Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the Autumn 2006 edition of Essentials

   In retirement I have often reflected on the nature and causes of true growth in Christian congregations. All responsible Christian leaders long to see growth but there is always the danger of focusing on growth in bulk rather than growth in spiritual maturity. Growth in spiritual maturity must be our ultimate concern.

My reflection has led me to the conviction that there are no short cuts to people becoming mature Christians, which leads to mature Christian fellowships. Clearly there are many ingredients in the process of spiritual growth. Fundamental to this is the work of the Holy Spirit, whose power must encompass all other ingredients if true growth is to take place.

There are also important human ingredients. One of the most important of these ingredients is the study and teaching of the Bible. My firm conviction is that consistent, well-informed study of the Bible is a key ingredient of spiritual growth and that all apparent growth, which does not have this in the mix, is probably counterfeit. I believe that the New Testament supports this view. In Acts 2 those first Christians "devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching".

  Bill Graham trained at Moore Theological College Sydney and was ordained in 1962. He served in parish appointments in Sydney and Adelaide, as a CMS Missionary in Peru, and for twelve years as General Secretary of CMS Victoria. Barbara and Bill have 'retired' to Philip Island, Victoria. 
  I am sure that many people reading my words will feel I am stating the obvious. However I want to take this reflection further by asking, "Is the time and focus given to Bible teaching in your Church producing the growth you long to see?" If not, why not? Is there something missing in the Bible teaching model or programme that would make a difference if included?  
  I am convinced that there are two key elements that must be included in our teaching model if people are to really understand the Bible and consequently grow spiritually.  
  The first of these key elements is Expository Bible Teaching. Looking back over the years I know that I have benefited greatly from the ministry of good expositors as I have listened to them explain and apply the text of whole books or sections of the Bible. Yet I am sure that exposition of the biblical text is staple food for Christians is often neglected. Topical or thematic preaching is often the main diet in many churches. Even churches that follow the lectionary often preach thematically on the passages, rather than expositorily.  
  We can't all be "great expositors" but we should all endeavour to learn the skills of exposition as best we can and use them constantly. Expository teaching that takes the whole Bible seriously should be the basic diet of every church. It helps to ensure that our emphasis reflects that of the Word of God. There is a place for topical and thematic teaching but if these are the main diet then the teaching program may be controlled by what interests humans rather than what God wants to say to us.  
  However exposition is not a magic formula which automatically produces growth. Expository sermons can be dry, academic and uninteresting and be of little help to the average listener. To avoid this we all need good critics whom we respect and trust. My most helpful critic has been my wife who felt able to challenge me with questions like, "So what? What did you expect that particular piece of teaching to achieve in the lives of the listeners?" The aim of expounding the Bible is not to write a commentary or merely to increase knowledge of facts and become cleverer or more able to win religious arguments. Rather it is to produce growth in the knowledge and love of God, growth in desire and ability to serve him and his world more effectively, growth in effectiveness as witnesses to Jesus Christ.  
  Faithful expository preaching is hard work, requiring quality time for preparation. But there are no short cuts to true growth.  
  There is a second key element that I believe is even more widely neglected than expository preaching. It is what I refer to as The Bible's Big Story. I am convinced that this neglect has resulted in a serious deficiency in the knowledge of Christians who have been listening to sermons and Bible studies for many years. Let me explain the issue by telling the story of my own journey of discovery.  
  In my first year as a theological student (1959) our New Testament lecturer conducted a series of lectures, which he entitled "Biblical Theology". They helped us gain a clear understanding of the story-line of the Bible, Creation to Christ, and also understand the progression in God's revelation of himself and his divine plan coming to its fullness in Christ. We discovered that history belongs to God and its goal is under his control.  
  This course transformed my understanding of the Bible and of what the Christian life and the Church is all about. It gave a context to which I could relate every part of the Bible and indeed of what was going on around me in the world. I now had a biblical worldview. My confidence in the Bible and of my own faith was strengthened and more secure. A fellow student and I became so excited by this discovery that together we drew up a chart that captured the unfolding story and theology of the Bible. The churches in which we served at weekends were soon being subject to our new passion for "Biblical Theology".  
  While serving as a missionary in Peru I translated the chart into Spanish and produced a whole series of flannel-graphs to illustrate the biblical drama, creation to Christ. Over a two-year period it was the syllabus for a Sunday morning children's and youth service. It was exciting to see the way these young Peruvians, all Roman Catholics, responded to the teaching. Years later one of my own daughters commented on how those studies had deeply affected her. "People like Abraham, Moses and others became my friends," she said.  
  Then in 1985 my years of attempts to use this material were rewarded when I was introduced to Dr Harry Wendt and his Crossways courses. Harry, a South Australian Lutheran Pastor, appalled by the lack of biblical knowledge which he saw in his own denomination, developed courses on the Bible's Big Story which were eventually published in four courses of increasing depth and detail, The Tell-Tale Time-Line, See Through The Scriptures, The Divine Drama and Crossways! These courses were superb summaries of good biblical theology and the teaching was communicated through beautiful colour graphics. Over subsequent years these course have been revised and developed and are now used extensively in many languages around the world. They include excellent Power Point teaching aids and
materials for students.1
  Over the past 20 years I have taught these courses in many churches and groups in Australia and other countries, always with exciting positive results. As people begin to see how the Bible's Big Story unfolds, light dawns in the eyes of Christians many of whom have been studying the Bible for years but have never known how it all fits together. They discover how the mystery of God's plan is unfolding with Jesus Christ at the centre and is moving towards His final glorious goal of the New Creation. Once they see this they begin to fit all other Bible teaching they receive into the Big Picture.  
  All this has convinced me that unless Christians have a grasp of "The Bible's Big Story" their understanding of all other Bible teaching is limited. This in turn will stunt spiritual growth, limit Christian maturity. Unless Christians have a truly biblical worldview they will not be confident when facing world issues, like the confrontation with Islam. The teaching of this "Biblical Theology" should therefore be a priority in every church, week-in and week-out, and should not be a one-off superficial overview of the Bible.  
  This brings me full circle back to the question I began with concerning the nature and causes of true spiritual growth. Those who love Jesus long to see large numbers being won for him. Rightly we want the quality of our worship, music, administration, and support ministries to be the best we can offer. We all naturally want to "succeed" in fulfilling the ministry to which God has called us. But true growth is not ultimately measured by numbers, or visible trappings and time alone will reveal how much true spiritual growth is present in any particular church.  
  My conclusion is that there are no short cuts to spiritual growth. There are key ingredients without which all apparent growth will prove to be counterfeit. One of the most important ingredients for true growth is faithful Bible teaching as the central element of a well-planned Christian education programme. All churches need a carefully planned Bible education programme. How does the church you attend measure up?  
  There are no short cuts. Teach! Teach! Teach!  


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1 These courses are now available through the Ridley College Bookshop, Melbourne and help and advice in using them is available from experienced presenters. See also