“Don’t teach for information; teach for transformation.”
Many a pastor—myself included—has offered this advice to new teachers of the Word. At first blush, it sounds really good. After all, we’ve all fallen victim to the lifeless teaching of a monotone lecturer-preacher whose discussion on Greek noun declensions did little to help us grow in our relationship with Christ. Such a preacher may give his listeners a lot of data, but his teaching makes no connection to their lives and certainly does not reveal the majesty of Jesus. His poor church members leave his tutelage feeling dead inside—not because they have hard hearts and are unwilling to hear the Word of God but rather because their pastor has hoarded the Word and concealed it behind academic jargon and irrelevant discourse.
I think that’s the type of situation most pastors have in mind when they offer this piece of advice—and to that extent, it is wise counsel. Nevertheless, their counsel contains a glaring error.
It suggests that information and transformation are at odds with each other.
Kind of like when people tell you, “Don’t give me theology; give me Jesus.” That too sounds really good on the surface, but its false piety is quickly dismantled with a few questions: “Who is Jesus? Why do you want Jesus? What did He do for you?” When the individuals offer their answers, they should be congratulated—for doing theology. To embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior is also to believe, for example, that He is Lord and Savior—that He died on the cross and rose from the grave to save you from your sins. In other words, to receive Jesus, you must also receive a core set of beliefs or doctrines—it turns out, you are (gasp) a theologian and your allegiance is not divided between your love for Jesus and your love for good theology.
Similarly, the “information v. transformation” mantra presents a false dichotomy.
It seems to communicate that if you teach information, you are not concerned with transformation and that if you teach for transformation, you need not bother with information. But such statements are nonsensical. How can one teach without conveying information? And moreover, if transformation is change—change in what one believes and in how one lives—how can there be transformation without the acquisition of accurate information? There can’t.
We preach the gospel—literally, “good news”—accurate information about who Christ is and what He has done—information that is grounded in historical truth (i.e., events that really happened). Certainly, the gospel is not merely facts to be memorized; indeed, “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). But believes what exactly? And there’s the rub.
Transformation and information are invariably linked.
Yet, we want to see the transformative power of the gospel without having to lay the informative foundation. Relax, I’m not talking about making students read Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. That would be dreadful. Neither am I saying that one has to become a world-class theologian and Bible scholar to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
“Maybe the reason we lack so much transformation in our churches today is not because we focus too much on information—maybe it’s because we focus too little on it.”But maybe the reason we lack so much transformation in our churches today is not because we focus too much on information—maybe it’s because we focus too little on it. Think I’m crazy? Well, have I got some information for you. Lifeway Research and Ligonier Ministries put out a joint study last year that found that forty-four percent—that’s nearly half—of evangelicals thought that “everyone sins at least a little, but most people are by nature good.” More than half of evangelicals (54%) also said that “an individual must contribute his/her own effort for personal salvation.” We’re not talking about obscure doctrinal tenets here. These beliefs are central to what it means to be a Christian—to be transformed. Why does one need Jesus if he/she is basically good? What exactly can one contribute to his/her salvation? No wonder transformation is so lacking in our churches—basic scriptural teaching (or one might say, “information”) eludes us: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23); “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God . . . no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12); “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
Evangelicals who believe that everyone sins at least a little, but most people are by nature good.
Evangelicals who believe an individual must contribute his/her own effort for personal salvation.
We should not be surprised that such biblical illiteracy is prevalent in society at large. But what should surprise us—and grieve us—is that such biblical illiteracy is so prevalent in the church. As Ed Stetzer has noted, “If churches stopped to assess their congregation on . . . biblical truths, many would be surprised to find out how many are struggling with basic doctrinal issues.” He suggested that while “every church has a different mix of mature disciples and spiritual infants,” the problem is that “too many churchgoers are stuck on square one.”
Barna Group warned us about this all the way back in 2001: “The Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy. How else can you describe matters when most church-going adults reject the accuracy of the Bible, reject the existence of Satan, claim that Jesus sinned, see no need to evangelize, believe that good works are one of the keys to persuading God to forgive their sins, and describe their commitment to Christianity as moderate or even less firm?”
There is a biblical famine occurring in our churches today. In our zeal for transformation in this generation, let’s not neglect the hard work of passing on the information that actually leads to transformation. This hard work requires great intentionality. What are you doing to maximize the seven years you have with students?
The Pew Research Center recently released a study that showed the decline of Christianity in America. In response, Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler rightly stated, “[A]s it turns out, the less theology you have or the less theology you share and transfer, the less frequently it turns out the younger generation stays around.” He went on to assert, “[I]t’s not enough that evangelical young people come at some point to identify with the gospel of Christ and even with evangelical Christianity. If they do not come to an open intellectual embrace, a heartfelt embrace, of Christian truth, they are not going to continue to identify as the Christians their parents at some point think them to be.” In other words, “faith comes from hearing” (Rom 10:17), and genuine transformation comes from embracing true information. It certainly involves more than that—but not less.
So friends, let’s do the good work we’ve been called to do as overseers of God’s flock—let us “give instruction in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9), let us “train in the words of the faith and of . . . good doctrine” (1 Tim 4:6), and let us labor “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness” (Titus 1:1). God help us if we make this boring—how could we dare make such glorious information dull? But God also help us if we neglect the information out of fear of being boring. Instead, let us seek to inform so that in our informing, we might also transform. Our students’ futures—and our churches’ futures—depend on it.