuaries" were built to hold the throngs of religious worshippers, most of whom were unregenerate. The bishop needed to be a skilled and eloquent speaker in order to hold the attention of so many people. The meetings gradually degenerated into performances with the bishop being the chief actor. Philip Schaff gives us a vivid glimpse of teaching during this time:
Pulpit eloquence in the fourth and fifth centuries reached a high point in the Greek church, and is most worthily represented by Gregory Nazianzen and Chrysostom. But it also often degenerated there into artificial rhetoric, declamatory bombast, and theatrical acting. Hence the abuse of frequent clapping and acclamations of applause among the people. As at this day, so in that, many went to church not to worship God, but to hear a celebrated speaker, and left as soon as the sermon was done.
The great change in teaching within the church is no where better displayed than in John Chrysostom's life and ministry. Chrysostom, who lived between 374 and 407 A.D., was the greatest and most popular preacher of the ancient church. Nicknamed the "Golden Mouth," John studied philosophy and rhetoric extensively. He was educated by one of the leading pagan teachers of his day, Libanius. In his writings, John cites more than 15 ancient Greek philosophers, including at least 30 references to Plato. Carl Volz writes, "John delivered his sermons with all the oratorical skills he had learned from the great Libanius. . . The people, he wrote, often come not to be instructed, but to be entertained. 'Most people usually listen to a preacher for pleasure, not profit, as though it were a play or a concert.'" Thus, a not so subtle evolution in the proclamation of Christian truth arose - one which gave undue emphasis to Greek rhetoric and philosophy. From the new attention to eloquence and rhetoric, the ministry of the Word within the church assumed more and more the form of a performance before a vast multitude in an ornate sanctuary, rather than a heart-felt exhortation to a small group of disciples in a home.
H. Pattison, in quoting Dr. Hatch, writes:
Christianity. . . came into the educated world in the simple dress of a prophet of righteousness. It won that world by the stern reality of its life, by the subtle bonds of its brotherhood, by its divine message of consolation and hope. Around it thronged the race of eloquent talkers who persuaded it to change its dress and to assimilate its language to their own. It seemed thereby to win a speedier and completer victory. But it purchased a conquest at the price of reality. With that its progress stopped.
Furthermore, Wayne Oates has summarized the situation thusly:
. . . The original proclamation of the Christian message was a two-way conversation in which Christians bore witness to what God had done in raising Christ from the dead. . . In return, those to whom they witnessed were free to converse with them, to inquire of them, and to discuss the meaning of the Scriptures in the light of those things. But, when the oratorical schools of the Western world laid hold of the Christian message, they made Christian preaching something vastly different. Oratory tended to take the place of conversation. The greatness of the orator took the place of the astounding event of Jesus Christ. And the dialogue between speaker and listener faded into a monologue.
The Christian church, sadly, has followed in the footsteps of the great pulpiteers like John Chrysostom more than the simple, direct, and searching teaching of Jesus, Paul, or Peter. Though the Reformers like Luther and Calvin did a wonderful service to the church when they gave the Bible back to the common believer in his own tongue, they ought to have gone further and returned the method of ministering the Word back to its pristine pattern found in the ministries of Jesus and His apostles. This has had the result of perpetuating the idea that the pastor should deliver his sermon almost as a performer entertains an audience. Today, when preachers are more concerned with how they communicate than what they communicate, and when a bad morning is a slip of the tongue or a mispronunciation of a word rather than a failure to teach the whole counsel of God, it is apparent that something is gravely wrong.
Our Journey In Implementing New Testament Teaching Principles
When we at Milpitas Bible Fellowship began to discover these principles, we sought to implement them in several different ways. When we began to understand that all God's people had the responsibility to instruct one another on a broad level by exhorting, encouraging, admonishing, and teaching, we began to urge all the brethren to come to the "house churches" prepared to build up the rest with something from His Word. Often in the house churches, where the atmosphere is very informal and spontaneous, someone will bring up a problem, sin, or area of weakness that they are currently dealing with. That gives the rest of the group an opportunity to minister to the hurting individual by applying God's Word to their present and very real need. As we began to step out in these ways, all of God's people began to learn how to serve one another in love.
On one occasion at the house church I am a part of, Bill and Jennifer came and poured out their story in tears. The Jennifer related to us that she had let her pet bunny run around in the back yard to get some exercise, but the neighbor's dog had jumped the fence and killed the bunny. What's more, the circumstances indicated that the neighbor knew that her dog had killed the bunny, but had not said anything to Jennifer. When Bill arrived home after work, Jennifer related the circumstances to him in sobs. In an impulse of anger, he tossed a brick through the neighbor's sliding glass door, and then tossed the dead rabbit in behind. The neighbors called the police, and threatened to press charges against Bill and Jennifer. As they related their story, various people in the group began to share the Word of God with them, and help them to see that God wanted them to love their enemies, ask forgiveness from the neighbors, pay for a new sliding glass door, and refuse to take revenge for what had been done to them.
