When it comes to involvement in ministry, church attendance, and overall biblical knowledge, I would venture to say that I would land with the majority of churchgoers, and many (specifically in the Bible Belt) would likely share numerous experiences with me. I was raised in church. My parents ensured that I attended, they were involved as leaders in a variety of ways, and they taught me to value and hold fast to my faith. They did what any good Bible-believing parent would do: they instilled in me the importance of the Church. They taught me these things, which was new territory for them, since they were first-generation Christians. I had a well-rounded exposure and belief in the Bible. Some might even have called me knowledgeable, and I would have agreed with them. That is, until my husband and I moved on to the campus of a seminary.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I knew very little. New vocabulary and concepts flooded my mind for the first time. Words and ideas that I had never heard (and should have) challenged me, leaving me confused, frustrated, and questioning everything. “How is it that have I been in the church since birth, and I have never heard this stuff?” In many ways, I felt betrayed by the Church. After a few years of working through this — wrestling, pondering, asking more questions, and sometimes beginning again — I have discovered that my experience is not uncommon.
Hebrews 5:12 talks about the difference between spiritual milk and solid food. As the mother of young children, the “milk to steak” process resonates with me. I’m convinced that if never challenged with the tastes of real food, many of us would be content with only consuming milk, much longer than is necessary or beneficial. As parents, we challenge our children’s taste and texture receptivity. We want them to one day enjoy that delicious steak dinner, so we introduce new foods. We buy our children teethers of all different textures and shapes, and eventually we wean them from their milk-only diet — not because milk is unhealthy or insignificant, but because there is so much more to be experienced. Biblical knowledge and spiritual growth should be no different.
Disciplers, whether parent or pastor, should introduce and encourage the exploration of big theological ideas, boldly and with all humility. So much of the time, teachers feel the need to tailor their lessons to those with the least amount of biblical understanding. The problem comes when those who should be moving up the food pyramid, proudly boast in their knowledge of the milk. This lends itself to a student who is, at best, stagnant, proud, and defensive. They know they should know the Bible, but they’ve never been intellectually challenged by it. In Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp says, “Give your children big truths they will grow into rather than light explanations they will grow out of.” The same concept can and should be applied in discipleship, regardless of age and ability. I am in no way suggesting that the spiritual growth of an individual is left to his teacher, instead I am urging the teacher to reach high for the cookies on the top shelf, rather than point to the crumbs on the ground. The listener is more likely to ponder, ask questions, and process information that isn’t automatically mentally digested.
The result of a milk-only, food-barely diet for a majority of church members should leave us feeling both concerned and challenged. Is it no wonder churches today are experiencing a decline in numbers? I fear that instead of correcting the lack of biblical knowledge at its core, we have a death-grip on church tradition in one hand and a full event calendar in the other hand in efforts to close the revolving door of church membership. We overlook sin for fear of a division in the church. Our membership rolls are padded with people who darken the doors of the church twice a year, if that. Winning the competition of baptisms-per-year becomes the goal. Our Sunday School count is our measure of success. The church budget is our worth. We have revivals as a means to increase numbers, and we encourage the speaker to scare hell right out of the attendees. We even created a category for “saved” people who come to the altar. What does it even mean to be “rededicated?” Do we see the problem here?
I fear that many pastors in the American church shy away from the deeper topics because they are swayed by congregation feedback, church tradition, and lack of knowledge. We have become so concerned with a measurable result, that we are exchanging deep theological understanding for a shallow bible-drill arsenal of answers. We are so concerned with getting people to the church (although I would say we are also failing in that area also) that we completely forget about true, authentic, rich discipleship. It is pounded into our brains that the way to a rich relationship with God is to read our Bibles and pray, yet when someone is following that formula and doesn’t feel like it’s working, they’re told they aren’t doing it enough or that they just don’t have enough faith. But what if they are doing it wrong?
What if we have lead our congregations to believe that all Scripture is about them, that it is nothing more than a love letter to them, and that every single passage is applicable in every situation they may encounter? I fear that we have burned the hermeneutical bridge for fear of where it may lead. If we are honest, it devastates our ego to know that we have to crawl into someone else’s time, culture, and even language (all while trying to set aside our own world view) in order to understand scripture in its original context. But that unrest, that challenge, that is where growth happens.
Pastors, teachers, and parents, teach a selfless, sound doctrine to your people! Educate yourselves, surrounding yourself with words you struggle to pronounce and authors you’ve never heard of. Purchase and use a theological dictionary. Be willing to be wrong, and cry out to God to reveal himself in ways you didn’t know possible. Learn the Greek and Hebrew, but if that is just too daunting, admit your humanity and find a program to aid in your endeavors. By all means, seek spiritual growth and a greater knowledge of God that comes through deep study and leads your people to do the same.
Rachel Reeves holds a Bachelors degree in Business Administration from Southwestern Oklahoma State University. She is the stay-at-home mother to two lovely little girls, Zoe and Sophia, and wife to Eric. Rachel helps to lead the women’s ministry at First Baptist Church of Westwego, LA, where her husband is the Worship Pastor. They have been residents of New Orleans since 2014 where Eric is currently working on his Ph.D. in Old Testament. Rachel has attended seminary classes part-time during their time at NOBTS.