Take a look most church libraries or in their supply closets under “bible study” and most often you find slickly packaged materials complete with assignments and questions that was written by someone outside that church.
It is easy to see why this is so when you go into most Christian bookstores and in the section labelled “bible study” you find these same packaged materials, bearing the names of such prominent people as Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Henry Blackaby, and others. We should find it curious that in these Christian stores, “bible study” rarely, if ever, includes materials about how churches identify, train teachers and evaluate teachers, or that provide instruction for teachers to teach the Scriptures. Even when they do, the overwhelming emphasis is on packaged ‘studies’.
Even the vernacular “come join my Bible study!” issued by one church member to another usually means come over and watch a video or come over and do a packaged workbook.
Certainly there are occasions when materials prepared by those outside your congregation are a useful tool in the church’s teaching ministry. Yet God has given the church — each congregation — the gifts it needs to operate, including teachers (Ephesians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 3:2). When the default teaching function falls to those who we know only through a pixellated image on a video screen or head shot on a dust jacket, we implicitly suggest that God has not provided enough teachers to the local congregation.
We have plenty of ‘facilitators’. Usually packaged ‘bible study’ materials only require someone to insert the DVD, call attention to the reading assignment, and direct a discussion through the packaged questions. The one who does so is not a teacher, but is instead a facilitator or discussion leader. There may be a valid use for facilitators, but they are not the teaching ministry of the church.
A teacher is one who is able to take material from the Scriptures (or a book — more on that later), study its meaning, weigh the purpose of presenting it, devise a method of presentation consistent with the purpose, and present it, complete with fashioning questions and activities to complement the presentation, so that the student learns. Regardless of our modern technological access to them, we are not to be dependent on those outside our congregations for such instruction. God has promised to give each congregation those people-gifts.
One misconception that fuels the deferral to packaged materials is that a congregation’s only teacher is the pastor. Other church members can’t become teachers, and since the pastor can’t teach every class, facilitators must pick up the slack. Another misconception is that facilitators are teachers. Another misconception is that the church must have as many bible study and Sunday school classes as people in the congregation seem to want. This results in very segmented, homogeneous bible study groups.
Facilitators, as we have seen, are not teachers. And while the pastor is the primary teacher for the congregation, the Scripture tells us that there should be multiple elders (pastors) in each church and that each of them should be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). And if we believe that God gives each congregation the gifts necessary to be healthy, then the conclusion is that a congregation should have only as many classes as there are teachers.
This is not to say that discussion groups, bible studies, book studies and the like cannot occur: to the contrary, members should seek opportunity to gather to study and discuss Scripture apart from official church time, especially when doing so provides opportunity to expose unbelievers to the gospel. But church leaders and members should not mistake this activity for the teaching ministry of the church.
Small churches especially feel the pinch of the need for instruction in the face of a lack of available teachers. Larger churches should have no such problem, but even they typically defer to facilitating the packaged materials of others and refer to such as “teaching.” The biblical reality is that every congregation should constantly be developing teachers: raising up from within and training those who are biblical teachers.
When a church as an ordinary situation finds itself without its own teachers, then there is something unhealthy about that congregation. God will provide what each congregation needs to be healthy, but the first step is for each congregation to question its reliance on outside sources, and how they are used.