Ch.5 Baby Lambs and Old Sheep

I have the same goal for both older and newer Christians: to make the language fresh, to make it come alive.
By Earl Palmer 2005

Becky, a new Christian in my Bible class, sparkles with enthusiasm even though she needs help to find Galatians: “Is that Old or New Testament?” she asks. I could tell her, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and she would be awed by the depth of my teaching.

Tim, on the other hand, raised in the church, has heard it all before. He’s tired of “Jesus Loves Me” and may have read Galatians ten times already.

The problem is, they both sit in the same Bible study I teach.

Schoolteachers have specific assignments: “Ninth-grade English literature.” Pastors can’t be so specific. I wonder what schoolteachers would do with a task like the pastor’s: teach 200 students, kindergarten to graduate school (some gifted, some slow), covering everything from colors and the alphabet to biochemistry and calculus.

That is the challenge put before the pastor, to teach a diverse group of people who possess a variety of skills.

The easy way out, of course, is to offer classes for the new believer and classes for the mature believer. And there is a place for that.

But most of the time I prefer them to attend the same Bible study together. It’s refreshing for mature Christians to see younger Christians excitedly discover old truths. It not only reminds them of the eternal freshness of the gospel, it also gives them new ways of seeing old truths.

New believers, on the other hand, need to hear the wisdom and experience that older Christians offer. It gives them the long view and helps stabilize their lives.

Though the benefits are great, teaching a mixed class of old and new Christians, where you can bore the mature or overwhelm the neophyte, requires skill and sound technique.

The Diverse Challenge

As I set out to teach both new and mature Christians together, I must be aware of temptations and roadblocks that may get in the way of effective teaching.

• Temptations to avoid. With mature believers, who may be on the verge of boredom because they think they know it all, I may be tempted to try to make the Bible more interesting. So I may think that a study of the esoteric, like the Book of Revelation or first-century Gnosticism, might work best.

Certainly subjects like these are worthy of attention, but I must not be lured into discussing them while ignoring the heart of the gospel, for that is perennially the most interesting part of our message. Teachers who say, “We need to give these people some really tough courses on some big, major themes,” deprive the older person of the challenge of a simple treatment of the biblical text. Most of the time, the older Christian needs the explosive experience of seeing 1 John in a fresh way.

One temptation in talking with new believers is to rely on clichés or to give them generalized truths to memorize. Worse still is to ask them simplistic questions, where they just fill in the blanks after reading a verse. In short, I mustn’t insult their intelligence.

Another temptation with new believers is let them bask in their new experience as Christians. We do that when we teach them to share their faith on the basis of their experience: “I was troubled, and now Christ has brought me peace.” That may be true, but lots of people get peace, some from crack cocaine or Eastern religions.

Instead of exploiting their subjective experience, then, I want instead to ground them in the Bible, so that they will have a firm basis for sharing their faith.

• Roadblocks to overcome. Young believers often feel awkward or doubtful about their new role; they know others have been around longer and know more. They feel silly asking if Galatians is Old Testament or New.

This lack of confidence can undermine their ability to grow in Christ, especially to study the Bible—it is, after all, a huge book, in some ways unwieldly and complicated. So I want new Christians to feel friendly toward the Bible, to gain confidence that they can use the Bible themselves, to feel the Bible is their book.

Older Christians are roadblocked not by lack of experience but by experience itself. For instance, some get roadblocked in the prophetic mode: they can’t get beyond the Bible’s teachings about the need for justice and our responsibility to the poor. Others may be roadblocked by evangelism: they can’t see anything but a call to evangelize. At some point, such people have heard a sermon or had an experience that significantly shapes their outlook and hinders them from seeing the full sweep of the gospel.

Others are roadblocked by bad experiences: their encounters with extreme charismatics, for instance, may make them unwilling to consider openly the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Or an unanswered prayer may make them cynical about prayer.

So for older Christians, I have to help them see beyond the roadblock, to expose them to the full dimensions of the Christian faith.

The Common Response

It would appear that these diverse challenges would demand diverse responses on the part of the teacher. In some ways, yes, so the teacher should keep this diversity in mind and shape the study accordingly.

Yet, in the end, the way to meet these temptations and overcome these roadblocks is the same: inductive Bible study.

The wonderful thing about the Bible is that it is a great discipleship tool no matter where we are in our journey. Given the chance, the Bible molds and shapes us, and remolds and reshapes us for a lifetime. Young believers have limited information—a lot of the language, categories, images, and symbols of faith are unknown to them. But older Christians have essentially the same problem: they have information, but they often don’t understand the information they have. Underconfidence or overconfidence simply compounds the problem.

So, I have the same goal for both groups—to make the language fresh, to make it come alive, helping them discover what it means. Both groups need to see how exciting the text is, how filled with meaning it is.

I’ve found that happens especially when I let the Bible speak for itself, when I study it inductively, not coming at it with preconceived categories, but attempting to discover what it says about itself.

Journey into the Word One Step at a Time

Inductive study alone, of course, is no magic key. I still have to shape the study so that it helps people see the text in a fresh way. I use a number of techniques to do that, the first of which is studying short passages—and just those passages.

For example, I might play this game with my class. “I’m a Roman soldier living in the first century,” I’ll say. “Late one night, a young man with a scroll tucked under his arm comes running down an alley. He looks suspicious, so I grab for him, but he’s too quick. All I get is a little piece of his manuscript. So I take the evidence in to headquarters. They fold it neatly and send it over to the Roman cia, Caesar’s Intelligence Agency, because they want to know what kind of a document might be carried by a mysterious runner in the middle of the night. The agent unfolds the scrap of manuscript and spreads it out under the light of his lamp.

