Baby Lambs and Old Sheep

I have the same goal for both older and newer Christians: to make the language fresh, to make it come alive.
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Becky, a new Christian in my Bible class, sparkles with enthusiasm even though she needs help to find Galatians: "Is that Old or New Testament?" she asks. I could tell her, "Jesus loves me, this I know," and she would be awed by the depth of my teaching.

Tim, on the other hand, raised in the church, has heard it all before. He's tired of "Jesus Loves Me" and may have read Galatians ten times already.

The problem is, they both sit in the same Bible study I teach.

Schoolteachers have specific assignments: "Ninth-grade English literature." Pastors can't be so specific. I wonder what schoolteachers would do with a task like the pastor's: teach 200 students, kindergarten to graduate school (some gifted, some slow), covering everything from colors and the alphabet to biochemistry and calculus.

That is the challenge put before the pastor, to teach a diverse group of people who possess a variety of skills.

The easy way out, of course, is to offer classes for the new believer and classes for the mature believer. And there is a place for that.

But most of the time I prefer them to attend the same Bible study together. It's refreshing for mature Christians to see younger Christians excitedly discover old truths. It not only reminds them of the eternal freshness of the gospel, it also gives them new ways of seeing old truths.

New believers, on the other hand, need to hear the wisdom and experience that older Christians offer. It gives them the long view and helps stabilize their lives.

Though the benefits are great, teaching a mixed class of old and new Christians, where you can bore the mature or overwhelm the neophyte, requires skill and sound technique.

The Diverse Challenge

As I set out to teach both new and mature Christians together, I must be aware of temptations and roadblocks that may get in the way of effective teaching.

• Temptations to avoid. With mature believers, who may be on the verge of boredom because they think they know it all, I may be tempted to try to make the Bible more interesting. So I may think that a study of the esoteric, like the Book of Revelation or first-century Gnosticism, might work best.

Certainly subjects like these are worthy of attention, but I must not be lured into discussing them while ignoring the heart of the gospel, for that is perennially the most interesting part of our message. Teachers who say, "We need to give these people some really tough courses on some big, major themes," deprive the older person of the challenge of a simple treatment of the biblical text. Most of the time, the older Christian needs the explosive experience of seeing 1 John in a fresh way.

One temptation in talking with new believers is to rely on clichés or to give them generalized truths to memorize. Worse still is to ask them simplistic questions, where they just fill in the blanks after reading a verse. In short, I mustn't insult their intelligence.

Another temptation with new believers is let them bask in their new experience as Christians. We do that when we teach them to share their faith on the basis of their experience: "I was troubled, and now Christ has brought me peace." That may be true, but lots of people get peace, some from crack cocaine or Eastern religions.

Instead of exploiting their subjective experience, then, I want instead to ground them in the Bible, so that they will have a firm basis for sharing their faith.

• Roadblocks to overcome. Young believers often feel awkward or doubtful about their new role; they know others have been around longer and know more. They feel silly asking if Galatians is Old Testament or New.

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