About Equipping the Congregation for Service
About Equipping the Congregation for Service
When someone asks me: "What are the strong points in the life of the Reformed churches?" I always mention as an example the work we do in equipping the congregation for service. There are, for instance, the sermons (free topics as well as catechism) both of which have a didactic character. Then there are the catechism classes, our Reformed schools, societies for youths and adults, Bible study groups, and evenings with guest speakers. And it can be said that in our circles quite a bit of reading is still being done.
The emphasis on equipping the congregation for service, forming the people by opening up and explaining the Lord's teachings, is a typical Reformed phenomenon. It constitutes a fundamental Scriptural element in the existence of the church. We only have to refer to the great commission the Lord gave His apostles: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations (...) and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19, 20). This Didaché, i.e. instruction, teaching, education, is one item in a group of central tasks that is included in any concept of building up the congregation.
A sizable amount of work is being done among us in equipping for service, also as a group activity. Many younger as well as older members of the congregation can regularly be found in a certain room of the church building, or else in someone's family room at home to study the Bible or to discuss an aspect of doctrine or Christian ethics.
To perform and support this work we have our local societies, Bible study groups, regional leagues and national organizations. A number of Reformed magazines are published and subscribed to and there are comprehensive guides that can help us with our studies.
During the span of one single season many hours are spent in our churches on these activities, locally and regionally, and this is something to be thankful for. We can find much dedication and godliness, and there are many enriching discussions and heartwarming contacts. A valuable contribution to nurture faith and the communion of saints is furnished by way of all kinds of activities that are designed to equip the church members. Even so, all these activities to equip are not problem-free or an unchallenged asset. When these things are discussed in the congregation one runs into real obstacles which we may not ignore. In a few articles I intend to pursue certain aspects that cause concern and require remedial action.
The first point to be considered is participation: who are they that participate in society and league activities? Taking the trouble to investigate this, one can make several observations.
- A considerable number of congregational members do not, as a group, participate in any form of equipping activities. Expressed in percentages the range of participation is (in The Netherlands) as follows: junior groups 90%, adolescents (to 20 years) 80%, young adults (20-28 years) 10%; men 20%, women 60%. The elderly (75 plus) have not been taken into account.1
These percentages show that there are a considerable number of church members who do not participate in a Bible study group. As for the juniors, participation in societies is taken more or less for granted, even though they do receive weekly catechism instruction. But once the 20-year mark has been reached, regular Bible study and discussion are apparently no longer self-evident.
- The reasons for not attending a society or Bible study group can be various. There are people that just can't be spurred on to participate. They hold that the regular Sunday service(s) and daily Scripture reading are quite sufficient, thank you. Others say they would like to attend if it were not for the fact that the evening of their adult education course happens to coincide with the Bible study evening. Or else, they have an evening job and are unable to participate because of their work. Still others have little or no interest in the way a study society operates and do not feel at home there.
In other words, the motives not to participate are well-diversified. We should, therefore, be careful and not simply find fault with everyone who does not participate. It would be better to look for solutions to involve each member of the congregation in a portion of the equipping activities at his/her own suitable time.
- Although people participate, it all depends on how they go about it. It is one thing to be a member of a society, but going there is another. It appears that absenteeism in our regular societies is considerable. In fact, many adult members attend only about 60% of the meetings. When eighteen evenings have been scheduled for one season (i.e. one meeting every two weeks) there will always be a number of people that are unable to attend because of sickness, a birthday, a school event, or some other legitimate hindrance.
Even though one is a member, the annual result shows relatively few hours spent on Bible study. The formula of 18 x 2 hrs x 60% works out to 22 hours, not exactly a remarkable accomplishment.
- For a nucleus among us these equipping activities for service have a cumulative effect. For instance, they participate in the regular meetings once every two weeks, attend in their ward a Bible study group once a month, take a leadership course in youth work six times a year, and for good measure listen to a guest speaker four evenings a year.
- We find a distinct 'gap' in the equipping activities in the 20-28 year bracket. For years our youths have been very active in Bible study and doctrinal matters. But when the age of 20 arrives these activities dwindle. Some church members just call it quits. The youth societies (together with 16-year olds) no longer suit their needs. And more often than not, an alternative environment does most likely not exist.
