At the gym at 5:20 this morning, the parking lot was unusually full and the fitness classes were packed. Happens every January. Things will thin out in another week or two, once the buzz of a new resolution fades and the realities of pain set in. I have been thinking about my own list of 2017 goals in areas ranging from writing (complete 30 chapters in my next book), fitness (workouts that include stretching), reading (50 books in 2017), family (one date night a week), and teaching (getting students more engaged).
It’s this last resolution that has me thinking. Much of this has been provoked by a book I decided to work through between Christmas and New Years. Salman Khan, in his book The One World School House, challenges those of us who teach to reimagine education. Too much of the way we educate is archaic and ineffective. Subjects are disconnected and students are forced to learn at the same pace. Worse, our methods have created a passive environment—the result of earlier practices of another era intent on turning out loyal and tractable citizens.
But Khan got me imagining things beyond the classroom and into the sanctuary. It’s here we have also created a passive audience where congregants are rewarded for their silence and conformity. What if we encouraged those in the pew, as we should in the classroom, to adopt a far more active stance? Imagine a church were the expectations for learning are far higher. People are not expected to simply take things in–but figure things out.
When I was taught preaching in the 70’s, the deductive approach was in vogue. Tell people up front what your main point is, then unpack and defend it, and repeat it once again. It sounded good at the time, but I discovered people would quickly drift off seconds after you stated your thesis. They got the point. Why stay on the journey?
Contemporary preaching encourages a more inductive approach: create tension, raise questions, and leave things unresolved until the end. It is okay to dance on the edge of mystery, exploring ideas that have yet to be discovered. If Khan were writing to preachers, I think he would ask for more. Take people on the same journey of discovery (unless of course you never really discovered anything in your preparation—which would be a signal to please sit down and shut up). Invite them to also figure things out.
Where there is real learning, the activity and the responsibility are mutual. When both teacher and learner engage, there is growth. Kahn likens the experience of learning to a physical workout in a gym. Like muscles, neurons in the brain also have the potential to grow. New synaptic terminals can be developed and nerve cells can be altered. Brains can be expanded, which has the side benefit of burning calories.
My fear is that way too much of my preaching has viewed the activity and responsibility of learning in singular terms. Maybe the diminishing impact of the church, in part, is the result of sanctuaries where there has been little altering of the brain cells; proteins have not synthesized; electrical work is in down time; and calories consumed at the coffee and donut table prior to the services have not diminished in any measureable way by the end of the service.
So how could we create the kind of environment where people leaving a service liken it to walking out of a gym? Maybe it would begin by making it clear to worshippers that they are not an audience. A memo would go out to all architects informing them that theatre seating is forbidden in any future church designs. Worship leaders would prepare their worship to reach those in the back row. Congregants would see themselves as the choir actively sending their praises heavenward, and worship leaders would avoid all temptation to entertain. Be it singing or praying, all of worship would be viewed as a mutual activity and responsibility. Passivity would be subject to potential church discipline.
Finally, pastors would start people at their same beginning point, unpacking truth like peeling an orange (as opposed to simply pouring out the orange juice!). Time would be given for the Spirit to work, and moments would be allowed for pause, silence. Tension would give way to release, and hearts and minds would be stretched and enlightened. But it would not stop with the benediction. What if we created a culture where there were opportunities for post-service discussion? Imagine a setting where people were invited to ask questions, seek clarity, work through possible disagreements, wrestle with application, and ultimately go deeper—much deeper.
Imagine a church that has more the feel of a hive than a morgue. And over time, people come out in awesome shape.