I’m a fairly smart guy and I’ve got the degrees to prove it, so when I was in a seminar and the presenter made the assertion, “What you know doesn’t really matter,” well, it got my dander up and at least in my head I crossed my arms and thought, “That’s bunk.”
But the speaker went on to remind me that although I know what it takes to live a long and healthy life (eat right, exercise, and get plenty of rest), I was sitting there with a few extra pounds and I keep putting off going bike riding until the weather warms up. His words set me to thinking…and I decided, by-and-large, he’s right, especially when it comes to the North American church.
The fact is, folks in the Western church know…and believe…a lot of religious stuff. For decades, and by decades I mean centuries, and by centuries I mean over a millennium, seminary and virtually every training program have been preparing church leaders to be excellent teachers. We’ve taught the Christian faith, well, faithfully. We’ve done a pretty good job of it. Finding a real heretic in the church is actually pretty difficult. Certainly there is a lot of diversity of beliefs across denominational lines, but for the most part, those points of disagreement are just that…disagreements. Our “good” teaching across the church has minimized heresies. In general, good church members “believe” correctly. They may not understand the Trinity, but they believe it. And of course, they believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God…but in general, it makes no difference in their lives because “What you know doesn’t really matter.”
Once upon a time Billy Graham asserted that he believed only about 10 percent of church-goers in the US were practicing Christians. There are a number of scholars and church leaders who have suggested Graham was being generous. (That being said, just to minimize any offence someone might take, whenever I use the phrase “most Christians” please assume I’m not really referring to you or anyone in your congregation. I’m talking about the other “most Christians.”) The fact is, most Christians believe that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States and their belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God carries about the same weight…it makes virtually no difference in their lives. Sure, they be members of a church and they may even attend (and be on committees, etc.), but in their day-to-day lives, their “beliefs” are little more than a portfolio of facts that are tucked away in their minds somewhere.
All that’s to say this: As church leaders it’s time to take a break from instructing our congregations in right theology and start training (discipling, apprenticing, mentoring, coaching) them in how to be Christians. Because “What you know doesn’t really matter.”
I was leading a large seminar of pastors recently and made the above assertion. After the session, a sincere and passionate pastor came up to me and challenged what I’d said. “I think it is important that we teach the traditions of the church.” I really wasn’t in a place to argue such a broad statement, so I asked him to be specific. “Like the Trinity,” he said. “It’s important for our congregants to understand and to believe in the Trinity.”
“Why?” I asked. “What difference does it make in their lives?”
The dance began. For the next five minutes he tried to explain why it was important to believe in the Trinity, and I kept asking him what difference it made in his congregation’s lives. I think the most frustrating thing this pastor had to face was that, ultimately, it made exactly zero difference in their lives. Is understanding the Trinitarian nature of God pointless? Hardly. But let’s face it, until someone has aligned her/his life with Jesus and are living life as a disciple of the Way, then a litany of doctrines and dogmas aren’t really germane to their Christian maturity level. And, going back to Graham’s observation, that means at least 90 percent of those in church aren’t ready for most Christian “teachings.” Instead, they’re in dire need of Christian “training.”
So, what does this mean to you as a church leader? Well, first it means that we have to begin looking at what we’re preaching/teaching through real-life application eyes. For instance, I heard what most would consider a great sermon this morning. The topic covered was the temptation of Jesus in Luke. The sermon was about fifteen minutes long and fourteen of those minutes…literally, fourteen of the fifteen minutes…was an explanation of the text, of the setting, of the background, and of the historical significance of the passage. Then one minute was dedicated to application…which was to pray about temptations we may face, ask for wisdom, and then take action. Now, I take no issue with the last minute of the sermon, but let’s face it, the congregation went away with about fourteen minutes of “Gee-Whiz” teaching, one minute of “Go pray about it,” and virtually no instructions on how to pray, how to take appropriate action, what an appropriate action might be, how this applies to either their home or work lives, how to listen to whatever God might be saying when we do pray about temptation, or anything else that could have put some Christian practices into people’s lives.
But even an application-heavy sermon isn’t enough. Listening to a fifteen to even forty-five minute teaching each week is still a teaching. It isn’t a training. Training (discipling, apprenticing, mentoring, coaching) necessitates a smaller student-to-teacher ratio than is possible in most worship services. It needs models to watch. It needs expectations to practice and measure. And it takes intentional accountability. In other words, what most Christians need is to be in a discipling relationship and they need to be committed to a small group. Of course, that’s the ideal. But until the ideal is reached, consider what’s being said during that fifteen minute training slot each week. Will the content change lives or just teach them something? …Because, don’t forget, “What they know doesn’t really matter.”