Teaching not learning…



I had lots of good discussions on my recent wilderness retreat, one of them was a chat with Andrew about teaching in church.

This was relevant as in my ‘church’ we do not really do teaching- most of us have had a belly full of sitting in church services listening to people preach at us. This has been replaced by lots of different kinds of learning however- reading, internetting, discussing, visiting other places. Whether or not this is a fair exchange has been the cause of some discussion.

Andrew however (who is a NT scholar at Aberdeen University, so his opinion seems well worth listening to) described his own frustration with how church has become addicted to teaching, but has forgot entirely about learning.

I had to think about that- surely if someone is a good teacher, then this has to be measured by the degree to which his or her (but lets face it, in this context it is more likely to be his) pupils learn?  Well no, says Andrew, at least not in the context of Church. Rather, his experience of preaching/teaching is that it is mostly totally disconnected from learning; rather it offers a kind of moralised, spirtualised entertainment for the faithful. Rather than challenging anyone to change, to develop, to grow, to explore, to adventure with the Spirit, it actually just provides a religious diversion from real life.

Another friend of mine, Graham, called it ‘theological masturbation’ over on his blog;

 I used the phrase ‘theological masturbation’ where I referred to our tendency, in Bible study groups just to ‘self pleasure’. Groups becoming just sharing of points and opinions with no vulnerability or attempt to relate it in an active or missionary way to the world outside…

The interesting question is, if people are not learning from our teaching, what do we do instead? How do we set people free to learn for themselves?

My initial response to Andrew was that I thought it was something to do with hierarchy. Churches have people whose job it is to teach others- the paid ministers. Therefore the rest of us step back and leave the hard work to them. Sometimes they (and in turn, we) are inspired, but mostly we defer responsibility to them. What if we actually had to come up with our own solutions to the small theological questions that surround our every day life? Sure, it might be possible, even necessary, to not get into the meat of all of them, but no faith is possible without a search for meaning- and in this instance, the meaning we find is our own, it is not lazily appropriated.

However, I am not fully satisfied with this answer- after all, we are all standing in a long line of followers of Jesus, and to suggest that others have not got things to teach us is foolish. We are all subject to the influence of others, and why not at least listen to people who have given this more thought than we have.

There is still the issue of learning. What are we learning for? Is it to refine the subtleties of our doctrine? There has been a lot of this kind of learning after all. Or should learning be actually about being schooled in the disciplines shown to us by Jesus? These are perhaps best understood in terms of learning to love one another, to live in community, to let go of all the stuff that gets in the way, be they possessions, selfish obsessions, or sins. This kind of learning seems to be to be as much about unlearning, simplifying, going deeper and slower.

I write these things not because I have learnt well- rather because I am a long term remedial pupil in need of extra tutoring.

I think that is what the Holy Spirit was tasked with was it not?

Which makes me wonder again whether we have not made his job rather difficult- by filling the classroom with theological masturbation.

Perhaps what we actually need is a small island with no internet or phone reception…

Teaching, preaching- in small missional groups…

In the middle of all the laughter around the campfire on my recent wilderness trip, conversation took a much more serious turn. I found myself in the middle of a rather intense and difficult discussion with one of my friends and Aoradh chums. Some of this was about leadership in Aoradh- which I will return to when I have had a chance to process and discuss it again, but another issue flickered briefly in a way that surprised me- ‘Teaching’.

‘Teaching’ that is, in the traditional Christian/Evangelical sense of the word. Apologies to those not from a background like this, but those that are will know exactly what I mean. All our services revolved around one thing- the climactic 45 minute to an hour long sermon. Through this a skilled preacher would expound on a passage from ‘The Word’, inspiring us, shaping us, challenging us and bring us to repentant response.

This kind of spirituality grew out of Victorian spirituality- a combination of the elevation of the written words of the Bible  as the primary (even the only) revelation of God, and the syncretism of faith with modern rationalistic culture. So it was natural to engage with spirituality in the same way that we would engage with the study of medicine or chemistry- in a lecture hall, with the celebrity scientist at the centre, sharing his accumulation of knowledge- even his life long labour- with those eager for understanding.

