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The healthy teaching pyramid

Have you ever seen the healthy eating pyramid on the wall of your local doctor? If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, the healthy eating pyramid is a simple diagram created by nutritionists to help us achieve a balanced diet. The idea is that to maintain a good diet, you need to eat some types of food more than others. The foods to be eaten most (such as vegetables and cereals) are at the bottom of the pyramid, foods to be eaten moderately (such as meat and dairy) are in the middle, while foods to be eaten least (such as fats and sugars) are at the top. See, for example, the pyramid published by Nutrition Australia.

I’m not a nutritionist (or a medical practitioner of any sort!), so I’m not making any recommendations about whether the pyramid represents the most up-to-date thinking about physical diet. However, the healthy eating pyramid has given me an idea for helping Christians to understand and assess their own ‘diet’ of Christian teaching (e.g. sermons, small groups, one-to-one, with your children, etc.). I admit this is a rather corny idea and a blatant rip-off of the healthy eating pyramid, but hopefully that makes it memorable!

The Healthy Teaching Pyramid

Basically, there are three types of Christian teaching. The first is expository. Expository teaching is the kind of teaching that takes you systematically through a particular part of the Bible. For example, you might have a sermon series in the book of Exodus. Each week, the preacher takes a chunk of the book of Exodus (a chapter, half a chapter, whatever). His job is to read it, understand it, learn it, ponder it, discover insights, work out the key concerns of the passage, and then to communicate those key concerns to his listeners in such a way that they are gripped the passage itself—gripped by it as God’s word, and encouraged to apply it. The next week, he takes the next logical chunk and does the same thing, and so on.

I strongly believe that expository teaching is the ‘eat most’ of our Christian lives—the bread, fruit and vegetables, as it were. I don’t have room to defend that view here; I’ll just assume that it’s a logical outflow of, for example, 2 Timothy 3:14-17. You might be interested in hearing a short discussion and defence of expository preaching about two thirds of the way through this interview with Don Carson.

The second type of teaching is doctrinal teaching. This is the sort of teaching where important themes of the Bible are treated in one go. For example, you might have a four-part study series on the atoning work of Christ, prayer, justification by faith alone, or the meaning and significance of church. The Bible is still very important (indeed, the best doctrinal teaching will include a few mini expositions), but in doctrinal teaching, the structure and content is driven by the doctrinal topic rather than by only one particular passage. Doctrinal teaching is like the meat and dairy of the Christian life—very important to get in moderate doses, so that you are able to get a good ‘big picture’ of the Bible’s teaching and understand important topics more comprehensively. However, a problem with doctrinal teaching is that it relies a great deal on the integrative skill of the teacher. The teacher has little time to ‘show their working’ as they range across many different passages. If there is too much doctrinal teaching (as opposed to expository teaching), the body of Christ isn’t built properly; we don’t learn to read the Bible for ourselves, and we become too reliant on the teacher to tell us what’s what.

The third type of teaching—topical teaching—is structured around the concerns of the world and the congregation. The topics addressed may be found in the Bible, but they aren’t necessarily primary biblical concerns. For example, you might have a Bible Study series on depression, stem cell research, disappointment or the sexual revolution. At its best, topical teaching is a chance to capitalize on expository and doctrinal teaching to show clearly the applicability of biblical texts and doctrines to situations encountered in the world. It is also often the place where the ‘rubber hits the road’ in people’s lives and thinking, and where serious changes are made. It is also usually quite interesting and tasty, because it is specifically designed to scratch where people itch (to mix the metaphors). In this way, topical teaching is like the fats, oils and sweets and of the Christian life—interesting, enjoyable and an excellent way to complete a good hearty meal of expository and doctrinal teaching. But too much topical teaching is like an overload of fast food; it produces Christians who haven’t learned to read the Bible for themselves or to think God’s (as opposed to the world’s) thoughts. Ultimately, it is unhealthy.

The three stages of the pyramid aren’t necessarily about the content, but more about the structure and rationale of the teaching. Expository teaching is driven by the concerns of the text before us; doctrinal, by the big themes of the Bible; and topical, by the concerns of the congregation. There is often overlap. Sometimes a big concern of the Bible (e.g. wealth) is also a big concern of the congregation. In this case, topical and doctrinal teaching go hand-in-hand. Furthermore, expository preaching should naturally introduce larger biblical themes (doctrines) and speak powerfully to present-day concerns (topics) as it goes along. In fact, I have often discovered that many of the concerns of our congregation have already been addressed by the expository preaching programme. Often when I hear people say, “Why don’t we teaching on topic x?”, generally we discover that we did spend quite a bit of very helpful time working through topic x back when we covered Bible passage y—because passage y naturally led to topic x. True, we didn’t have a sermon entitled ‘x’. Yet God’s word spoke powerfully to God’s people.

How might you use the healthy teaching pyramid? If you’re a Christian teacher in any context, you could use it to assess your own teaching. Look at the weight of your teaching: are you maintaining a healthy balance between expository, doctrinal and topical teaching? If you’re new (just moved to the suburb or to the church), you might also use it to help to assess a church or other Christian group; look at their teaching programme for the year and see how it fares. Or, looking closer to home, observe your own life and reading/listening patterns. What is your diet? How much Bible do you read? How many doctrinal books do you read? How many topical books? Are you maintaining a healthy diet?

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