The result is that for many people, during the decisive years of their lives (e.g. formal studies, engagement, marriage, starting a career) there will be no regular encounter with the Word of God outside the usual Sunday worship services. No wonder then that their heritage of previous years is slowly eroding or wearing away.
- Finally, another factor of importance: as things stand now, participation in equipping for service is a rather non-committal affair. There is a considerable number of churches, global-wide, where Bible study is simply part and parcel of what the congregation is offering, much like the worship services.
However, in our situation these two (consistory and congregation) function like two parallel circuits. True, by virtue of the consistory and the minister, the church looks after the need for catechism instruction. But a Reformed consistory does not feel responsible for a solid approach to Bible study for the entire congregation. This means, therefore, that being or becoming a member of the congregation does not automatically involve participation in activities that equip for service. To get to this point requires, as it seems, a second and separate personal decision, i.e. entering into a second membership as it were. This development raises the threshold between being a member of the church and being a participant in equipping activities. And this, in turn, implies that there will be a loophole of non-commitment. This situation also brings about that there is no party that coordinates, so that there will be an adequate choice of equipping activities for everyone on his/her level.
The second point to be considered is the objectives: Is the equipping for service goal-directed? Do we know what we wish to achieve with the meetings we have and the topics we choose? Here follow some observations:
- Local meetings as well as Bible study groups are often not as effective as they could be. The reason for this is a lack of clearly defined objectives, the attitude being that "you can't go wrong being engaged in Bible study." But if we have a concern to keep the members and foster their spiritual growth, we better know specifically what should be accomplished.
And so it can happen that we make the choice to study the minor prophets for a whole year. The question is why? We are told that there is an outstanding study guide available. All right, but is that adequate motivation?
And when we get together for an evening study session, once more: how goal-directed are our activities? Too often there is not much of an awareness about our objective during the study session. What do we expect of the chapter or the topic to be discussed?
Usually we just start off (for better or for worse) and sooner or later we'll find out where we arrive. And this experience can turn out satisfactory or the very opposite. But whatever it is, the exercise is not goal-directed. On the other hand, realistic and specific objectives will not fail to increase effectiveness.
- There is, for instance, among members of a study society no consensus about what general goals are to be achieved. What are they looking for? What is their motivation in attending the meetings? As for Bible study, one is above all eager to find the meaning of some challenging passages. Someone else would rather talk about faith and faith experience. A third would like to discuss the practical application to life.
These differences should be allowed to exist. People can usefully supplement each other in this area. Yet, those different expectations about what Bible study ought to accomplish can cause friction and strife. For in an underhanded way the one manages to work against the other. When the different objectives are understood more clearly, this situation can bring about that the various aspects of the study will be done justice to. And it will also make it possible that together we will make headway in our discussions.
When all those involved do not mutually agree upon and pursue common objectives, the evaluation (of what is being achieved) will be unsatisfactory. Several people consider that a spontaneous and critical evaluation is a bore which spoils the atmosphere.
- Over the years, most often little can be seen in regard to an incremental method for equipping the adults for service. Year after year we select Bible books and draw up schedules. What is too often lacking is an all-inclusive vision regarding a total program, namely a larger framework within which mature choices can be made and priorities can be set. A schedule for one season will only partially address the question as to what a Christian in our age needs most, in terms of basics for being equipped for service. Once more: here too, there is little evidence of goal-directedness.
Several elements in the foregoing have an impact on a third factor, i.e. programming the work of equipping for service.
- Choosing a certain study society or study group is quite often taking place independent of the program(s) offered. And so one becomes a member of, say, 'Sola Gratia'. Whatever will be discussed there is going to be potluck, so to speak. The choice is often made on the basis of social criteria: "Who am I going to meet there?" and not so much because of the subject matter offered; "What are we going to discuss there, and what can I learn there?"
- There is often little variation in the matter that is going to be studied during the season. For instance, a certain Bible book will be studied with the aid of a study guide, and so the program will be dealt with piecemeal. Any spontaneous element of variation is usually lacking. What is being offered is all too often 'just more of the same.'