Along with this of course, scientific rigour was required, along with reliable, testable source material. So faith became something it was possible to organise, define and defend. And we did this above all things by knowledge of the Bible- carefully cross referenced verses, once produced, ended all argument.

Perceptive readers may sense a certain scepticism in the tone of this piece. It is easy to have a go at all this from a post modern cynical perspective.  We can point to all sorts of problems that we inherited with this kind of spirituality-

  • The top down nature of it, casting us in the role of passive receivers, not active questioners
  • The potential it gives for the misuse of power and control
  • The one dimensional quality of a lot of preaching- the giving of one man’s (and it usually is a man’s) perspective on ‘truth’
  • The elevation of the words of the Bible to what I would describe as idolatry- a tendency to treat the words as some kind of unassailable blue print that arrived down on earth on the wings of an angel as the transcription of the very word of God (in case you are wincing at my heresy, there is a fuller discussion of this issue here.)
  • The changing communication style of the age- the shortening of attention spans, the endless competition of other media has now entered into the human condition.

There is also this question in me about my own experience of listening to preaching. I have had the privilege of hearing some really great preachers- people who hold the attention by their great oration and carefully constructed sentences. Preaching like this is an art form, all the more to be celebrated in this age of the 30 second sound bite. Some of my friends still are responsible for delivering sermons each weekend- and I celebrate their honest creativity- their genuine efforts in the long direction, to bring light into the lives of a congregation through words.

I also love to go and listen to speakers at festivals like Greenbelt- people who bring a totally new and sometimes controversial perspective.

But having said all this, when I consider the shape of my own journey, and try to remember how this was affected by teaching or preaching I have heard, I struggle to remember more than one or two actual sermons/teaching sessions (and even those, not necessarily for the right reasons.) Perhaps I was shaped by the experience more than I can remember the actual events, but considering the countless hours of preaching I have sat through, we might expect there to be much more connection between hearing a message, responding to the challenge, and life changes that flow from this.

I think that we have been caught up in the idea that refining our knowledge of a certain kind of moral interpretation of the Bible equates to something we called ‘spiritual maturity’. It was like a uniform we put on- a way of identifying with the church culture we belong to. But as I look back now, this is not the kind of spirituality that has deep value to me.

It is not that knowledge is unimportant, or that we do not need someone to give us some basic knowledge for the road, but despite all this, spirituality (in my experience) is only discovered in real places, encountering real people and asking questions of the experiences along the way.

I also think that the reductionism of faith down to basic facts is dangerous. It suggests that there is ONE understanding that we should all be conforming to- and increasingly I have found faith to be a glorious question mark, within which there are routes for many lines of enquiry.

Those of you that preach will right now want to tell me that there are other ways to skin the cat- and I would agree with you. Preaching can open up issues, not close them down. Preaching can soar like poetry in the ears of the listener. This kind of preaching I want to hear.

Perhaps preaching is reshaping too- think of all those wonderful TED talks that go viral on t’internet. Like this one;

So, what of our short discussion about teaching in small missional groups? How do we ‘teach’ one another in this kind of context?

The very idea initially took me by surprise. Why would I want to ‘teach’ my fellow community members anything? Does this not assume that I am some kind of God-expert who needs to sprinkle my knowledge on my disciples? Are we not learning together constantly just by living deliberately shared lives of faith? Ideas enter constantly into conversation through books we have read, things we have encountered through the internet etc.

Then I thought of our young people- who perhaps do need to learn some things in order to go through their own process of deconstruction/construction. Is it enough for them to learn in this kind of community chaotic way? Perhaps it is time to think again, if not about teaching, then certainly how we facilitate discussions around particular questions.

It is a work in progress- like most of my theological positions, but some principles seem important to me;

  • Open spaces. Learning requires safe spaces in which to adventure. We have to be free to get it wrong.
  • The honest question is worth a million cheap answers.
  • Community is teaching. Teaching is community.
  • We learn in different ways- listening, watching, reading, experiencing, discussing.
  • Everyone has something to teach.