Preparing Majority World Pastors to Teach the Whole Counsel of God

by Philip Thornton

The cry heard most often from the Church in the Majority World is for pastors who can preach/teach the word of God in a way that is understandable and applicable to their congregations. While the orality movement has spoken significantly to this need, there are aspects of the preaching/teaching process which beg further attention.  

 

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The cry heard most often from the Church in the Majority World is for pastors who can preach/teach the word of God in a way that is understandable and applicable to their congregations. While the orality movement has spoken significantly to this need, there are aspects of the preaching/teaching process which beg further attention.  

The Message

In the orality community we have most often begun our conversation with the message to be delivered. The primary emphasis has been the stories which we find in scripture. While the story sets vary in size, most are predetermined by Western agencies that formulate the teaching material based on a preconceived order of theological importance.

Structuring the Message

Less attention has been given to the “packaging” of the message. Each culture will have ways of structuring communication so that it is understood by the hearers as well as having high impact on them. When a group of Samburu pastors, for example, studied the parable of the soils in Luke 8, the level of impact was minimal until the context was changed from an agricultural to a pastoral one. The Samburu are herders of cattle, sheep, and goats. When the story of the parable was framed in those terms, the level of impact went up significantly.

Delivering the Message

The third element in the communication process deals with delivery. It is at this point at which the arts play a significant role. For some cultures, the song is the most appropriate way of delivering the message; for others, it may be dance, while others use proverbs to get across the point. With both packaging and delivery, the principle is the same: learning takes place best when you move from the known to the unknown and when culturally appropriate methods are employed.  

But these three—message, packaging, delivery—do not tell the full story. There is a fourth element which may be the most significant one in equipping pastors who can rightly divide the word of truth for their congregations. It is the element of preparing the message.

Preparing the Message 

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When it comes to developing a biblical message to be delivered to an oral audience, there are several possibilities:

1. The message is given to the pastor from an outside source. For example, a pastor or evangelist is given a set of stories to tell. The problem with this approach is this: if that pastor is totally dependent on an exterior source for his or her material, he or she will be limited in the scope his or her teaching/preaching to that covered in the materials given to him or her.

2. The pastor is given stories and taught how to tell them with the idea that over time he or she will gain insight into the storying process. He or she then will be able to replicate this process with other stories. The problem with this approach lies in the ability to transfer knowledge from one situation to another. In many cultural contexts the experience gained through one exercise will not be automatically transferred to another situation unless that skill has been taught. This is especially true when the educational process through which the pastor has gone is built on rote memory and not on creative thinking.

3. The pastor is given the interpretation of the stories/passages of scripture. In this case, the pastor is also provided with a set of interpretative questions which supposedly will lead him or her to a “correct” interpretation of the story/passage. The problem with this approach is that questions arise from what one sees in the passage. Those who develop the questions do so with a preconceived idea of what should be seen in the passage (based on what they see), as well as the correct interpretation (i.e., their interpretation of the story/passage). 

With the above approaches to pastoral training, the pastor still cannot fully develop his or her own messages from God’s word, messages which are “tailored” to speak directly to the needs and concerns of those with whom he ministers. Let me emphasize that I am not saying that the processes described above are bad, just incomplete. The ability to understand and develop good sermons or other teaching material from the Bible requires a set of skills just as with any other profession. I am also not diminishing the work of the Holy Spirit in this process. Rather, I am emphasizing that the skills which enable a pastor to mine the riches of God’s word for him or herself are not automatic. They must be learned. 

For those of us who cut our theological teeth in evangelical seminaries and Bible schools in the U.S., the tool which has been most significant in our understanding and teaching of scripture is that of methodical Bible study (see Traina 2001). At its simplest level this methodology asks three questions: What does it say (observation), what does it mean (interpretation), and what does it mean to me (application)? It challenges the student of God’s word to ask the questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why, to compare and contrast concepts and ideas, and to seek out the meaning of terms and concepts as they were meant to be understood by the writer.  

While this approach to the study of scripture may indeed be “cultural” in many ways, I believe it has validity cross-culturally for the serious student of the Bible. Inherent in this methodical process is yet another obstacle which must be addressed for most Majority World pastors, namely the ability to use critical thinking skills. 

The educational process in most Majority World nations is that of rote memory, and theological education has not been immune. Students are taught to repeat verbatim what the teacher presents. Theological statements are to be accepted and adopted without question. In fact, in such places as Latin America, the traditional Roman Catholic Church teaches that one can lose his or her salvation if he or she questions the teachings of the Church! While such training produces students who have the incredible ability to memorize, rote memory does not lend itself to the development of critical thinking skills.  

Critical thinking is the ability to: 

•  Think in concepts (conceptualize).

•  Examine material carefully and in detail so as to identify problems, causes, key factors, and purposes (analyze).

