Paul’s Blueprint For A Learning Church

A Gospel church is a wonderful organism designed and brought into being by the Lord, and able, under his blessing, to fulfil many goals. It is at one and the same time an army for the conquering of hearts, and a hospital for the care of souls. It is a community for worship, prayer, sanctification, spiritual labour, fellowship and also for pleasure in the things of God.

But there is a central purpose and function assigned to local churches which must never be forgotten, because without it nothing else can develop or stand for long. This brings us to our fifth great policy aim for the successful building of a true church.

We must strive to produce a consciously learning church. Paul mentions pastors and teachers who are provided for the perfecting of the saints, building them up in the knowledge of the Son of God ‘unto a perfect man’, and thus growing up into Christ1. Paul also insists – ‘Let all things be done unto edifying’ – which refers to the building up of the understanding. The preacher, he says, must preach the word with ‘all longsuffering and doctrine’. In many passages the concept of constant learning is emphasised by Paul.

A Gospel church is, among other things, a college. This is not said to promote false intellectualism, which gives rise to ‘theoretical’ believers lacking real character, love and service. Nevertheless, a true church is a place where people love to hear the Word unfolded, its wonders researched and displayed, and the words and plan of God expounded.

We call it a ‘college’ because this suggests a settled scheme of learning pursued to a high standard, and ­culminating in some form of qualification. In reality, the ideal church will have very little of the atmosphere and feel of a college, and will certainly not have assignments, examinations and diplomas. However, the teaching elder will have a clear ambition to include, over time, all the counsel of God in his teaching plan. And the people of the church will be conscious that they are pursuing a grand course in divine knowledge, and will revel in the topics, subjects and themes being set before them.

What a shame it is that sometimes people have no consciousness whatever that they are engaged on a study course of sublime truths. Sermons are just sermons. Bible Study meetings are just Bible Study meetings. There is no visible rhyme or reason to them. There is no sense of continuity, nor of any total picture being formed. The minister has been preaching from Ezekiel for so many months or years, and when he has completed the series, he will just think of something else, but for no apparent reason.

A learning church is very different because it breathes purpose and progress and accomplishment. The minister would probably never dream of publishing a syllabus, and may not plan far enough ahead for that, but the steady processing of recognisable doctrines and themes assures his hearers that he is carrying out his duty to God and his duty to them in a considered, responsible way. He clearly desires to be faithful, thorough, and comprehensive in his teaching. And he obviously respects them as serious students of the Lord and his Word.

Does the preacher keep a checklist of all that he has done? What doctrines has he preached? What Bible books has he presented? What vital prac­tical themes has he taught? What devotional encouragement has he given? Has he defended the faith, and helped his people to see through the errors of the day? Has he taught the great promises of the Bible, so essential to faith in all the trials of life? Does he privately review his teaching from time to time? Does he keep watch on the time spent on any individual Bible book, so that one is not expounded at such inordinate length that the people have no access to many other parts of the divine study course?

The writer well remembers a pastor being very concerned about a neighbouring semi-charismatic church enticing away his weeknight Bible Study congregation by holding a special training school on the same night. A number of people went off to the other church armed with notebooks and pens to study the Bible course on offer. The deprived pastor realised that his people had no awareness that he too was teaching a Bible course. He soon trimmed his sails, restructured his teaching so that it appeared more purposeful, gave his messages meaningful titles, and distributed notebooks. His weeknight studies breathed new life, and the Word-­hungry wanderers returned.

The moral is that it must be apparent to people that there is valuable material being taught. It must be seen that there is a grand scheme of learning being presented for believers. We repeat, this does not mean that a church will actually feel like a school or college – God forbid! There are massive differences. But it must be sensed that there is a methodical, conscientious process operating in the preacher’s mind. The formation of a learning church depends on this ­apparent, visible process being in operation.

Several other factors may also be mentioned as necessary elements in the development of a learning church. The material taught must be manageable. The preacher must know how to be profound and yet clear at the same time. Always he must cultivate clarity, so that all can enjoy the deep things of God.

In addition, learning must be worthwhile, in that whatever is taught should have a valuable application, either to the individual or to the church, so that it challenges, encourages or strengthens the hearers. Theoretical teaching appeals only to a minority of minds. Learning must also be enjoyable and memorable. The Christian preacher is handling the most remarkable and wonderful material in the world, and he must exploit its intrinsic power to move and impress the hearer. Ultra-plain preachers should work more on the overall shape of their messages, and be a little less predictable.

Former national servicemen will recall the ‘bill of fare’ or menu posted outside every mess hall, describing the delights to be served within. But how impossible it so often was to recognise any of that promised fare in the serving tins. How do we, as preachers, prepare and serve the spiritual food elements, in all their variety, of the Word of God? Are the people able to taste distinctive views of the Lord, doctrines, insights, ­promises, biographies, warnings, comforts, apologetic encouragements and examples?

Do they discover the biblical sources of help for all situations? Do they learn the purpose of individual biblical books? Do they know by name the great doctrines and their purposes? Are they proofed against current Satanic viruses? Are the people able, each new year, to pray in song the words of the hymnwriter2

Grant us new beams of light to see,
New steps of thine to trace,
New visions of thy majesty,
New visits of thy grace.
Help us new peaks of Truth to climb,
To grasp new realms of lore,
Each depth divine, each height sublime
More amply to explore.

Are the people conscious that the ministry they hear is no accident; no haphazard, chaotic process, but a most conscientious endeavour to represent all the counsel of God? We must aim to produce a consciously learning church!

  1. See Ephesians 4.11-16; 1 Corinthians 14.26; 2 Timothy 4.2.
  2. Thomas Hornblower Gill (1819-1906)