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Teaching: Moving Beyond Cliché (July 7, 2002)

A few years ago Berkeley conducted a study on information creation.  They wanted to discover how much electronic storage space it would take to store all the information from all media types that is being created annually both in the United States and around the world.  In order to make such a calculation, they had to estimate how many unique items of information were being generated every year for print, film, optical, magnetic media, the internet, broadcast, phone, and mail.  There is an information explosion!  They discovered that one million new books are published around the world annually.  The Library of Congress, which is the copyright repository for books published in just the United States, includes almost twenty-six million titles.  They estimated that the world stock of books was almost sixty-five million unique titles.  They also estimated that almost three billion books are sold around the world every year.

Each year the world creates ninety million metric tons of computer and writing paper and another thirty-six million metric tons of newspaper.  For comparison, the World Trade Center twin towers were one and a half million tons.  Five hundred billion copies are made on copiers in the United States each year.  Fifteen trillion copies are made on copiers throughout the world each year.

Every year in just the United States almost fifty-six million daily newspapers and sixty million Sunday newspapers get delivered, five hundred million magazines are circulated, and the average person receives seven hundred thirty-three pieces of mail.

And should we even mention the internet?  There are over two and a half billion documents available online.  If you count up all the documents available on corporate intranet sites, there are over five hundred fifty billion web-connected documents available.  And just think, over seven million new pages of information are created for the internet every day.

As a manner of speaking, information is multiplying exponentially every year!  We are in the midst of an information explosion.  We have information overload.  We are being bombarded daily with thousands and thousands of new messages.  Everywhere we turn, we get inundated and washed out by a flood of new information.  But don't worry!  Companies specializing in data-mining are there to help us sort it all out.  New versions of Books for Dummies and Idiots' Guides promise some relief.

And every year computer systems double in speed and capacity to help us process it all.  The Church is at a crossroads.  There isn't any question that we have entered into an unprecedented stage of history.  The massive proliferation of information poses a tremendous challenge to the teaching ministry of the Church.  It is so easy for the Church's message to get drowned out by the deafening roar of the information age.  There is so much competition for our attention and the Church is just one voice among many.

This morning we are continuing in our series of messages based on Acts 2:42-47.  These verses create a helpful and detailed snapshot of the early Church in action.  The early Church was able to rise to the challenges presented by its culture.  The early Church faced an entirely different challenge than we face today, but the formula for rising above such challenges remains the same.

What stands out most in these verses is the opening phrase of Acts 2:42 (NIV).  It begins quite simply by saying, "They devoted themselves..."  None of us are strangers to what it means to be dedicated or devoted to something.  There is no shortage of commitment in this room.  All of us are devoted to something or someone.  Every hour of our every day is spoken for.  The challenge is not for us to learn how to make deeper commitments.  The challenge is for us to make the right kind of commitments.  We must learn to say "no" to some things so that we can say "yes" to eternal things.

Life-changing, life-enhancing commitments.

Listen to Luke's snapshot of the early Church in Acts 2:42-47 (NIV).  "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."

The early Church made four life-changing, life-enhancing commitments.  First, they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching.  Second, they devoted themselves to one another, the fellowship.  Third, they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, worship.  Last, they devoted themselves to prayer.

It is just as important that we make the same four basic commitments today.  With so much information floating around, we are starving for the truth of God's word.  With so much impersonal communication abounding in our world, we are craving authentic relationships.  With so much scandal and corruption, we are yearning for fresh, authentic, invigorating worship.  With so much emptiness and despair, we are aching to hear God's voice through prayer.

Every commitment we make is supposed to enhance our lives.  Our work, our education, our recreation, our leisure activities, our religion, and our indulgence in various media is all designed to enhance life.  Over the next several weeks we are going to be challenged to evaluate where our commitments have brought us.  For example, have our commitments brought us closer to God?  Have they brought us deep, meaningful relationships with others or with our family?  Have our commitments brought us satisfaction and joy?  Have they transformed us?  Do our commitments invigorate us, or just leave us more empty and exhausted?

The four commitments of the early Church transformed their fellowship from a club or group into a life-giving, life-enhancing, God-glorifying, Christ-inspired fellowship of believers.  The people who participated in the life of the Church found deep satisfaction and their lives generated a magnetic attraction to those outside of the Church.  We learn from the early Church that the right kind of commitments do make an enormous difference, starting with our commitment to the apostles' teaching.

The necessity of biblical teaching today.