“Now, if you were that cia agent and that piece of scroll—the first few verses of Philippians—was all you had to work with, what could you tell me from the document? Why was it written? What kind of people was it written to? What do they believe? What are they trying to do?”

For instance, if they had a scrap of , they would see Paul writing to the church at Philippi with its deacons and bishops—so they would discover the church is organized. They would see the name Jesus Christ used frequently in just a few verses—so whoever Jesus is, he’s important to this movement. In fact, he’s called Lord, and that means something in any century.

I don’t care how much or how little Bible knowledge people have, this kind of approach creates an incredible Bible study experience. It enables Christians—novices or veterans—to do an inductive Bible study together. New believers have as much to work with as the older ones. The Sunday school expert who’s memorized dozens of verses can’t interject some oblique thought by saying, “Well over in John it says this and over in Luke it says this.” He’s restricted to focus on a particular scrap of material.

Forced to concentrate on a single portion, older Christians also make new discoveries. They thought they understood the passage so well, but they now realize, “Hey! I’m seeing new things.”

Help People See the Word

Another method I’ve used helps people see the text, literally: I have them draw or doodle.

This is especially useful with youth. For instance, I’ve put a huge piece of butcher paper on the floor with, let’s say, written at the top. I give a passage of those chapters to each pair of kids and tell them to draw a picture of what’s happening in it.

Then we walk along the butcher paper, section by section, and talk about what the kids drew. In that way, they’re not only hearing the words, they’re also visualizing the text. And they see a sequence of events, especially when we’re in the Gospels or the Book of Acts.

I’ve done similar things with adults. I’m a great believer in people doodling when I’m teaching. With people sitting at a table, each with some paper, I might say, “Before we discuss this passage, make some stick men and stick women—draw a picture of what you see happening here.” Or I might ask them to make one simple drawing reflecting what they saw in the text. Then I ask those who are willing to explain their doodling to the others.

This works not just for the Gospels, but the letters of the New Testament as well. Paul’s letters, for instance, are full of imagery (thorn in the flesh, crucified with Christ, running the race, etc.) as are other so-called didactic portions of the Bible.

Such a procedure not only reveals the vividness of the text, it puts everyone, new believer and old, on the same level. When people are saying, “This is what I saw” or “This is what I felt,” there are no experts. There is no right or wrong answer to such questions.

Naturally, I want to take them beyond this level, because in the end the text has something to teach us. There are right and wrongs we must learn to distinguish between. But I begin by helping everyone start the journey to the deeper level from the same place.

Let the Text Define the Words

One of the responsibilities of the teacher is, as C. S. Lewis put it, to tell people “what the hard words mean.” That is also a good way to teach a class mixed with new and mature believers.

How do I do that? First, I ask my twentieth-century readers for their own definitions. “What do you think of when you hear that word grace?” Every person is going to have experience with that word, and experience is neutral.

In addition, as discussion ensues, I’m able to determine what baggage, background, and understandings people bring to the word. Then I can better compare or contrast the use of the word in its own setting.

Second, we study the use of the word in the text itself. Since I usually limit our study to the text at hand, this gives everyone equal access to the primary source material. No one can intimidate others with specialized knowledge. In fact, I find that specialized knowledge is usually not that helpful anyway. A skillful teacher in the inductive method can help a class see the meaning of the word 90 percent of the time by simply examining carefully the word in its context.

Take for instance, the word for love, agape. The apostle Paul defines that word himself by the way he uses it. is the most famous example. A new believer can be coached line by line through that chapter and consequently gain an understanding for biblical love. The same exercise done by an older believer would uncover practical implications about love that most believers have yet to negotiate in their own lives.

It can startle veteran Christians, for example, as they take that chapter sentence by sentence and suddenly realize they can do a loving thing—give all they possess to the poor—and still not do it out of love. So the impact of the meaning of words in a text can affect both the new and the older Christian.

For this to happen, however, we must take the time to allow the text to reveal itself. We cannot jump in to define words too quickly. I try to create an atmosphere that enhances discovery. Bible studies or sermons become boring to older Christians if they think they already know what the words mean when they really don’t. Bible studies become boring when we don’t allow the text to develop, unfolding in a natural progression of thought.

Old and New Sheep Feed On the Same Pasture

My experience has shown me that when the average young Christian and the typical older Christian get a chance to see the text unfold in a way that’s fresh, they’re wide open to Bible study and eager for it. A young person—maybe not even a Christian—who thinks the Bible isn’t interesting or is impossible to understand can become fascinated by a new approach to the Bible. And it can happen right alongside the veteran Christian who has been bored and uninterested because he thinks he knows it all already.

Recently I climbed Mount Shasta with a brilliant young lawyer. The night before the climb, sitting under the stars, he told me his story.

He was highly educated, involved in New Age thinking, married to a woman from a non-Christian religion, father of three lovely children, successful in his career, yet he knew he was adrift. He had abandoned his religious upbringing and knew he lacked something necessary and central to his life.

Someone steered him our direction, and he started coming to church two years ago. “In one sermon,” he told me later, “you started to explain a word from the Bible, and I cried because I realized I didn’t know what that word was, and I wanted to know so badly.”

Now here’s a guy who thought he knew what church was all about because he had gone through a parochial school system. In that sense he was like an old sheep, but in another sense he was a new sheep. But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve come to see that the fundamental need for each group is the same.

At the base of Mount Shasta my young friend helped me discover the tremendous power of people’s appetite for God. They will devour biblical truth that’s alive and fresh.

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