•  Combine various parts into a whole, i.e., to “connect the dots” between ideas, events, and concepts (synthesize). An example of this would be the ability to connect individual Bible stories into the larger meta-narrative of the Bible.

•  Determine the meaning, the significance, and the relevance of ideas, terms, phrases, stories, etc. (evaluate). 

•  Think abstractly (i.e., the ability to understand ideas or thoughts not specifically related to an object, person, or occurrence, and to apply those concepts in a variety of situations).

•  Generalize information gained from a study and to apply it to real-life circumstances. 

Let me emphasize that this process is not about intellectual acumen but rather about learned skills. No doubt some measure of critical thinking exists in every culture. It may be in the area of agriculture or animal husbandry or urban survival. The challenge for those who are trying to equip pastors in situations where critical thinking has not been used as a tool for the study of scripture is to: identify that process, help church leaders analyze it, and transfer/apply those critical thinking skills to the study of the Bible. This must be done without any attitude of superiority and with cultural sensitivity.                               

How then do we apply such critical thinking skills to those who are not accustomed to using them in the study of scripture? My own experience tells me that it must be modeled. There are four stages in this modeling process:

Stage 1: The teacher is a learner (see Larson 1978). What is the worldview of the people in question? How do they think? How do they use time and space? How should their body language be interpreted? What is the influence of social structure on the communication process? How does the environment in which the teaching takes place affect receptivity and, how do they make important decisions (see Hesselgrave 1991)?

Stage 2: The teacher and students begin a study of the Bible passage, story, book, chapter, etc. together. During this time, the teacher seeks to see the passage through their cultural lens.  What is their “cultural understanding” of the stories, terms, etc.? How might that differ from the traditional biblical understanding/interpretation as well as that of the West?

Stage 3: The teacher begins to model the methodical Bible study method. As the study process moves forward, the teacher takes less of a role and students increase their role. When this initial study is completed, the students take the study and teach it to others under the supervision of the teacher. This process is commonly known as “scaffold instruction” and is based on the principle of I do it; We do it; You do it.   

Stage 4: The students prepare and teach the lesson to others on their own. The teacher is available to help with problems which may have arisen. This process is repeated until student confidence and proficiency are achieved in preparation and delivery phases. The teacher remains a part of the process as needed, but with a diminishing role.

Methodical Bible study, with its associated critical thinking skills, is better caught than taught, and that takes time. By continually “pushing” pastors with questions, which lead to other questions, which lead to still deeper questions, pastors will slowly develop a strategy which will allow them to study and teach the word of God in a way that will move local Christians beyond salvation to discipleship. In other words, they will “own the process.”  

The use of questions in the teaching/learning process is not new by any means.1 Jesus’ use of the tool was extensive (e.g., John 2:4; Mark 3:4; Luke 2:49; Matt. 12:5).  He asked questions to get his audience’s attention, to make them think, to introduce a teaching, and to awaken the conscience. He used questions to clarify a situation, to rebuke criticism, to build faith, or to put someone in a dilemma. 

Questions were at the very heart of Jesus’ teaching methods (Watke 2000). Well-formulated questions will affect intelligence, stimulate interest, help memory, change conduct, bring insight and conviction, and help people face the truth.

For those who may be concerned that church leaders might come up with doctrinal conclusions which do not accord with their denomination or group, teaching pastors to think on their own about scripture will seem dangerous. Yet, without those who can dig deep into the Bible and see it through their culture’s eyes, Christianity will never be truly indigenous. Doctrinal distinctions may be important, but they can also be heavily cultural.

As evangelicals, I fear that in our haste to see people come to saving faith in Jesus, we have been weak in preparing pastors and church leaders who can teach the whole counsel of God in a culturally appropriate way to their congregations. Even the discipleship materials used by the Majority World Church are most often re-tooled versions of Western materials, if not outright translations. 

As the Church grows around the world, good leadership is an absolute necessity if that Church is to be orthodox and biblically sound. While good training is no substitute for the working of the Holy Spirit, it is a vital ingredient to a healthy Church.

Endnote

1. Known today as the Socratic Method, this approach to teaching is a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas.

References

Hesselgrave, David. 1991. Communicating Christ Cross-culturally. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Larson, Don. 1978. “The Viable Missionary: Learner, Trader, Storyteller.” Missiology 6(155). Accessed December 2, 2014, from mis.sagepub.com/content/6/2/155.full.pdf. 

Traina, Robert. 2001. Methodical Bible Study. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Watke, Edward. 2000. Revival in the Home Ministries. Accessed December 2, 2014, from www.watke.org. 

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Phil Thornton serves as a consultant with Global Impact Missions. His work focuses on helping those who work with the world’s oral majority to understand, package, and deliver important messages using oral methods. Phil holds an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary and the PhD in cultural anthropology from Southern Methodist University.

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 2 pp. 196-201. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.


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