A wise man once said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Jesus called us to make disciples (Matt. 28:19), but often our disciple-making looks a lot more like giving people fish than teaching them the art of fishing. If the Church is to reclaim its disciple-making vocation for the 21st century, I believe that we must rediscover the lost art of teaching people hows and not just whats.
More on that below, but first a little context…
Last August, I loaded my life into a fifteen-passenger van and moved from Jackson, MS to Wheaton, IL to begin doctoral work at Wheaton College Graduate School. A few weeks after reaching Wheaton, I accepted a position as Associate Pastor of Christian Education at Trinity Church of the Nazarene in nearby Naperville. In this new (and very part-time) position, I oversee all of the adult Christian education opportunities (=adult Sunday school) at Trinity and act as a theologian-in-residence to resource the pastoral staff. My new vantage point as a Christian education pastor has opened my eyes to some interesting insights about how we the Church make disciples in the area of theological education.
One of the key things I have noticed about Christian education in the Church is that we tend to take a “give a man a fish” approach to theological education. Put another way, we often teach people materials, or whats, and neglect methods, or hows. For example:
Our sermons teach people what God is like, what it means to follow him, what a passage of the Bible says, etc. Of course, there is an application section, but it does not teach how to get to the application as much as it is teaching what the correct application is.
Our adult Sunday school classes revolve around content: we watch a video by Francis Chan, we discuss a chapter of a Christian book that the teacher and two other people actually read, we learn what a Bible passage says about Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, or marriage, or money, etc. Again, the emphasis is on learning the material, not how one would be able to arrive at such insights.
Our small groups discuss the sermon (see above), a Bible passage, etc. It is here that we get the closest to hows, but often the agenda is driven by pragmatic rather than theological concerns.
Whats are good. In fact, I love whats. All teachers do. However, whats have three major weaknesses for theological education in the church.
1) Whats don’t stick.
Content-centric approaches work great in educational settings where the students spend large amounts of time engaging the material outside of the classroom. In a college or seminary class, the students spend 6–9 hours per week outside of class reading and writing about material related to the in-class content. By contrast, consider how many people in your congregation can identify the titles and main points of the last three sermons. Ouch. Or, consider a normal Sunday school class: the “students” just got up an hour or two ago, during which time they may have had to feed, clean, and dress their children and get the whole family in the car. As a teacher, you’re lucky if they even remember last week’s topic, let alone any of the details.
2) Whats aren’t easily transferable.
When we give people fish, we tend to make them dependent on the fish-givers, which are the pastors and teachers. However, when life throws our people a curveball, and they either haven’t been taught about it or can’t remember how to reason their way to the orthodox conclusion (see above), the content-centric method has done them a disservice.
3) Whats don’t change lives.
By this, I don’t mean that whats are insignificant, but that they don’t tend to radically transform people’s daily life rhythms. Of course, there are exceptions to this. Every now and then, a teacher or pastor will say something and the Holy Spirit will use it to change how someone spends their time, money, etc. However, these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
The way to remedy this is not to cease teaching content altogether—this is both impossible and foolish—but rather to temper our whats with hows so that while we may be introducing our churches to a few fish they haven’t tasted before, we are also teaching them to catch their own fish and to pass on these skills to others.
So, how do we teach people to fish? Below I offer a few ways that I have either used in the past or am planning on using in the near future. First, though, a brief word about context: As a general rule, sermons are not the best place to teach people to fish, both because of the number of people in the room and the fact that (hopefully) some will not be Christians. Teaching hows is best reserved for other venues like Sunday school classes, seminars, small groups, and mentoring relationships, where the learning experience can more easily be tailored to the group. However, notice the practical implication of this: If people are only coming for the Sunday morning service, they are probably not learning to fish. This means that these other venues have to be a priority for your church.
With that in mind, here are some ideas for how to mix some hows in with your whats.
Inductive Bible study.
The best way for people to learn how to study the Bible is not by listening to someone tell them what it says, but by studying it themselves with a well thought-out method. This seems self-evident, but many Bible studies either are lecture based or don’t incorporate a solid method that people can use on their own. Inductive Bible study (IBS) is a method that gives people the tools to engage Scripture responsibly in their own language. I recently taught an 8-week class at my church on IBS using the book of Jonah as a case-study. Toward the end of the class, several of the members remarked how much they were looking forward to applying the method to other biblical books in their personal study—that is the reaction we are going for. In the future, I hope to have all of our Bible studies incorporate this method on some level. For more on IBS, see inductivebiblestudy.seedbed.com
One of the most basic ways you can equip people to fish is by encouraging them to study the topic at hand throughout the week. Covenant together as a group to study a passage of Scripture, read a chapter of a book, practice prayer, financial management, etc., during the week and you will see people begin to take ownership of the spiritual discipline you are cultivating.
Two of the more difficult areas of Christian education to apply this idea of teaching hows are historical and systematic theology—how can one teach method when studying the theology of John Wesley or Christology in a church setting? One way is not only talk about what happened historically or what is true, but to explore the why behind the facts. Why did Wesley’s theology take the shape it did? Why did the Church feel the need to expound the identity of Christ in the way it did? By grappling with such questions, we can teach our people to think theologically and not simply absorb information. Recently, at my church, we offered a class that went through the Nicene Creed for 8 weeks, memorizing the Creed and discussing the biblical and theological significance of each phrase. Opportunities like this abound.
Get in the trenches.
People learn and apply much better when they have a context where they can put their knowledge into practice. For example, my own passion for biblical studies was ignited in 2010 when I spent five weeks teaching Hebrew and Greek in India. At my home church in Mississippi, one of the most on-fire laymen had his candle lit through doing prison ministry. He is now taking Bible and theology courses and putting his knowledge to work several times a week both in the prison and at our church’s twelve-step program. When we put people in the trenches to minister to the least of these, they gain both a reason to learn and a context for kingdom work.
One of the best ways to encourage people to fish is by providing them with easy-to-follow steps to do so. Want people to pray well? Give them a simple template like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) that they can follow each day when they pray. Want people to stop ignoring context when they study their Bibles? Teach them a simple template for inductive Bible study that will require them to survey the larger context before proceeding to individual verses. Two of the most formative things I learned in seminary were a simple IBS template that I learned in an inductive study of the gospel of Mark, and a devotional habit I learned in a class on evangelism and compassionate ministry. I can honestly say that without those two simple “templates,” my life today would be very different.
These are a just few ways to teach hows and not just whats. However, imagine with me for a moment what a church that discipled its members in such a way would look like—a church full of Christians who…
…study their Bibles every day, gaining life-transforming insights,
…engage the culture with biblically and theologically sophisticated minds and lives rather than merely rattling off a hasty social media post,
…pray, not just to ask God for a personal wish list, but to praise, confess, thank, and intercede for the world.
A church like that would not need to have a revival—it would be one. As we serve our churches, may we strive to teach not only the what of the gospel, but also its how.
What are ways you use to teach hows in the church? Share your knowledge with the rest of us in the comments section…