Jesus was a teacher, and the teaching of the Word was central to His ministry.
He taught in public, He taught in large groups, He taught in small groups, He taught individuals privately, He taught the lost, He taught His followers, He taught His emerging leaders. The Word of God was central in His life, His ministry and His method.
Of course, His teaching was not only by words; He also demonstrated the truths He taught to His disciples. His personal example illustrated and authenticated what He taught, and He led His disciples into their own personal experiences of the truth. Yet, at the heart of it all – and surrounding it all – was His teaching of the Word of God.
Then, before He returned to heaven, Jesus told His leaders to go and do the same thing: “go and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Thus, the Word of God was central in the life of the early church. They won the lost by teaching the Word, they planted churches by teaching the Word, they built those churches by teaching the Word, they raised up leaders through teaching the Word.
The Crisis of “Effectiveness”
It is not hard to prove that the Word of God is not so central in our churches today. We often become more pragmatic than passionate; more concerned for temporal expediency than for eternity; more interested in image-management than with the true image of Jesus being formed in His people. We are more engaged with “effectiveness” (defined, unfortunately, by numbers of people and dollars) than with truth.
We need to remember that the church is called to be “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and that God’s leaders are called both to confirm (by preaching the truth) and defend (by opposing the errors) the gospel (Phil. 1:7). This is more important than numbers and “effectiveness.” Jesus claimed only a handful of followers at the end of His ministry, yet He was able to say, “I have finished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4, NKJV).
Leaders who put “effectiveness” first and truth second may achieve outward greatness in this life, but, in God’s eyes, their lives and ministries are trivial. The example we set before the next generation of emerging leaders must be one of men and women who loved, proclaimed, fought for, and, if necessary, died for the truth of the Word of God.
How do we do this?
First, there must be an integration of the teaching of the Word of God with personal relationship with the leader.
Paul emphasized teaching (Col. 1:6, 28; 1 Tim. 4:6; Tit. 1:9) as well as relationship (2 Tim. 3:10-11). The sharing of teaching must be integrated with the sharing of life (2 Tim. 3:14-15; cf. 1 Cor. 4:17).
Second, as the next principle will demonstrate, there must be engagement with the teaching.
The emerging leaders need to be given practical assignments of some kind to teach them to apply the Word. They must learn and do. Without practical application, endless teaching will become quite harmful, resulting in pride and useless knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1).
Teaching is not necessarily learning. Teaching involves what you know; learning involves what you actually do. Nothing has been effectively taught until the behavior has changed.(2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Third, the best form of teaching will often be an interactive dialogue between participant and teacher.
Lecturing is often not the best way for learning to occur. Listening on its own is not learning; learning requires activity. This was how Jesus taught in the gospels: He interacted with His emerging leaders, asking them questions (e.g., Matt. 16:13-19).
Fourth, we must teach the Word and not merely about the Word.
In the Word of God, there is power to change lives and build leaders. In practical terms, this means we should spend more time in the Bible than in books written about the Bible.
The following is a wonderful example of the power of the Word of God:
In 1955 at Cambridge University, Billy Graham tried for three nights to make his preaching academic and erudite, but his efforts had no effect. Finally, realizing that his gift was not to present the intellectual side of faith, he abandoned his prepared texts and in utter simplicity preached the gospel message of our alienation from God because of sin and our reconciliation to God through the cross of Christ. The results were astonishing: hundreds of sophisticated students responded to this clear proclamation of the gospel. It was a lesson in clarity and simplicity that he never forgot. (From Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster)
Fifth, our teaching should be practical and relevant.
One of the central characteristics of Greek culture, which is the foundation of modern Western culture, is the thirst for knowledge for its own sake
All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there [at the Areopagus or Mars’ hill] spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:21; see also 1 Cor. 1:22-23)
More than by anything else, Western civilization is defined by total fearlessness of and openness to new knowledge – an insatiable thirst to know everything that can be known, a belief that everything that can be known should be known. This is knowledge for its own sake – whether or not it is of any practical significance. This explains why Western societies are content to spend billions of dollars in scientific research on outer space, when multitudes of people still live in poverty on our own planet.
… There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be… always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth. (2 Tim. 3:1-7)
This is knowledge for its own sake, and Western civilization inherited this passion from the Greeks.
Sixth, our teaching should be appropriate for the emerging leaders we’re building.
The average rural church planter in most countries does need some basic theological training but, in most cases, there are probably six or eight central facts he needs to know about each doctrine and those issues can be taught to him in a relatively short time.
The following “Training Triangle” is a useful analogy:
- Many of us drive cars.
- Some of us can work on our own cars.
- A few of us are professional car mechanics.
- Even fewer work at dealerships.
- Fewer still work at car manufacturers.
- A small number of them are engineers.
- Even fewer are designers.
Each group needs a certain kind of training to be effective at what they do.
Applying the analogy to Christian leadership, there are many believers and a few workers. Some of those workers are teachers and a few teachers are authors and scholars. Consequently, they need varying kinds of training. Thus, it is inappropriate to expect a frontline church planter to have the same kind of training as an emerging Christian scholar. One size will not fit all. In Christian leader development we need varying kinds of training.
Finally, and most importantly, our teaching must be in the power of the Holy Spirit.
My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor. 2:4-5; see also 1 Cor. 2:12-13; Acts 1:1-2; 1 Thess. 1:5)
Jesus told us that apart from Him we can accomplish nothing of any value (John 15:4-5). How foolish we would be to trust merely in the effectiveness of our own human knowledge and ability!
Thus, effective biblical instruction will be practical, relevant, appropriate and anointed by the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion …
Jesus and His disciples spent hours, days, weeks, months, even years patiently and passionately teaching the Word of God. Moreover, they never shrank back from teaching the Word even when they were rejected for it (John 6:59-68).
This was how Jesus and the early church raised up strong leaders: through the teaching of the strong Word of God. Jesus and the apostles were utterly committed to the truth and they raised up leaders with the same passion.
May the Word of God be as central in our own lives, church, and ministries today!