- Quite frequently, the chosen subject matter consists of a selection based on middle-of-the-road contents. This leaves little room for different situations and needs of the people. The relevance of the topic is not determined by some program but is to emerge during the meeting itself with little or no advance tip off. This is one of the reasons that, for too few people, the traditional activities are truly interesting. Admittedly, there are in the Scriptures many items that are important for all of us, regardless in what phase of life and in what circumstances we find ourselves. But when this is the only criterion, we get a Bible study program that is determined by the greatest common denominator.
- In local congregations there are considerable gaps in the equipping activities for service. We find both a need and a necessity to be prepared for the various situations and tasks of life.
Let us refer to recurring and in-depth Scriptural instruction about, for instance, marriage, family, and bringing up children. I also have in mind the kind of Bible study that can help advance and improve one's view on social, political, and economical life. Another possibility would be: Scripturally-based studies that pay attention to the themes of growing in faith, the relationship of faith and psychology, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit.
Several themes of importance to a Christian remain undiscussed, particularly so since our society has become more complex and pluralistic and Christians form a minority in today's society. A case in point would be that Christian cultural analysis is a weak point. Another point would be reflecting on the interrelationship of faith and science. And what about all those questions concerning the authority of the Scriptures? In this connection we are not thinking about formal scientific lectures but discourses that are tailored to the 'average' member of the congregation.
- When these things are neglected in the life of the congregation, an attempt is made at other levels to take the initiative and do something about it. But these activities are often merely catching-up and compensating maneuvers. When a large number of equipping activities show up outside their traditional setting, this can frequently be interpreted as a signal that the existing (local) activities have little to offer.
Procedure and Methodology←⤒🔗
The procedure and methodology applied in equipping for service is regularly paid attention to, primarily by organizations on the national level. Yet, in spite of this, the activities reveal in practice a few structural shortcomings. On many occasions people return home disillusioned after a meeting because 'things didn't turn out the way they should have', or else they 'didn't get anything out of it.'
- Just starting off with a few practical points, we can say that with a view to available evenings the equipping activities are rather demanding. In particular people with large families may run into problems here. Moreover, we do not always husband our meeting time wisely. We regularly run into cases that will illustrate this. A youth society starts its meeting at 7:30 on Sunday nights. There will be an opening procedure with Scripture reading, singing and prayer. Next follow the minutes, incoming mail is being dealt with, and some executive matters. When there is an introduction, opportunity will be given to have it presented. Inevitably, an intermission will be next on the program; membership fees will be collected, and then there are the customary refreshments. It is only at about 8:30 that the real work begins, i.e. the discussion. By this time a whole hour has passed.
It is by no means rare to find a similar development in the women's societies. The meeting begins at 8:00 p.m. but the discussion does not start before a quarter to nine. What happens is that the initial energies are applied to secondary matters.
There is still another point: when you go to a meeting every other week and have to stay away every once in a while, the continuity of the program will be lost. The effectiveness takes a nose dive because what is offered tends to hang together like loose sand. The experience of regularly and intensively working together on a worthwhile project is frequently missing.
- The quality of the work leaves much to be desired. This assessment is especially relevant when a so-called 'question process' is the adopted approach. This is a one-sided method which is not applied to its fullest potential. The scenario can be as follows: "Who has a question?" After a period of waiting A has a question about verse 17 of the chapter under discussion. Then B has a question about verse 3; next there is C with two questions: one about verse 29 and another one about verse 8.
This approach leaves little room for a coherent and goal-directed discussion. Here one is taken on a crisscross tour through the chapter. And so much depends on the random questions by someone or another. When the questions are not relevant or are inappropriate, ten minutes can easily be squandered on them. Then there are the impulsive questions that do not help us apprehend the spiritual significance of a Bible passage.
- Of the different methods used in helping us increase in knowledge, we often make use of mutual discussion. But how efficient is this, we may ask. In particular when ready knowledge and preparatory study are lacking, this method yields very little result. This is, for instance, an often overheard complaint in our youth societies. Once in a while, however, the discussion gets a promising head start which adds an enriching dimension. But too often the discussion gives no real satisfaction. No wonder that, since it is just one of the means of gathering knowledge and acquiring enrichment, its value is limited.
