Teaching Principles to Build Christian Community
by Dick Wulf
1. Do not teach individual Christianity. Obedience is seldom achieved without the helpful and biblical involvement of other believers. Teach interdependent Christianity — which is truly biblical.
Almost every book you read talks to the Christian individual, so you will have to consciously resist going back into the state of mind prompted by Satan, which is “It’s all about me.” (The devil tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to forget about what God wanted and focus on what she could get for herself.) Try not to teach the individual how to grow spiritually on his or her own. God designed spiritual growth to happen in relationship with himself and others. Don’t promote an individual relationship with God apart from God’s desired relationship with His people together as the Bride of Christ. If you talk primarily to the individuals in your small group or sanctuary, you will give the impression that Christianity is individual rather than corporate — and that just is not true.
a. Speak often to the whole group when you begin applying your teachings to life. Remember that you are primarily building Christ’s church. If you build only the faith of individuals, you will keep the church in infancy and hold back its power.
Example: Suppose you are teaching that the life in Christ is one of hope. You will teach that every individual Christian should have hope. But, to be true to the Scriptures, you also need to say something like “We are to have hope together. The bride has hope that the Bridegroom cares for her and will come to her aid as well as show up for the wedding. Life will deplete some of us of hope, and it is up to us all, especially in our closest relationships as friends, spouses and families, to carry those temporarily without hope in the strength of our collective hope.… Some of the things we do for one another to preserve and re-establish hope are ….”
b. Do not limit yourself to individual examples of what you are teaching from the Bible. Tie the individual Bible figure to his national (Old Testament) or church (New Testament) society whenever possible.
For example, in teaching your students or sermon listeners about the joys of an individual, personal relationship with God, mention that each person also needs at least one other person to help him or her grow closer to God. This will be done through other Togethers of Scripture. Cite how without each other’s help, Adam and Eve listened to Satan and gave in to his temptation in the Garden of Eden.
Another example: In teaching husbands how to love their wives biblically, remember that you have to teach the wives how to help their husbands do it. God specifically designed marriage so that husbands and wives need each other’s help to do anything He asks them to do (Genesis 2). And don’t forget to tell how a Christian man learning to love his wife more and more, as Jesus would want, needs help from other Christian men and other Christian women in his life. Finally, point out how men in the small group or in the church can help other men grow in the skill of loving their wives more and more. And, this is important, tell the women in the group or church how they are to help Christian men who are not their husband to love their wives more and more.
c. Do not give strictly individual assignments without relationship assignments. In my book Find Yourself, Give Yourself (1983, NavPress), I asked this small-group question: “Are you [individually] at the place where you can look forward with peaceful excitement (rather than anxiety) to difficult assignments from the Lord? Explain.” Since then, I have grown much in my understanding of the power of Christians together, so today I would write instead, “Tell each other whether you can look forward with peaceful excitement (rather than anxiety) to difficult assignments from the Lord. Ask each other for whatever explanation you need to fully understand. Then, together, commit to a plan to help each and every one of you develop peaceful excitement through faith and confidence to do difficult things for the glory of God. Carry out that plan, no matter how many weeks or months it takes. The work of God through your group depends on it.”
So, at the end of your lesson or sermon, put the group or the friendships, marriages and families to work. That is how God expects spiritual growth and obedience to occur.
Let’s imagine that you are a pastor and have just preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan. In conclusion you say, “Let’s face it. None of us is going to become a better Good Samaritan without each other’s help. These next few weeks, let’s do these things. Those of you who have a close friendship of two or three, remember that Jesus promised to be with you in a special way. Most likely He will be telling you either individually or as a friendship group to be Good Samaritans in new ways. God will require a bit more love and sacrifice from you than you have naturally given. As friends, help each other be a Good Samaritan like you have never been before. And, as a friendship group of two or three, let Jesus lead you to a place where together you can be a team of Good Samaritans.
“And you husbands and wives do the same. Ask each other nightly if anyone needed you to be a Good Samaritan or if there is a situation you need to grow into to be a more selfless Good Samaritan than you already are.
“Now you families. Each one of you after the age of two or three years can be growing as a Good Samaritan. Work together as a family to help each family member, including moms and dads, be a little stronger Samaritan and do something to help another. And, as a family, be a Good Samaritan Team to help someone in your neighborhood in the next four weeks.”
2. Let everyone participate. Let your students or church members in on the action of teaching one another.
Leave plenty of time for interaction. That is where what you teach will begin to take hold and grow. Never think that mere teaching will get the job done. (1 Corinthians 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”) Teach what you have to teach as simply and quickly as possible. Then have the group (1) make sure everyone understands what has been taught and its applications, (2) count the cost of implementing it in life, (3) overcome any barriers in each person to obeying and living out the teaching, (4) put courage into every group member to go beyond what he or she has already attained, and (5) decide on a plan of continued helpfulness and accountability to make sure that the time as a small group was not wasted or mere social entertainment.
One of the best ways to get your congregants to grow spiritually through the sermon is to allow time for sharing testimonies and asking questions. The size of your audience will determine how this might be done.
Smaller, More Intimate Congregations
Smaller congregations can more easily allow church service time for individuals, friends, married couples and whole families to come to the podium and tell how they grew into obedience from past sermons. If, as suggested above, you have given them assignments, letting them come and tell their stories of obedience will be tremendously powerful for the growth of the church as a whole. Those sharing will, merely by the act of public testimony, cement their identity as a person, friendship, marriage or family that obeys in the way their story proclaims. Those listening will see how they, too, can grow and obey. I realize that a long sermon has been around for time immemorial, but that does not mean it is necessarily helpful. In New Testament days, there was much more time to talk about one of the apostle’s sermons than it took to listen to it.
A smaller congregation can allow time for people to ask questions about the content of the sermon. If there is time only for one question, and answers can come from the congregation rather than the preacher, that will serve well to start the task of putting the sermon into practice by converting passive listening to active obedience.
Larger congregations where interaction is impossible in the sanctuary can still encourage testimony and questioning. However, the church leadership will have to fully believe that interaction between believers is key to obeying the Bible.
Questions about the sermon can be written on cards and left on chairs or pews to be collected after everyone has left the sanctuary. (Don’t have people picking them up when people are still hanging around to talk, or you will interrupt what little biblical community is possible in the larger church meeting.) Those questions can be addressed in many ways. (1) The preacher can learn from the questions what was not made very clear in the sermon delivery. (2) It will be a very useful thing to bridge last week’s sermon with this week’s by answering a major question from last week at the beginning of this week’s sermon. This will give the congregation a sense of continuity and being on an adventure together. It will also encourage more faithful attendance, as the clarifying point will be less meaningful if last week’s sermon was missed. (3) Answers could be posted to the church Web site or sent out via e-mail, thus engaging the congregation during the week.
Testimonies of spiritual growth could be submitted in writing. During the week, one individual, pair of friends, married or engaged couple, or family could be chosen to come to the podium the next Sunday and give their testimony. The choice could be made on the basis of what furthers the past sermon’s teaching. Other written testimonies, submitted whenever possible by e-mail, could be posted at the Web site for others to read. Or the e-mails could be forwarded on only to those who sign up to get them each week.