It is imperative that we renew our devotion to the teaching ministry of the Church.  The early Church devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching.  In our information-swamped culture, we have to speak with a clear voice.  It is our job to tell the world which bits of information to pay attention to.  It is our job to filter our intake of information so that we get nourished on the substantive word of God, instead of growing malnourished on all the junk food information floating around.  It is our job not to succumb to the temptation of coasting and letting the world define who we are and what we stand for and what we teach.

Last week, we spent time talking in detail about the Bible as the word of God.  2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV) says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."  As a church, we are not teaching for the sake of passing on information.  Rather, we are teaching for transformation.  We are training one another for godliness.  We are equipping people to do the good work of God's kingdom.

When I was in high school, I learned a lot of information.  I learned math and I tried to learn English.  I learned how to program computers, type, speak in public, play the trumpet, weld, and name all the bones and muscles in the human body.  But none of that information changed my life.  None of that information made me a better person.  None of it enhanced my relationships.  None of it built my character.  None of it drew me closer to God through Jesus Christ.  The information that I learned helped me get to college.  It got me noticed by employers.  It helped me feel smart.  It kept me preoccupied and mostly out of trouble.  It was only as I encountered the word of God through the teaching ministry of the Church that I found myself being changed as I was connected to God.  All the potential for good inside me was awakened and harnessed through the Church.

Without proper instruction, nothing happens in our lives or in this church.  As the early Church received instruction, explosive things happened.  God worked signs and miracles in their midst.  People made radical sacrifices for one another.  Contagious joy permeated the entire Church.  People outside the Church became extremely curious about Jesus Christ.  But the most dramatic result that Acts 2:47 (NIV) mentions is that God, "added to their number daily those who were being saved."  Unbelieving hearts were turned toward God.  Eternal destinies were forever altered.  The Church grew exponentially, by multiplication and not just by addition.  With time, the early Church transformed her culture, instead of being ravaged by it.

I think Lakeside is a great church.  This is the strongest, healthiest church I have ever been a part of.  God is blessing this church and he is changing lives.  But God has placed a fresh vision on the hearts of our leadership, a bold vision.  This vision relates directly to the teaching ministry of our church and of you personally.  Let me share three different aspects of this vision, beginning with the most familiar.

Bible-centered teaching.

The early Church devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching.  I often wonder how many churches this can be said about today?  I have opportunity to talk to a lot of Christians these days.  I read a lot of Christian books.  I attend conferences, listen to Christian radio, and I surf Christian websites.  I've noticed a lot of unbiblical fluff floating around.  Much of the teaching in churches today centers around old, worn-out cliches.  Our Christian faith is being devotionalized and watered down into trite, touchy-feely, gooblie-gunk.  Most noticeable is that a majority of Christian teaching and preaching primarily focuses on this life.  Subjects often mentioned are finances, our marriages, our children, our stress, our health, our wealth, our relationships, and our emotions.

The imbalance is that little is said about God's kingdom, Jesus Christ, evangelism, eternal life, righteousness, forgiveness, mercy, death, judgment, grace, resurrection, Christ's second coming, and the cross.  In the early Church, getting the big blocks in place took care of the little blocks.  Getting the macro issues of life in Christ in place first, transformed life in this world secondly.  For example, none of the sermons in the book of Acts were about how to improve your marriage or how to raise children or how to stretch your dollar.  The Church was unapologetically focused on people getting in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  The other stuff seemed to take care of itself!

Today, churches teach and preach everything backwards.  We feast on the peripheral things instead of on the word of God and we walk away from the table hungry.  The desire of our leadership is to avoid such imbalances at every cost.  We want to insure that God's word is put in the center of every ministry here.  To my knowledge, this is already happening.  This church has always had a commitment to God's word and this will always remain true under my watch!

Every single one of our elders is deeply committed to promoting God's word.  Our Bible school teachers in every class teach directly out of God's word.  Right now we are training almost a dozen leaders to clearly teach the word of God to other Christians.  Hopefully, these leaders will be fully trained by this fall and they will help us launch our small group ministry.  And all of this mirrors what the early Church did.  They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching.  They used God's word fully and faithfully.

Process-oriented teaching.

When it comes to teaching, it is pretty obvious that one size doesn't fit all.  In this congregation we have people from all walks and stages of life.  We have people who have spent their entire lives in the Church.  We have some who are attending a church for the very first time.  We have people who are deeply devoted to Jesus Christ and we have some who are just now learning what his life and death and resurrection is all about.  We have some who are thoroughly acquainted with God's word and we have some who do not even own a copy of the Bible personally.  And by the way, if you don't own a Bible, you can take a pew Bible home with you this morning.