- The methodology that is used adapts itself poorly to the unequal knowledge and interest levels. In our congregations one can find brothers and sisters who are prepared to serve the Lord and search the Scriptures but have a personal profile that is different from what one comes across in a society or study group.
These people will never feel at home there and so they stay away. What is the reason that there should not be a broader differentiation? Why are we, as church, not ready to offer an equipping for service that functions at different levels?
Finally, efficient equipping for service requires good coordination practices. How are we doing in this respect?
- The first thing that strikes us is the widespread fragmentation that can be found while looking at what groups are responsible for a portion of the equipping activities in the congregation. Any initiative for a local meeting, whether large or small, can originate with the consistory, the minister, a centralizing youth group, a parental organization, the men and women societies, a committee for the fall or winter lecture circuit, a coffee-break committee, an evangelization committee, a chapter of a Reformed political society after having sought advice from the consistory.
In addition there are all sorts of extraparochial activities such as: guest speakers, courses, conferences, as well as lectures designed to spiritually equip the members. No doubt, a whole range of organizations are active in this context, from the league of Reformed School Societies to the Reformed Evangelism Taskforce, the Fellowship of Reformed Students, office bearers conferences, and the editorial committees of Reformed publications.
The equipping activities are not sequestered and this is a good thing, but the fragmentation is huge!
- The registered fragmentation does not benefit mutual adaptation nor coordination. It is only a relatively small section of the congregation that regularly participates in the different activities. But the study material is out of phase as far as time allotment is concerned. If you are interested in a leadership course in evangelism, this will come in addition and on top of your membership in a Bible study group. Besides, there is no consultation with reference to the different programs that are offered. Each organization does its own thing. Granted, one takes into account (more or less) what is happening elsewhere, but a positive cooperative effort which seeks to establish one complete program does simply not exist.
- When we observe the congregation, we see the phenomenon of vertical differentiation. The societies are quite often organized on the basis of categories. There is one category for the young people, another for adolescents, adults, men and women, leadership groups, and morning coffee-breaks. These relatively small organizations form small autonomous groups existing side by side.
A large portion of these groups is, nonetheless, involved in cooperative and coordinating efforts. But this takes place mostly at the national level. The women's society is part of the women's league, et cetera. I call this vertical differentiation; there is more congruent effort at the national level than there is local cooperation and integration. The managerial aspect is determined to a greater extent by a national league than by mutual consultation and coordination with the local church.
- Since there is no local body that functions as an umbrella organization that supports and stimulates all equipping activities, no one is ready to fill the gaps. Within the local church no organization can be found which investigates whether, in due time, everyone will be introduced to equipping activities as required. There is no identifiable body which is responsible for organizing the necessary equipping activities which are not initiated elsewhere.
- As for our equipping as a group activity there is hardly any input from elders and pastor. The offices seem to function only for the purpose of equipping energies in the worship services and in catechism classes. In addition, they will provide catechism classes for confessing members or invite a guest speaker for an evening.
As far as the rest is concerned, they remain as 'pacesetters' definitely outside the Bible study activities. In fact, it is generally not appreciated when a consistory offers to help outlining programs and methodology in that particular sector. It is felt that it is all right when elders point the people to a society or Bible study group, but that better be the extent of it.
Many office bearers simply can't get around to participating in a Bible study group. This is a rather peculiar situation in that pastor and elders are precisely those that are called 'didaktikos' (1 Tim 3:2) i.e. capable to instruct, although this does not mean holding forth whenever and wherever they can. But what they can be expected to possess is insight in the Scriptures, which ability could be conducive in group discussions about Biblical doctrine. Though office bearers could have a useful input in this area, they are too often sidelined because of time restraints but also because of an emphatic separation between office and personal initiative.
How to Proceed←⤒🔗
By means of five different approaches we examined in depth the whole issue of equipping for service within the congregation; i.e. participation, goal-setting, programming, methodology, and coordination. In a following article I hope to formulate a few points of departure, the purpose of which is improvement and renewal. Two distinct lines should then become discernable: First, that all equipping activities for service should be founded on a strong spiritual bond with the Lord and an unconditional yielding to Him. And next, we must undertake to embody our work practically and suitably.
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