Is Our Teaching Method Watering Down Our Doctrine?

October 17, 2012

October has turned out to be an intense month of preparations, and my blog has gotten short shrift as a result. Aside from preaching every Sunday this month (an unusual schedule in my current context), I am giving a series of theological lectures on the topic “It All Started in the Garden: Theological Themes Arising Out of Genesis 1-3” and presenting three talks at the California Wee Kirk Conference next week (a plenary address, a sermon, and a seminar—all on different topics). Behind-the-scenes, I have been working with a colleague on a study guide for ECO’s “Essential Tenets” (ET) paper, and it is this project that prompted me to write today.

My personal calling to “bring the Word to life” engages me regularly in teaching, for the purpose of helping Christian disciples know, understand, and apply their faith to everyday life. “The faith” is explicated in an impressive corpus of Scripture and confessions.  Not only are the Scriptures rich in thematic material relative to Reformed doctrine; our confessional heritage brings many edifying and relevant explanations to our attention. The bottom line is this: “There’s too much stuff to cover!” It is this dilemma and its implications that I would like to highlight today.

Whenever a session or a pastor feels the need for an adult class on major themes, the parameters are set with the hope that people will participate with sustained interest. In the forty years I have been teaching adults, however, some dynamics have changed:

• People have a much harder time committing to a lengthy class; six weeks is now the classic limit, and even then, folks duck out for other commitments or vacations.

• People’s attention spans have shortened significantly. Ten minutes of lecture, without introducing a discussion question or audio-visual interruption, is about the limit. It becomes a huge challenge to unpack a complicated doctrine or study a long book of the Bible.

• Folks have limited capacity for nuanced discussion. They want the highlights, “executive summaries,” or the pros and cons in bullet-format.

• The question of relevance comes up more frequently, especially among the young: “Why do I have to know this? This stuff is old and outdated.”

The task seems so overwhelming, the ordinary Christian is tempted to revert to the default setting, “As long as the church holds tight to the essentials of the faith, I myself do not need to know them in any great detail.” Twenty years ago, this was not an issue for me, but as time has passed I now see why the inclusion of nine creeds, confessions, and catechisms in a Book of Confessions only made this problem worse. There is just so much there, and it is repetitive, so why does an ordinary Presbyterian Christian need to study it? Isn’t it enough to trust that the theologians have done a good job compiling our doctrine, and all I have to do is concentrate on living a good life?

The trouble, as I see it, is that people may be aware that a deep well of biblical and confessional material is available, but they bring only a thimble with which to drink. Too many limits are placed on the teaching/learning dynamic to make sustained investigation possible. I am finding that people, left to their own devices, are satisfied with discussion that merely scratches the surface of content and moves quickly to controversies and feelings. But without a solid grounding in the content, subsequent discussion can quickly veer off into speculation and experience-based redefinitions. I have realized in a new way this month that our inattention in this area is a prime reason why the denomination is losing its theological moorings, and why a curriculum on marriage or a curriculum on the Essential Tenets is more necessary than ever.

And yet, we are stuck with the limited time people will give to the task.  In a 50-minute Sunday school class or even a 90-minute midweek class, how can a teacher present, say, the doctrine of the Trinity, explain its very interesting historical development, identify the relevance of robust Trinitarian understanding to one’s Christian life, and give the participants a chance to process and apply it? The options for the teacher are to 1) very briefly summarize the doctrine and let questions from the participants drive the discussion, 2) lecture on the subject thoroughly and hope the folks get it, or 3) take more than one class session to cover the subject, and hope people come back with sustained interest.

My “It All Started in the Garden” class is scheduled for twenty-one weeks; we’re on week six today on the topic of God’s Self-revelation and Word. It’s counter-cultural to go this long, I know, but I do not know how else to do justice to the material. My ET colleague is teaching “The Incarnation” in 90-minutes tonight, week three of six on essential tenets. Neither of us will feel we covered our topics thoroughly, but this won’t stop us from trying. If we can whet the appetites of our learners, perhaps we can convince them to adopt a discipline of personal study. If they do not take this responsibility, and congregations continue to be satisfied with a watered down approach to doctrinal teaching, the emerging generation of Presbyterians will be ill equipped to discern the will of God.


3 Responses to “Is Our Teaching Method Watering Down Our Doctrine?”

  1. cindy ely Says:


  2. Amen and Amen!!!! I believe your conclusion was right on,
    only if there is a fire ignited for personal study, no matter how
    many classes are offered, they won’t work. The point is not how many facts we teach, the students must develop the desire,
    the hunger, the yearning to learn more about Christ, and when they do, the Holy Spirit that Christ has given each of us will
    kick in and that desire will grow more and more as we learn. I called myself a Christian for 30 years, before I realized that I
    I didn’t really know what that meant. My desire to learn started slowly, but each time I got to the point where I thought I was stalled, something or someone would cross my path and
    grow me some more. Only through belief in the work of Holy Spirit, can we be open to knowing Christ, body and soul.
    Thanks be to God, for His love and patience.

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