I wonder, often, exactly what it is I am doing when I am sitting in church. Fortunately, where we worship now causes me to wonder less than I have wondered in some places! But still, I wonder. Of course, I know some things.
I know that I am there to be “present to the presence”, as Eugene Peterson puts it, and I am conscious always of our need to be, first and foremost, God-ward in our worship and attitude of heart. I know too that I cannot expect the theology of time management to be applicable in a place where we are coming together for open fellowship. Further, I know that there is a role for the disciplines of listening, of reflection, of silence (if you are fortunate enough to be in a tradition that offers the chance). I know that, if you are happily settled in a church that it has its own culture of warmth and inclusion (and it still amazes me that there are churches that don’t) then acting and reacting within that is an important part of expressing our creativity and humanity and love for one another. And I know that we go there to serve each other, not to be served.
But still, questions remain. I wonder, when a church leader gets up to speak or teach in a congregation (James the apostle, by the way, advises that few should be teachers, and you can see why, frankly), what exactly is it that he or she is expecting from their congregation? If you did that in any other learning environment, the expectations would likely be clear, if not to the learners, at least to the teacher. There would be, I suspect, a theory of learning – an understanding by the teacher, and hopefully by the learners, of the efficacy of the techniques (bad word, but you know what I mean) used to convey the information and to root and deepen it not just in the minds and memories of learners, but also, in a church, in the attitudes and the behaviours of a congregation. I am sure that this is what many of those who teach in churches do desire as their impact.
This has all come from re-reading some notes I made back in the summer, shortly after I had returned from the Netherlands and just before I was presenting a course on co-coaching in schools. The question in my notebook is “How do we get learning and transformation in our churches, when most of what we do is sit on our bums and listen?” Not terribly politely put. At the time at church we were exploring the excellent Fruitfulness on the Front Line series from the LICC, and I was enjoying the model used in the videos for teaching. It seemed effective and provided good content. In between gaps in the video, Mark Greene encouraged us to talk about these issues with people around us in the church. This too was good, except often it wasn’t, because of the level of planning inherent in the phrase “talk to people around you”. That faces the limitations of church seating arrangements and the fact that you may have come to church with someone you know very well. What we needed right there was a learning partner or a coaching triad. We needed time to explore and not just to have a little chat, but (and this would have needed flagging up early on before the series and at the door when people came in) that we were there principally as students of Jesus Christ and therefore there was learning to be done. This would have given shape and structure to the conversation.
The next question in my notebook is “Can we adapt a coaching model where we can begin to teach the church to raise questions against a set of learning criteria (like the Sermon on the Mount) to help us grow as Christians?” I suppose what I meant was – can we do effective intentional discipleship together, in the sense that Dallas Willard means it in The Great Omission (best book on this subject by a country mile)? Can we see ourselves primarily as students and apprentices of Jesus Christ in his Kingdom, and use church to deepen, encourage and foster that discipleship and learning so that the world can see ever more Christ-like communities of people? Can we? Is that too hard? Would it be too challenging, or would Christians, somewhere in the depth of their longing for God see this as an effective way of transformation, of cooperating with the Holy Spirit to change? If we did then the church would be a testbed for our learning and character transformation. We would meet those who we found difficult, and be able to practise our changing attitudes on them, in humility, opening ourseoves to the possibility of radical transformation by the Holy Spirit and come and worship.
Paul S Williams in his talk at the LICC in the summer spoke about the spiritual gifts in the church being a classroom practice for their proper use which is in the workplace, releasing the life of the Holy Spirit in our communities of work. I agree. We often do not know what the spiritual gifts are, what they feel like, and how they can be put to use in the church, never mind in the world.
Other things from the notebook…
Could we enable a proper question and answer session after the sermon – points of clarification, deepening understanding, further information? I can imagine a sermon followed by questions such as “What did you mean by…..? Could you say a little more about….? How can I apply that in…..?”
Some might argue that congregations are too large for this. Maybe, but not most British congregations, let’s face it. Even if it is not the appropriate place, is there a place for an after-meeting, or a mid-week bible study to tackle these, or any kind of follow up? House groups won’t do, usually, because they serve other functions (unless you were in an 18th century Methodist class meeting, in which case they did exactly what was intended), and often the person teaching can’t be there to answer the questions. It is, I acknowledge, a universal problem.
In 1643, the wonderful Richard Baxter, puritan divine and vicar in Kidderminster, was addressing a group of reformed ministers in the Church of England in the early years of what the English call the Civil War, at Worcester. He recorded it all in his book The Reformed Pastor. In it he describes a model of house-to-house discipleship which we would regard as intrusive now – of the minister spending time over the week visiting his flock and seeking to apply the lessons he as a minister had been preaching on the Sunday, to check that transformation was taking place. Baxter regarded this as the proper cure of souls, and it was. (The joy of a book that is long out of copyright is that the whole thing is on the web, and you can find it here).
I don’t think that this is a particularly widespread model these days! We are too disparate, and too busy, but there is at the core of this an effective learning relationship, a willingness to relate discipleship in the church to discipleship in the home and workplace, and a seriousness (well, he was a Puritan, and they were serious men and women) about learning and being transformed into the likeness of Christ that we could well learn from, adapt and apply.
Here’s another idea. Could the preacher at the end of the sermon list some learning challenges at the end of each sermon (this is not new, it is the application after exegesis) but then give time to reflect (up to 5 minutes maybe) and share with a learning partner? Could we introduce a simple co-coaching model, a bit like the one above, but where in learning pairs we asked each other for clear answers to 3 questions given us from the front, of which one was: What are you going to do this week to enable the Spirit to work transformation in such and such and area?
I honestly think that some care here on the nature and acquisition of learning would transform the church. People not serious about following Jesus would either get serious or leave, and we would come together in joy and worship knowing that we would be drawing closer to God in both our heart longing for him and our desire to be like him.
One last point, which I have made before: In Acts 20, when Eutychus falls out of the window because Paul was going on a bit, Luke uses the word dialegomai, defined by Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words as:
“primarily denotes to ponder, to resolve in one’s mind…then, to converse, dispute, discuss, discourse with; most frequently, to reason or dispute with. In Acts 20:7, 9, the RV corrects to ‘discoursed’, lit. ‘dialogued’, i.e. not by way of a sermon, but by a discourse of a more conversational character”
Once Eutychus had fallen out of the window and been revived/resurrected by Paul, Paul carried on talking (homileo) until dawn – a discursive, reasoned communal conversation that is much more effective at getting learning into people.
We could have a learning church, I am positive. But before that we need a movement for intentional discipleship, where each desires to follow and apprentice him or herself to the Master.