A week ago, I gave a weekend of seminars in the largest Cantonese congregation of North America (though the pastor humbly and shyly said that he didn’t want his church to be known for its size). The weekend started early on Friday afternoon (in fact, Thursday night) as the climax of the 40-Days-in-the-Word Lent series. The learning environment was very good. This leads me to reflect on how many churches I’ve visited and how audiences respond. In the many places I have spoken to, there are approximately three types of audience culture.
First, there is the passive audience. This audience accepts everything uncritically and often quotes from famous people. Somehow this passive audience does not buy or read books and is very entertainment-driven. They don’t open their Bibles or have serious Bible studies. When you ask a difficult probing question, they give blank stares that say, “Whatever …”
Second, there is the hypercritical ignorant audience. This second audience is the exact opposite of the first type. While the first type accepts (but not necessarily absorbs) everything taught, this type rejects everything with a cynical eye. At the same time, they too have not read the Bible carefully using creative lenses. In reality, both audiences are anti-intellectual. This second type of audience seems to be engage with the issue by asking many challenging questions but none of the questions are informed or relevant to the topic spoken by speakers. I find this kind of audience to be quite typical in a certain sub-groups (whose identity will remain unmentioned).
Third, there is the informed and teachable audience. This audience takes the acceptance of the first audience and blends it with the critical eye of the second. The major difference is, this audience knows the issues. It does not rely on the expert to deal with the issue. Rather, listeners track the issues and use the expert as the launching pad for the next level of learning. This informed audience is also teachable because it fully engages the information being taught so that the information will strengthen or challenge earlier learning.
You can imagine what kind of audience I would like to speak to. I find in general many Hong Kong (or Cantonese-speaking) audiences to be the third kind. Of course, there are also quite a lot of them who belong to the first or the second. By and large, however, the Cantonese audience makes up the majority of the third kind of audience (this would include some English-speaking audience samples as well).
The reason why I wrote this blog is simple. The church has been viewed as a kind of “school” in many parts of the New Testament. As I finish my Chinese commentary on 1 Timothy and Titus (ready to be published in June), I’m convinced that the “teaching” aspect has been lost in most of the churches in the US and many in Hong Kong, in favor of the church as a missional organization. Many in the recent church growth movements have decried the church for having too much teaching (i.e. information) and not enough doing, as if the two are dichotomous. The fact is, in light of the church’s biblical illiteracy (and I’m not just talking about informational illiteracy but also hermeneutical illiteracy), the church does not suffer from too much teaching, but suffers from too much tepid and harmless bad teaching. If the church loses its teaching, its mission would become inadvertently heretic. Such would be the tragedy of the modern church. I believe the key lies in the leadership and not necessarily the size or any other factor of the church. The next installment will discuss what we can do as ministers to create the third kind of audience.