Jesus commanded Peter, “Feed my lambs,” (John 21:15). Once we see the necessity of the church feeding those who are young in faith and young in age (see my previous post), the obvious question is: What do we feed them? When a shepherd is seeking to feed his little lambs, he seeks the lushest pasture. He wants to help these lambs grow up to be big and strong. When it comes to feeding those who are either young in the faith or young in age, the answer is simple--though it's hard to carry out. The answer is doctrine. Our doctrine, that is, our theology or knowledge of God, should always be growing. With each passing year, we should know God better, know him more deeply, know him more personally. We need to grow in our understanding of who God is so that we can better understand how to follow him faithfully.
But doctrinal study is a difficult discipline for seasoned believers to grow in, let alone those who are young. And yet it is necessary. When I say that the lambs need doctrine, I don’t mean that they simply need to memorize definitions and theological concepts. What I mean is that they must understand those concepts and how to apply them. This is where it gets hard. Here's what I mean. Shepherds take concepts that are, by their very nature, complex and difficult to understand, and we seek to make them simple. Teaching complex realities simply requires creativity with our teaching methods while remaining faithful to the truth. It has been my experience that this is a difficult balance to maintain; I often err on one side or the other. The balance is necessary though.
Here are two ways to get it wrong when teaching doctrine.
Most of the time it’s not so much the difficulty of the ideas or concepts we are trying to teach that is the problem. Rather, it's our lack of preparation. We may be easily frustrated when students don’t understand what we are communicating and assume the problem is on their side. But if we're honest the problem is ours. As teachers, we haven't dedicated the time to fully understand theological concepts ourselves, so we're not ready to convey their meaning.
Another way we teach doctrine wrongly is when we "dumb it down" in order for youth or children to understand. This does an injustice both to the doctrine and our students. As teachers and preachers, we need to keep the truth simple without simplifying it. We should never change the truth to make it more acceptable or intentionally leave out harder concepts (e.g. the Trinity, or the atonement) that may take more time to digest and understand. Yes, this is hard, but it's what we’ve been tasked to do. As teachers, we must be faithful with the whole counsel of God.
Here are a few ways to teach doctrine well.
Instead of dumbing down truth, we should break it down. Instead of simplifying truths, we distill them by teaching doctrine in chunks and by making sure our definitions are clear.
And, after breaking down doctrinal truths into digestible chunks, we must also help help young lambs put the pieces together. We need to help youth see how individual truths connect with the bigger picture, the grand narrative of Scripture. When we do this well, we help kids see that the individual doctrines are simply windows through which we view our big God, and we lead them to worship and glorify the God of doctrines.
Finally, it's important to remember that no truth has been fully learned until it has been lived. Young ones don't need to simply memorize a definition that is divorced from practice. They need to work doctrine into their experience. In order for this goal to be accomplished, we teachers must both understand the material we are teaching and understand how this doctrine applies to our students. This requires one major thing. We must know the sheep. Proverbs 27:4 says, "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds." There's a principal there for teachers. We must know our students personally and lead them to apply doctrine where they live. We must make it personal for them so they can understand the truth experientially. We must help those young in age or faith to see how specific doctrines apply to their particular stage of life.
May God help us shepherd them well.