A couple of years back, a US church surveyed its members to get a better understanding of retention issues. They discovered that a major problem was that a lot of members, especially those who were mature Christians felt that they were not being properly fed. The church’s response? They began to look at how they could communicate to members that it was their responsibility to feed themselves.
I’ve been discussing the question of spiritual feeding with a couple of other pastors, based around the two articles I’ve written on this recently and the question of whether our responsibility is to feed the sheep or teach them to feed themselves has come up. As is often the case, we realised that it depends upon what we mean.
You see, the Bible does have a significant amount to say about how Christians are to get spiritual food and what it doesn’t say is “You should be feeding yourselves.” Take a look at Hebrews 5:11-14.
11 There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. 12 You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word.[c] You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. 13 For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. 14 Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.
Notice that the writer never says that his readers should be self-feeding by now. He says that they should be able to teach or feed others, he says that they should have been weaned onto solid food but he doesn’t say “Why aren’t you teaching yourselves? Why aren’t you preparing your own meals.”
However, the milk/meat analogy is important. It’s not that we should be self-feeding. Rather, if milk is in effect pre-chewed, semi-digested food and meat requires us to do our own chewing, then spiritual feeding should not be a completely passive affair for the believer. Rather, we expect a level of spoon feeding for infant Christians but not for mature ones. In our discussion, Jeremy Brookes put it like this.
The analogy is helpful but what does this look like in practice? Well, here are some suggestions.
First of all, we should not shy away from the challenging subjects and harder books of the Bible when teaching. We shouldn’t rush either to make those hard texts palatable for the congregation, rather we should allow space for them to wrestle with and struggle with the text. Of course don’t leave young and struggling Christians to choke on these parts of the text but do help them to “chew on them properly” to grow in their understanding and to discover the helpful beauty of such texts.
Secondly, I think we can over-apply. That may sound controversial in a context where the complaint tends to be that there isn’t enough application but hear me out. If some sermons end up being mere intellectual lectures, others come so pre-packaged so that the hearers can sit back and receive a 20 minute download including 5 simple to follow steps on how to resolve a particular issue in your life. One helpful thing I’ve learned is that people can develop the ability to apply Scripture by analogy. What I mean is that we should only need to give one or two appropriately chosen applications and if they don’t apply directly to some hearers, those hearers should be able to work out how the text also applies to their circumstances. We have given them a model and process to follow.
Thirdly, it is good to look at how we do Bible study from time to time. Personally, I love sitting with a group and asking just two questions before providing light touch guidance. The first is “What’s going on here in the text?” The second is “What has this got to do with us?” In other words, we do exegesis and then application. Now, over time people learn to love and enjoy that type of study but two types of person really struggle, at least at the start. Both types of participant come from backgrounds where there is a history of Bible exposition. The first type struggle with such an open question as “what is going on here?” They are used to being spoon fed in Bible study with a whole set of questions breaking everything down. The second group are continuing to live on pre-packaged ready meals. As them a broad enough question and they are off with semi-liturgical answers that are true in and of themselves but have little to do with the actual passage. So you have to keep bringing them back to the actual Bible passage and what it really says.
Have you any further thoughts or experience on how we encourage Christians to improve their spiritual diet?
I have often asked myself if my presumed right of being spiritually fed at church is a valid assumption. Having not been fed in various churches over the years, I realize I need to make sure I feed myself every day at home during the week so I don’t come to church starving. This is discouraging. Pastors really should at the very least have a spiritually-rich, meaty sermon to offer on Sunday morning. It is my responsibility to feed myself during the week, but to leave church starving more often than not is why there’s low retention. Sermons should be based on the text, robust, and hearty. Not an Oprah-esque chat of how to improve one’s life with a smattering of heart-warming illustrations to make us feel good. The power and meat is in the Word. We starve without it.