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 This has been replaced by lots of different kinds of learning however- reading, internetting, discussing, visiting other places.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…
That is a really thoughtful post (and not just because you have quoted me- although obviously that goes without saying… 🙂 )- thank you. I am chewing on the same issues, as a paid minister. Sometimes I do think ‘Am I getting in the way’?
I also struggle, living in a rural area, with large- usually evangelical churches, who pull in people from large radii with the effect that local mission is often denuded. Many of these commute to these places as ‘the teaching is good’. To which I often think ‘It can’t be that good; you seem to have no idea about how to mission where you live’.