In many ways it is rather silly to say we need to maximise our Bible teaching now, at this time of Covid-19. Shepherds should always be feeding the sheep, in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2). The church has always grown through “teaching the Word of God” (Acts 18:11). For two thousand years there has been a huge harvest field, harassed and helpless and needing to hear the Word taught (Mark 6:34). So why put out a call for an even greater emphasis on maximising our Bible teaching at this time? Well, here are three reasons why the situation demands a greater emphasis, and then five ways the situation could be pushing us away from that emphasis.
Why we need to double down on Bible teaching now:
- The volume of the competing voices has been turned up. It’s a battle for attention. Phone or Bible. The news or the Good News. The battle was intense before but now, in the surreal daily disaster movie that is Covid-19, the volume of the competing voices has been turned up to a deafening level. So if we want to avoid being drowned out or (more positively) if we want to fill our city with the teaching of Christ (Acts 5:28) we’re going to need to increase the volume of our Bible teaching, we’re going to need to fight for the attention of hearers more than ever. Our teaching will need to be high quality and it’s going to need to be more frequent than weekly.
- The opportunities are increased. The harvest field has always been harassed and helpless but now it is more visibly so. We’ve always been surrounded by death but now it’s the daily headline. That doesn’t always mean more openness to the gospel but there are a lot of testimonies of greater honesty and willingness to engage than has been seen for many years. Some are busier than ever but others have nothing to do and are open to watching a sermon. People are coming to Christ. Many on the fringes of churches are getting more engaged. We don’t want to hype this or pretend that a mass revival is taking place but there are open doors and we want to make the most of the time and take the opportunities.
- The intensity and complexity of pastoral needs have increased. The current crisis has put additional stress on everyone. Families are in the pressure cooker. Mental health and struggles with sin are exacerbated. And everyone is affected differently – partly because people’s situations are so different and partly because how individuals respond to those situations is so different. At a time of such intensity and complexity, we need careful Bible teaching. Simplistic answers won’t do – any more than Job’s comforters’ sloppy theology and trite application were a help to Job in his intense, complex suffering. Now more than ever we need to be spending serious time in the living Word, working hard on the text, seeing the logic, hearing the surprising voice of God, feeling weighty truths about the Lord of heaven and earth, savouring Christ, seeking the precise purpose of the passage, wrestling with exactly how this connects with the hearers and how to get it across in a way that unleashes the full force (comfort and challenge) of the text.
Praise God that hundreds of churches and pastors up and down the country have been doing exactly that – turning up the volume, shifting to top mission gear, getting out material on all sorts of channels and working harder than ever to keep the quality really high in exegesis and careful application.
At the same time it’s worth being alive to ways in which this locked down situation, particularly as it continues week after week, will be pushing against Bible teaching and making the fight to keep the main thing the main thing particularly hard. Five potential dangers:
- Word pushed from the ministry centre. For a number of reasons – including the dynamics of online communication (limiting attention spans) and the extra effort required to create a sense of community and connectedness in the absence of physical gatherings – there could easily be a reduction in the priority given to Bible teaching. We could start to get used to meetings which have little or no Bible content. And at the same time we could gradually put more confidence in our creativity or presentation (which is more in the spotlight than ever) than in the Word of God.
- Topical taking over from sequential exposition. Of course there is a place for topical teaching and responding to crisis. Few would argue for woodenly continuing with a series regardless of the onset of an extreme situation. But there could be a danger that, as this crisis continues, even churches with a strong expository tradition might start to get used to topical, crisis-driven preaching and preachers could start to develop habits of working from ‘what I want to say into this crisis’, rather than letting the Word of God set the agenda, emphasis, tone and focus us on the Lord Jesus and what he is saying to the churches.
- Physical stress making preparation a particular battle. Most obviously, this crisis is putting an enormous pressure on pastors and gospel workers. Many are working very long hours with a thousand things to do and a huge emotional and spiritual burden on top of all the common lockdown stresses. It’s incredible what they are doing (by God’s grace) but there will be a physical toll and it would be surprising if sermon preparation time didn’t become a particular battle ground with adrenalin, distraction and exhaustion. And so all the classic shortcut temptations will be there – skim it, wing it, prayerlessness.
- Narrowed application. We should probably watch out that Covid-19 does not close down the range of our application. Certainly it colours everything and we need to be alive to that in our Bible teaching but it shouldn’t dominate our interpretation of reality. Our createdness, our sinfulness and supremely the death, resurrection and return of Christ are far more important interpretative grids. While Covid exacerbates it isn’t the most important factor in a failing marriage or a dysfunctional workplace or anxiety or backsliding.
- Neglect of training. One of the first things to go in a time of crisis is training and personal development. And that’s completely understandable. Yet if we don’t keep growing as Bible teachers we will be going backwards and the soup we’ll be serving will be increasingly thin at the very time when the quality needs to be at its highest.
This is not to point fingers or say these things are happening. They are just potential dangers on the horizon and temptations I feel personally. I’m privileged to know many pastors and preachers who are doing an absolutely brilliant job of maximising their Bible teaching. The pressures against them just make that all the more remarkable. One example: a pastor recently told me how he had gone to a familiar Psalm from which to preach in the early days of the crisis and then, after he’d done some hours of work on the text, he realised it wasn’t really about what he’d remembered it was about. This from a guy carrying a huge load and pushing on a whole load of fronts at once. Praise God.
- This is a time when, more than ever, churches need to be praying for and caring for their pastors and teachers – praying for the Great Shepherd of the sheep to deeply refresh their souls and sustain their bodies; giving thanks to Him for those who are working so hard for them; honouring them; encouraging them. Pastors and Bible teachers – don’t be shy to ask for prayer. And please rest (sustainable sacrifice).
- Let’s be maximising our Bible teaching. I’m well aware many are already doing this brilliantly. But let’s all keep taking all the opportunities we can – one-to-one over the phone, leading small groups or as pastor teachers. While Sunday proclamation will continue to be central, many churches are creatively increasing content by making use of a) writing (200-800 words), and b) 2-8 minute video clips.
- Every member ministry and a division of ministries (Acts 6 style) is going to be more important now than ever though harder than ever to organise and achieve. If pastors have to carry everything they will sink. Everyone needs to pitch in, particularly with practical care for the church family, communications and technical support.
- Let’s be growing in our Bible teaching. I realise many will not have the time, energy or bandwidth right now for taking on something extra (extra!?!) but as the weeks go on training will be important and even a welcome refreshment. I just sat in on a fantastic training session on preaching in church plants. Perhaps it would be possible, at some point, to start that book on preaching that you’ve never got round to reading or listen to a classic sermon series, or even commit to some online theological study from September. Or maybe just ask one person a week for some feedback on your Bible teaching (what did you take away from what I said?).
- Let’s pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out more Bible teachers. We need them more than ever!