Because of the vast diversity of spiritual maturity, it has become increasingly necessary to develop a spiritual growth process for people to step through.  In public education we don't teach algebra and trigonometry to kindergardeners.  We also do not teach the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic to graduates.  But in the Church, we mix everything up and assume that the oldest and youngest in Christ can be effectively nourished by the exact same level of teaching.  The result is that those exploring a relationship with Christ often walk away empty without getting their questions answered, while those who have been in Christ for years get frustrated that we are still talking about the basics.  The solution is to develop a graduated teaching process that everyone can step through, that is geared toward their spiritual maturity. 

Some people are like a seed spiritually.  There is potential for life, but they are still dead in their sins.  A specific environment has to be cultivated in which they get their questions answered and take the necessary steps so that their new life in Christ can begin.

Some people are like a seedling spiritually.  They have just begun a new life in Christ, but they don't know what to do next!  They don't know how to grow strong in Christ.  They need guidance, encouragement, and teaching.

Some people are like a tree spiritually.  They are learning to grow so that they can bear the fruit in ministry.  They need to learn skills, discover their spiritual gifts, get involved in ministry, grow in knowledge, and be challenged.

Some people are like an orchard spiritually.  They are responsible for cultivating life in dozens of Christians.  They are proven servants.  They have made a substantial impact in the lives of others and in God's kingdoms.

The needs of Christians at all these stages of maturity is different.  Our teaching ministry must take that into consideration.  One size doesn't fit all!

Personally-applicable teaching.

This is really the heart of the vision that God has given us.  Our leadership believes that people must be taught at three different levels in order to thrive spiritually.  First, we know that the early Church met in large gatherings in the temple.  The large gatherings were celebrations in which the Church celebrated her unity.  The temple gatherings included times of worship, prayer, communion, and teaching, and most closely resemble what we do in our worship services every Sunday.  Through these celebrations believers were united together by their common belief in Jesus Christ.  They realized that they were part of a thriving community and that they weren't alone.  All of us need to be taught in this type of environment.  But by design, the teaching in this environment is more general and applicable to the Church at large.

This is why all of us must also be taught in a smaller setting that consists of people who are at a common life stage.  We know that the early Church met in various places, like synagogues where no more than seventy people could gather together at one time.  In this setting, people could be known by first name.  People knew one another's story, circumstances, needs, strengths, weaknesses, immaturities, and problems.  In this setting, genuine fellowship was experienced, authentic relationships were forged, and the teaching moved from the general to the specific.

Such gatherings most closely resemble our Bible school program.  Our Bible school is an excellent place for you to build relationships, to become known, and to receive specific teaching that is relevant to you at your life stage.  In our Bible school, you will find people just like yourself who are experiencing, or recently went through the circumstances you are facing.  They are in a position to come alongside you and share God's word with you in a nonjudgmental, understanding, accepting way.

But there is a third level of teaching all of us need to receive.  The early Christians met in one another's homes for teaching and instruction.  By design, the average home can comfortable handle groups of ten to fifteen people.  Such groups are extremely conducive for spiritual growth.  In a group this size, you can more readily detect attitude shifts, false beliefs, prejudices, and the like.  As they sat around each other's kitchen tables or in one another's living rooms, they really got to know each other.  In teaching, it is the difference between a dull pocketknife and a surgical laser.  In this setting, you may receive some relief, but in a small group you will receive precision teaching to guide you through whatever you are facing.

The Lakeside vision for teaching.

The vision of this church's leadership is to strengthen our teaching ministry.  We are developing leaders who will clearly teach God's word.  We are developing opportunities for you to pursue regardless of your spiritual maturity.  Whether you are a seed, seedling, tree, or orchard, there will be teaching available for you.  And later this year we will be offering three different deepening, concentric circles of instruction.  You have already received instruction at the first level, our worship services.  But we want you to move into a Bible Fellowship at 9:45 A.M. every Sunday that consists of people just like you.  And later this year we want you to find a small group to join.

Remember, as the early Church received instruction, explosive things happened.  God worked signs and miracles in their midst.  People made radical sacrifices for one another.  Contagious joy permeated the entire Church.  People outside the Church became extremely curious about Jesus Christ.  God added to their number daily those who were being saved.  Unbelieving hearts were turned toward God.  Eternal destinies were forever altered.  The Church grew exponentially, by multiplication and not by just addition.  With time, the early Church transformed her culture instead of being ravaged by it.

But none of it happened without a fundamental commitment to the apostles' teaching.

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