For a long time now, I’ve felt that the modern church has shifted in a very subtle, almost unidentifiable way, and I’ve been making myself nuts trying to figure out precisely what that shift has been.
A while back, my pastor quite unintentionally put his finger on it when he commented that “a large part of becoming a fully-submitted follower of Christ is relationships, relating with people – believers and non-believers – in order to grow yourself spiritually. Relating is how we grow!”
I thought: ah, that’s what it is. More than it has at any other time in my memory, the modern church is defining itself through the concept of relationship. “Relationship” is how the modern church has chosen to answer many, if not all, of its questions. How do you find accountability? Well, through partnerships with other people. How do you grow in Christ? Well, you find a mentor, or a small group. How do you minister? With other people. How do you make Jesus known? Through relationships.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. But what I’ve noticed is that this shift to emphasize relationships (a good thing, fundamentally) has also placed the burden of learning and spiritual growth solely on relationships, too. Rather than learn or study or interact with the word of God on our own, we’re often turning to other people to do it with us or for us. It’s becoming a struggle for people to engage with God outside of a relational context, on an individual level. In many churches that I’ve attended, more rigorous forms of study or teaching are abandoned for discussion-level groups that don’t frequently go in depth or touch on Scripture to any particular degree. As a result, a good many believers (many of whom consider themselves quite mature in the faith) have become “Instagram Christians”: they know enough about the Bible to summon out a few theme verses or inspirational meditations, but little else.
The result is a profound learning loss in the church. More and more I notice believers being “bad actors” when it comes to the Bible: reading out of context, misunderstanding fundamental concepts, cherrypicking verses. And this has a real impact on how believers share their faith and how other people hear about Jesus. It increases the chance that we’ll spread and believe false teachings (like this absurdity I wrote about a while back, or this one more recently).
So how to stop learning loss in the church? How to incorporate individual study and deep learning of the faith into our relationally-shifted churches? A few suggestions:
- Bring back classes. No, I don’t mean small groups. I don’t mean “fellowship times where people relate together about vaguely Scriptural things.” I don’t mean “Bible studies where not much actual study happens” I mean classes. Teaching times where believers can do deep dives into Scripture, ask questions about what they don’t understand, debate, learn some context, and better inform their ideas. Often these sorts of classes require believers to do independent learning and study on their own (a reason they’ve grown less popular, I think), and they encourage independent Bible study and thought and give student tools that they can use on their own. This doesn’t mean abolishing small groups; it just means supplementing them.
- Promote individual Bible study along with corporate study. From a young age, people can learn to study the Bible on their own. The complexity level and time involved will shift as they age, but it’s good if – right off the bat – even young believers know that the Bible is all theirs to read and mark up and learn from. When I was little, my mom got me a kids’ commentary on the Proverbs that really helped me understand and apply them, and it was a wonderful start in self-study. Teach people techniques for Bible study. Give them useful translations. As they grow, show them how to read with care. How this happens will vary from church to church, but it’s fundamental.
- Discourage cherry-picking and verses out of context. One of the most helpful early teachings I received about the Bible was that, although it is full of promises, not every single promise is meant for me. I was surprised by that and, for a while, made a habit of double-checking any Biblical promises I stumbled across: was this one for me, or not? Doing so often meant reading the chapter and finding out the context of the verse rather than simply zeroing in on what I wanted to hear. It was good initial practice to avoid cherry-picking later on. It’s also good to call out cherry-picking and context-less use of Scripture when you see it both among believers and in the world generally.
- Teach fundamental concepts and ideas. I’m still fairly new to the Methodist church and so the concept of confirmation was fairly new to me, but I did very much like the idea of students sitting down and hearing: “Okay. These are some of the major concepts of the faith, these are the Bible verses we get them from, this is why Christians think x, y, and z.” To my delight, in one of the sessions, the students were apparently very keen on exploring the concept of the Trinity, since they had been disturbed not to find the word “trinity” in their Bibles. A good avenue to explore! And it led them into a lot of verses, a lot of re-reading Scripture, and a lot of really getting to know the Bible to find the answers they were after.
- Encourage questions and answer them in depth. Teenagers and youth in particular have a lot of questions, and some of them are uncomfortable. But it’s never good to avoid them, or to answer with a “just because” or parrot an answer that you heard years ago. Dig into Scripture. Promise to explore what you don’t know. Look into what the Bible says about an issue. Never get in the habit of answering questions with answers you were given by your teachers or people you knew; don’t pass on random interpretations by proxy. If you model the process of how to find answers on your own in Scripture, how to look for and study what you might find unfamiliar or might not understand, the believers watching you will be able to follow suit.
I want to emphasize that group learning and collective study isn’t bad. We need it! And we benefit from learning with and around others. But Christianity is a faith that works on a collective level and on an individual one and, if we neglect our individual study and growth, the body as a whole will be weaker for it. It’s worthwhile to do everything we can to give people the tools they need to grow individually in Christ, to learn, and to examine Scripture with careful and thoughtful eyes.