An Educated Laity

I once heard a Senior Pastor say, “This is a church that is primarily for the unchurched and for new believers. If you want to listen to deep sermons and really grow as a Christian you’ll probably have to go elsewhere.” At least he was honest. Not surprisingly, members who had been Christians for a few years tended to drift away from the church and head to nearby alternatives that placed greater emphasis on discipleship and growth. This same pastor suggested that these other churches were “sheep stealing” but in my mind they were simply providing what Christians both want and need. They were providing milk instead of trying to mollify the people with a steady diet of skim milk.

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My son turned seven today and I was just thinking about what a big kid he has become. I can remember when he was tiny and when all he wanted was to nurse. I can remember when Aileen and I could grill up two nice steaks and have a good and reasonably cheap meal. As Nick got older he started to eat real food, so Aileen and I would grill up our steaks and make a pot of macaroni and cheese for the kids. It was still a cheap meal. But not anymore. Today we have to make up enough steak for four of us. Nick has realized that steak is far better than macaroni and he wants to dig his teeth into that meat. This is a good and natural progression for him! In fact, our doctor is just a little concerned about Michaela who seems to like her milk too much. She doesn’t have much of an appetite for anything else and just wants to nurse. This is fine for now, but will need to ease off soon if she is to maintain a healthy rate of growth.

It seems to me that this is exactly what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote, “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:11-14). If my seven-year-old was still feasting on milk and refusing meat he would not be a healthy kid. He would be weak, sickly and starving. The quick progression from milk to meat is good, natural and necessary.

In the last two weeks I read a couple of books that got my mind working. The first, The Faithful Preacher by Thabiti Anyabwile, provided a brief biography of Daniel Payne. Payne, who lived from 1811 to 1893, believed in the importance of an educated pastorate rather than simply allowing anyone to preach who somehow felt called to the task. While he was primarily interested in educating pastors, he knew that the church, and the African American church in particular, could never outgrow its level of education. The second book, The Faith of Condoleeza Rice by Leslie Montgomery is a biography of Condoleeza Rice and one that discusses the turbulent years when America was wrestling with the issue of race. Nearly a century after Payne, the African American population knew that if they were ever to attain equal footing they would need to be educated. As long as they were kept uneducated, they would never be able to gain equality. Rice is a living testimony to the equaling effect of education, having risen to a position of unequaled prominence for an African American woman.

As I thought about this, I thought of the many churches out there, and many average evangelical churches would fit this mold, that are somehow afraid or unwilling to really educate the laity. They deliberately attempt to keep the laypeople ignorant of theology. They provide endless amounts of fads, entertainment and “Christian living,” but refuse to clearly and deliberately teach deeper theology. They do this, I think, for two reasons. First, these pastors believe that their people are simply not interested in learning real theology. This would be particularly true in churches where a lot of those attending are unbelievers. But in a church where most of the people are truly saved, there will be a hunger for meat. Second, these pastors want to keep the people ignorant in order to avoid having to defend themselves against the inevitable questions. Those who are kept ignorant are unable to ask deep and probing questions about leadership, theology and other issues. A pastor can keep himself from having to face the difficult issues by keeping his members unaware of them.

I am grateful that many Christians are realizing that if the church is ever to avoid going into eclipse in this culture, we will not necessarily need greater and stronger leaders, but we will need an educated laity. I was interested to see that just today Thabiti Anyabwile, reflecting on what the African American church needs to do in order to be reformed, writes about this very subject.

Popular education. We need to figure out a way to provide air cover for those soldiers on the ground laboring for reform. That “air cover” comes, I think, with popular education. How many of you reading this post came to a Reformed understanding of the faith through Ligonier Ministries–their radio broadcast or TableTalk magazine? My journey began there. Well, how does Ligonier see themselves? As providing education somewhere between Sunday school and seminary. In other words, it’s a solid effort to reach the average Christian with educational resources that create the ambient atmosphere for growth and change. We need to do two things, I think. One, we need to figure out a way to get more Ligonier material and other material like it to our congregations. We don’t have to replicate everything. Use the good stuff already out there; introduce our people to great teachers and their resources rather than letting the local Christian bookstore stock their shelves with the cotton candy that sells and passes as Christian literature these days

I think this is as true for evangelical churches in general. An educated laity–a laity that knows the Bible and thus knows and serves God as He really is–this will be the key to building a stronger, healthier church.