Mission and Training

I believe that one of the most dangerous notions currently pervading the Western Church is the notion that schoolwork adequately prepares someone for Christian service. It is invidious because it implicitly suggests that those with academic qualifications know all they need to and at the same time reduces the sphere of service available to those without the required credentials. The New Testament pattern was entirely different: teaching, training and service were intricately interwoven to produce a balanced and fruitful learning environment for everyone.

In some respects it is impossible to outline the specific New Testament approach to teaching and training. Starting literally from day 1 doctrine was alongside fellowship and prayer for the entire church[1]. The embryonic church in Acts 4:2 was already combining teaching with their evangelism program. By Acts 5:42 teaching and evangelizing were both a daily part of the church program. For anyone that wonders if this was just the 'new church' thing we find in Acts 15:35 that this was exactly the same pattern that Paul exported on his missionary endeavors. We therefore see that as far as the New Testament is concerned everyone is enrolled into the teaching program.

The other part that may startle a few is that no-one ever gets to graduate from the teaching program either. Consider these words penned by Paul:

"Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine - Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you."[2]

This may not feel too strange they are almost certainly the words by which many of our teenagers are packed off to Bible College by their parents. However these words were written to Timothy who had already been commissioned and sent[3], was already a preacher and was about to set-about restructuring an entire church[4]!

Of course some may argue that these are just glimpses into a process; we have not necessarily been shown everything that occurred. Fortunately Peter laid out the entire syllabus in 2Pe 1:5-8

2Pe 1:5 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 2Pe 1:6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness,2Pe 1:7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. 2Pe 1:8 For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We see that the program starts when someone has faith. Interestingly whilst faith is enough for salvation it is really just the entrance requirement for the school of Christianity. To faith needs to be added virtue, or excellence as some translations put it. The believer needs to grow that desire to do well. To excel. To commit to making themselves better Christians. That drive for excellence then needs to lead to the acquisition of knowledge. A suggest that any Christian desire to do better should lead immediately to the question of: what and how does the Bible mean by 'better' in this situation. Having acquired some new piece of knowledge it needs to be owned through the process of self-control. I may read of some driving skill but it is only through practice behind the wheel[5] that I become a better driver. This practice phase is usually slower and more painful that we would like which requires us to add perseverance: the determination to attempt; and faith that we will succeed through His strength.

This phase of the program leads to godliness; in the words of Romans 12 we have been transformed enough into His image that we can begin to approve those wholesome and Godly things. Then come the two final stages; brotherly kindness and brotherly love. In the missionary context it is particularly interesting that the outward show of kindness occurs before the deep heart motivation. We often here of people being 'called into service' with a 'deep passion and concern for X'; only to discover that twelve months later they are discouraged and are off chasing something else. Biblically we would expect long periods of faithful service to produce that desire to full time leadership and service.

Having looked at the New Testament practices and underlying theology I would like to suggest how we would expect this to play out today:

  1. People are saved and immediately their learning and evangelism program turns into a learning and service program. What they are learning will not have changed much and their service will almost certainly be relatively menial at first.
  2. It will immediately be seen which of the recruits are aiming to run well. Those that are not should be further encouraged[6]; those that are should be moved into a heavier[7] learning program.
  3. Knowledgable and experienced believers should now be trying to identify gift within the 'keenies'. Once identified they should each be assigned a mentor or two to work under and learn under. By this point they should be performing valuable church service although without direct visible authority[8]. They would also be making 'guest appearances' in more senior roles[9].
  4. Those that are growing well will eventually grow into a position where they can take visible authority over some subsection of the function of the church albeit under one or two others. For example: a helper may now run the monthly pot-lucks or oversee the church filing system, a teacher might have their own class to lead, and evangelist may lead or share an outreach program.
  5. At this point as the need arises and the Spirit leads some will be publically acknowledged as elders or deacons. Thus they would become responsible for the training and motivation of others in their field of gift. They themselves would expect to receive ongoing training in those areas for which they do not have such explicit gift. In some cases the elders may ask some individuals to forego secular employment in favor of direct church support.

Whilst much of what I have written will appear reasonable to most, at least in theory, there are a couple of things that will strike many. Firstly there is no explicit: 'Get packed off to Bible College' followed by a stage 'f'. This is quite deliberate. If the local church is unable to provide adequate teaching and training then asking some of the 'e' group or even the 'd' group to go and acquire the necessary skills is reasonable. However this should be with the view of making that information available to the entire church; not with the view of making an intellectual elite that posses some knowledge to which the laity may not aspire.

The other is that I have suggested that the church leaders need to grow outside of their primary gift. I am justifying this on the exhortation to Timothy. Leaders are not simply supposed to be the most gifted but also the most mature. Whilst keeping their sphere of visible service within their gift area I think it is entirely appropriate for leadership to round themselves out in all areas. In particular we should note that 'apt to teach' is a requirement of eldership. Thus even those that are not gifted teachers should at least be able to expound the basic principles at least up to the 'c' level.

In closing I would like to make two final points. Firstly some may argue that I have outline teaching within a church not within 'a mission'. That is simply because I do not accept the distinction. We are all called to the mission field; whether we are asked to move first is largely irrelevant to our training program[10]. The only exception is a missionary to a brand new mission field; as we have seen from the example in Antioch this should be done by a number[11] of experienced elders.

The other point is that the detail I have suggested may lead us to expect a big, highly structured church with at least nineteen levels of administration. I believe that if you re-read the suggestions prayerfully this is not the case. In fact the opposite is the case. The proposal rapidly devolves work and responsibility out to the congregation. Leaders do spend more time mentoring; but they spend less time doing the easier parts work. Whilst there are levels of authority the responsibility for a given task will reside with one person only; much of the confusion and finger pointing will go away.

In conclusion I have suggested that training and service should go hand-in-hand. This is the pattern suggested by what we see in the New Testament church and is the pattern laid out by Peter. I have then offered a blueprint for how this would play out in a real modern-day church and noted how this relates to the more traditionally considered missionary role.


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