Most schools in the UK over the last 10-15 years have developed a very clear understanding of what constitutes good work in the area of teaching and learning, whether for children or for adult continuing professional development. And most churches have not.
There is still a large amount of dodgy practice around CPD in some schools, which the recent Standards for Teachers Professional Development publication has done its best to identify and eliminate, but I have never come across a serious publication that has alerted me to the best way of engaging adult learning within churches. Most of what I have experienced of church teaching has been “sermonising” or retelling, and little effort has been made to welcome questions and answers, of dialogic interaction within churches or clarity about the learning intent, nor has there been, in any of the 15 or so churches I have attended regularly in three countries, a clear articulation of an adult learning model. That this is a productive area for research is shown by the work of Jeff Astley at Durham, whose work covers a wide range of what we might term “religious learning” but I am not aware of the impact of this good and sustained theological research into learning in a Christian context in any church I have been part of. I think that the issue of congregational and Christian learning is particularly important, and I incline towards the use of what we have come to understand of teaching and learning effectiveness in my own field (children’s education and staff CPD). I also have come to see that the Bible has a lot to say about this – both discipleship in general, but also about the mechanics of learning.
Part of the trouble in the evangelical churches is a twofold problem – we have seen Christian truth as somehow expound-able but not challenge-able: this has led to a view that what we believe is perhaps more important than what we do. Secondly, we have seen the truths of who God is, why Jesus came, his death and resurrection as both more important than and also disconnected from the gospel and epistolary teachings of Jesus on how to live, how to serve your neighbour, etc. And when we have grasped that there is a “way to live”, we have turned them into hard and fast rules because of the nature of truth being “unchallenge-able”.
This has led to some huge problems in our churches. On the one hand, some people cling to the high importance and “non-challenge-ability” of what is taught about Jesus, his nature, his salvation work, his resurrection etc.; these folk often feel they have nothing to learn from experience, from “the world” or from our culture – they just keep the rules. On the other hand, those who want to engage with their culture are progressively less critical of it and its impact on the discontented way that we live our lives. There are very few church congregations that I have seen or even know of that use the scriptures and their effective, debated exposition to lead to a lived corporate and public life that is sought out and emulated by others, as the first disciples clearly were (Acts 5 talks about this). Perhaps a modern movement like L’Abri or the Sojourners are such, or at least started as such.
Yesterday we were being taught from one of the most important passages on the growth of Christian discipleship and fullness of life, from Colossians 1:9-13:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light (Today’s NIV translation)
This, and similar “prayer passages” in Philippians, Ephesians and 1 Thessalonians, gives the pathway for learning within the Christian community. In fact, if you took this prayer, the explanation of where the power for this prayer’s fulfilment comes from in Colossians 1:15 and chapter 2, and then the application of this prayer that follows in Colossians 3:1-17, you would find a serious learning model for the whole Christian community. It would lead to richer relationships (here expounded and fully graced with the importance they should have in all churches), a deeper understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ in the enrichment of those relationships and in the impact on our own spiritual growth and peace, a fuller understanding of the power of Jesus Christ by the Spirit to effect the transformation we want to see in our lives, and a commitment to prayer for each other to ask God for grace to help the changes to take long term effect. The teaching program is geared around answering this prayer, in order to “fill (us) with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” and the purpose of the learning is that we “live a life worthy of the Lord” by (to refer elsewhere) “making every effort” to “add to faith, knowledge, etc” (2 Peter 1) or “to maintain the unity of the body through the bond of peace” (Rom 4:1-2). This is measurable progress in disciples’ changed lives and attitudes that teachers should be able to take satisfaction in.
So the question we should be asking is:
How does the teaching in my church supply the learning that disciples need to grow closer to the likeness of Jesus and to be the kind of people He is calling them to become?
Places to start might be:
- Establish in clarity what you intend to achieve. Be explicit about the process and the outcome. Make learning visible.
- Establish the authority basis you intend to use – your view of the Bible – so people know why you are taking the perspective you are, and what weight to attribute to it.
- Establish the body of common knowledge: what is it that your congregation have been taught before and can be expected to understand already? Take people’s prior learning seriously.
- Establish the learning purpose from your teaching: what is it you expect the congregation to know, or do, or understand by the end of the teaching session?
- How will you know (what are the signs) that the learning has been learned? What would you expect to change? Are there criteria against which this can be evaluated?
- Establish the lines of accountability, on the lines of Galatians 6:6 (Everyone who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor). Could you use a co-coaching model at the end of teaching, drawing people towards commitment to discipleship?
- Don’t dumb down content, because you get the progress you expect. Set high expectations, but allow for plenty of failure and grace. The content is rich and needs to be explored in depth if we are to build up the body of Christ. As Michael Green said once – sermonettes make Christianettes. To hear people apologise for “boring you with Greek” is awful, sorry. The Bible was written in the language so expect people to at least get to grips with some significant vocabulary.
- Teaching is training: it aims for growth in discipleship, to enable Christians to become disciples of Christ, students and apprentices in His kingdom.
I think there is much here to reflect on. Yes, it sets high standards, but we should expect much from our teachers – they handle carefully the word of truth.
Finally, there is a problem in our churches also in that once we were willing to listen attentively to a sermon that lasted 45 minutes. Sitting under the great evangelical preacher Graham Ingram in Cape Town in the 1980s, was rarely an experience that lasted much less than an hour. Ditto Michael Green, David Prior and David McInnes in St Aldates of the 1980s and 1990s. Ditto, actually, Paula Gooder expounding Ephesians 3 in detail at last year’s Spring Harvest. Christians want to learn, and will go to some lengths to do so. To fob them off with a content-poor homily of 20 minutes verges on the criminal. It is no wonder that we are so ineffectual if we are not urged and taught to pay attention to our own growth in Christlikeness through the teaching of the church. Have we taught people to take notes? Have we taught them how to listen for the main points? Do we enable this teaching to be filtered through the experiences of our lives through house groups? All of this is important for us if we are to grow. There is a whole world of adult learning to be explored, refined and, above all, articulated clearly to our congregations. When will we start this great work?