My substitute teaching career was short-lived, and carried me through a brief time between ministry opportunities. One particular day found me stepping in for an 8th grade biology teacher who had left a worksheet for her class to complete.
As the kids worked on the assignment, two boys called me over for help. I began to explain the process for solving the problem when one of the boys interrupted me.
“Our regular teacher usually just tells us the answer.” My response: “Well, your regular teacher isn’t here.”
But it’s often easier to tell instead of teach, isn’t it? Even in church, it’s so much easier to answer for the unresponsive Sunday school class. But how can we ever help people grow if we fail to challenge them?
We must help our members move beyond simply looking for a spiritual authority to provide the right answers. (This kind of thinking leads to Christians arguing against abortion or same-sex marriage with statements that begin, “My pastor told me…”)
We must move from telling to teaching, asking ourselves: Which is happening more regularly in my church?
This realization came to me as I spoke to a senior adult in my church soon after my arrival. During his recuperation from surgery, I encouraged him to stay faithful in reading the Bible. A few weeks later when I called to check in, he said, “I’m finishing 2 Corinthians.”
Since he and I had spoken, he had taken my challenge to read the book of John, and then he just kept on going. Several weeks later, he was back in church and finishing the book of Revelation. When I asked him about his Bible reading, he said it wasn’t that he had never been told to read his Bible. He said this was the first time he had a place to start.
This situation caused me to realize that I had been blaming the laity for far too long. It was time to point the finger at myself as a leader and ask, “Am I telling them what to do, or teaching them?”
In response, our church began two men’s accountability groups within the last year. The purpose of these groups is to make effective disciples. We challenge these men to be devotionally serious in prayer and reading the Bible. We encourage one another to apply the Bible to our lives and memorize Scripture. But the only way we can evaluate the results is from the lives of these men themselves.
One of our regular attenders from the start has been up and down in his application of God’s Word. I constantly taught him how to be more diligent in his effort to grow from his readings. The month it was his turn to teach the group from his Bible readings, his work situation changed and created a tighter financial situation.
As he worked to apply God’s Word, he read in 1 Timothy 6:7-10 to be encouraged in the sufficient provision God was supplying for his family. He didn’t learn this from the counsel of his pastor, but the counsel of God’s Word. And it gave him peace.
Mark is also in my group and recently told me that he often read the Bible before, but only recently has been more diligent in applying it to his life. And while he says memorization is something he never would have done, at times he is memorizing additional verses that are meaningful to him. Again, these are things he had been told to do before, but never taught to do.
So whether you’re a pastor preaching in the service or a Sunday school teacher moving through the curriculum, I challenge all of us to consider whether we are telling or teaching. Are people being equipped with answers, or with the tools to find those answers for themselves and to grow as confident disciples?
I truly believe those are the only kind of disciples that can build our churches to be stronger and win lost souls to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Heath Tibbetts is pastor of First Baptist Church, Machesney Park.