On another occasion, Larry, a fairly new Christian confessed that the teaching of evolution by his college professors had left him with strong doubts about the truthfulness of the Bible. This time Bill, who happens to be a scientist, was able to minister to Larry by contributing some solid teaching to validate creation, and dispel his doubts.
At another time, Janice, having been recently converted, asked the group several questions that had been perplexing her. The group took the evening to answer her questions as they each took turns teaching her from God's Word.
In these kinds of situations, many different people are able to teach by applying what they know of God's Word to a present situation. We see this style of teaching as more consistent with Jesus' style of using teachable moments to instruct His disciples and give them invaluable instruction.
When we began to discover that both Jesus and Paul taught in an interactive manner, we decided to experiment with some changes in the Sunday morning sermon. After bringing the portable podium down from the platform to the lower level, and re-arranging the chairs so that the congregation could look at one another when they spoke, I began to ask for questions or comments at the conclusion of the sermon. The church took to this new practice like ducks to water. Soon, it was not uncommon for someone to raise their hand to ask a question while I was in the midst of my teaching. If answering the question would not detract from the flow of teaching, I would take the time to answer it then and there. At the end of the sermon, a brother would pass a portable microphone around the room so that people could share their insights on the passage or ask a question. Often, this portion of our meeting was the most exciting, as together we learned from one another, challenged each other, and grew together in our understanding of God's Word. On a few occasions, a disagreement would arise. However, I had instructed the church when we began this new practice, that any comment or question was appropriate as long as it edified the body and was spoken in love. In fact the expression, "speaking the truth in love" (Eph.4:15), took on new meaning for us. Because God has given us a great degree of love for one another, we have learned to defer to one another, even as we challenge one another on points of Biblical truth.
It is difficult to describe the blessing that this interactive teaching has brought to Milpitas Bible Fellowship. Previously, I was looked to as the sole provider of edification. With our new practice I receive ministry from the body every Sunday. Previously, there was no outlet for a brother or sister to communicate the truth in love, or to utilize their spiritual gifts in our meetings. Now any person in the body has the opportunity of making a contribution for the edification of the whole. Often, an insight shared from the congregation has been just what someone else needed in their life at that particular moment. On many occasions, someone has raised a question that I never addressed during the teaching, but which needed to be resolved before the congregation could apply the message to their lives. On other occasions, a person's comment has enabled the rest of us to see a truth in a fresh and new way.
For example, one Sunday morning I had been teaching the church that we were dead to sin by virtue of our identification with Jesus Christ in His death. During the question/answer session that followed, a newly converted sister asked why we continue to sin, if we have died to sin with Christ. I stumbled through an explanation, but was painfully aware that I was only muddying the waters. Then a quiet and reserved young woman spoke up for the first time ever. She said she understood the process to be like that of a branch that was cut off an old tree and grafted onto a new one. Yes, it is true, she said, that the branch is "dead" to the old tree, having been completely severed from it. However, it is also true that it was still made up of the same wood as the former tree. In this simple illustration, the wondrous truth I had been vainly seeking to explain, came home powerfully to the entire church.
I hesitated opening up our meetings for questions and comments for some time, because I had been warned that it would result only in our "pooled ignorance." I found, rather, that some of God's people have great wisdom that needs to be heard in order for the whole body to be built up in love. I also had fears that opening up the meetings would result in chaos. However, the meetings proved to be very decent and orderly. Another concern I had was that allowing others to speak would produce doctrinal confusion within the body. It is true, that on occasion, people have expressed different doctrinal convictions in a meeting. However, this has had the result of causing all of us to dig deeper into the Scriptures to discover the truth for ourselves. If the one teaching the Scripture cannot prove His teaching from the Bible, then the congregation has the right to question whether it is true or not. No person in the church ought to be above questioning. Our allegiance must always be to Christ, the Head of the Church, first and foremost, and His Word as the final arbiter in all things. When we transfer our allegiance to a man, no matter who he happens to be, rather than Christ and His Word, we commit idolatry.
We also discovered, much to our delight, that people learned much better in the new format. By having the opportunity of asking questions, and being provoked to dialogue, our people were having to really think through the message. When the teaching is given in a monologue format with no possibility for interchange, much of the valuable communication is lost because it is not understood. Along these lines Clyde Reid has written, "To establish complete communication, monologue is rarely enough, and a two-way flow of communication is almost essential."
The New Testament Scriptures model a much different method of communicating God's Word than our traditional ones. They teach us that teaching, not preaching, is the norm for the assembled church. Further, they teach that meaningful interchange between teacher and congregation was a normal and important element of the learning process. They also teach us that the opportunity to evaluate and weigh those things spoken in the name of the Lord is the responsibility of the church. Truly, the ministry of the Word has changed in many ways over the centuries. Shouldn't we seek to incorporate these Biblical principles in our 20th churches today? If Jesus, Paul, and the early church ministered the Word through a participative and interactive manner, why do we go on stubbornly in a one-way communication pattern? There is much God wants us to learn from them.