In church learning and discipleship circles, there’s a lot of discussion at present about the limitations of the ‘course’ as a method of learning. Short courses or study series’ or this or that provide a good way into a particular topic or a good way of focusing reflection upon it. However, I’m also aware of their limitations. If you have, say, a six week course on a particular subject, using a standard format of prayer, study and discussion, and you have eight people in the group and two hours per week to do it all in, how deep can group members really go in exploring what the topic means for them? There is a strong danger of only generating ‘surface’ learning. Christian educationalist John Hull has frequently proposed a different, more experiential model, in which the key thrust of a course or series is immersion in a structured experience (e.g., engaging in an unfamiliar activity or context) and only thereafter reflecting upon it. This offers some scope for taking learners past that difficult stage where much learning stops: that of finishing the course and struggling to know how to put it into practice. From a different perspective I’m challenged by a story of a church in another country with little access to Bibles or theological education, in which the congregation was instructed on precisely one verse per month. Members had to take that verse away, apply it to their lives and report back on the differences they experienced as a result of it. There is a danger here in that individual verses taken out of context can offer a distorted view of discipleship; however, I’m challenged by the seriousness of commitment to ‘deep learning’; of extracting the maximum from a very small amount of material. As someone once said of the UK churches, it’s not that we don’t know enough about our faith, but that we fail to put enough of it into practice.
One observation I’ve made from being involved in running several different consultations on different subjects relating to discipleship over the past few years is that when you ask: ‘what would enable us to do this [whatever it is] better’, four areas of response often re-emerge.
1. the importance of creating spaces – if you think something is important, somewhere along the line, either individually or collectively, you have to give time and space to address it
2. the importance of changing the culture, systems and processes of your organisation, to prioritise and embed into the structures that thing which you are trying to do better. In other words, to integrate the vision and reality of your community or organisation
3. the importance of finding, modelling and celebrating examples of prophetic action. Care should be taken not to make people feel guilty for what they are not doing; but at its best, a model or a good story can provide inspiration for further action
4. the importance of rooting and expressing the new thing you want to do better in prayer and worship. Worship is and should be so central to what we do as Church, and whatever we think is important needs to be brought to God in worship. More prosaically, it’s clear that much incidental learning occurs through collective prayer and worship, and when we gather to sing and pray this gives clues to Christian discipleship. The question is what sorts of clues are being given.
I’m now getting to the stage where I’m pretty sure that each of these elements is important. In some ways, each of these four elements has a parallel in organisational studies – the need to give time, space and attention to what matters, the need to mark, model and celebrate good practice, the need to align values and systems. But there is also a sense in which looking beyond ‘the course’ and seeking to create a community which learns both intentionally and incidentally, throughout a whole range of activities and intelligences is much more faithful to what whole-life Christian discipleship is about.
I’m not sure if any of this is original thinking – there may well be books on church development which already explore these characteristics, and if there are I’d be interested to know about them. However, if any of this does happen to be original, please acknowledge that you read it here first!