By Wes Sebree
Not even an extremely gifted communicator can rival experience as a teacher.
My good friend Mike would add, “Truth is discovered, not downloaded.” In other words, truth must be experienced to take root.
If these statements are accurate—and they are—we need to consider whether we want to proclaim the truth or whether we want to equip people to live faithfully. The first can be accomplished without doing the second.
Additionally, equating information transfer with spiritual growth robs Christ’s body of experiencing God’s truth and love in tangible ways. This results in a subtle brand of gnosticism where knowledge is preeminent, and it negates both the Holy Spirit and practical faith.
Why the Church Hasn’t Embraced Experiential Learning
The academy has begun to embrace experiential learning, but the church has remained hesitant. Ishwar Puri, dean of engineering at McMaster University, wrote on The Conversation website (www.theconversation.com),
In class, this method of learning means replacing chalk-and-talk pedagogy of the past with inquiry, problem-based and project-based learning, sometimes using the tools of what we call a maker space—an open, studio-like creative workshop. These methods recognize that lectures on complex, abstract subjects are difficult to comprehend, and that hands-on, minds-on learning by experience not only makes it easier to absorb complex material, it also makes it easier to remember.
Why does the church hesitate to embrace experiential learning?
First, knowledge provides power to the one wielding it. People listen to and obey the one who has control over information. Truth-bearers are admired by the truth-seekers, particularly in a celebrity-oriented culture. Sadly, it looks more like codependency than servant leadership.
Second, we are looking for the magic pill. There are spiritual issues that need to be addressed in our lives, so we search for knowledge that will transform us in a supernatural way without the pain and effort intrinsic to genuine growth.
Many years ago, while I was speaking to a class of seminarians about our church’s discipleship principles and practices, a few students balked at what they perceived as a soft focus on intellectual pursuit of biblical truth. They were convinced that knowledge of the deep truths of Scripture was the path to spiritual growth.
After a barrage of questions about the importance of deep understanding of the biblical text, I said, “Current research tells us that 70 percent of Christian men are actively using pornography. That means 7 in 10 of you have looked at pornography this week. What biblical truth that you have yet to learn will change that behavior?” The point is, they could already articulate why pornography was damaging, unhealthy, and sinful. They hadn’t found the magic pill to resist its allure because such a thing does not exist. The students did not need deeper or more magical truth, they needed environments in which to practice the implications of truth.
Third, few among us like to fail. A trial-and-error approach is not normal in the church. Is that an indication we do not trust in the love and grace of our Father? Failure is a vital key to learning, after all. If we avoid putting God’s truth into action, we avoid risk and failure. We fantasize about the day when we will know enough to perfectly obey, all the while postponing obedience. When God calls us to something new, we rarely get it right the first time. It takes repetition to learn, and we must trust in God’s grace when we fail.
Jesus’ Lab Environment—and Ours
Jesus created a virtual mobile lab that allowed disciples to observe, test, and practice the principles he shared with them. Further, Jesus lived inside the lab as an example of how knowledge is turned into observable behaviors. James, Jesus’ brother, later wrote,
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:22-25, emphasis mine).
Jesus advised that there needs to be a space where experience engages God’s truth.
The finest orator’s words are empty if there are no observable practices of the principles he or she eloquently proclaims. This means leaders must lead from the front by engaging truth in tangible and practical steps of obedience. How many church staff members practice biblical generosity with their finances? How many practice servanthood when they are not being paid to do so? How many church staff members, elders, or leaders live in authentic spiritual community?
It boils down to this: Do we want people to follow Jesus? Following Jesus is learned behavior based in the timeless truths of our Father’s love and action. We should create a “lab environment” so believers engage the truth, practice it, and even experience failure. What if this environment were a family-like space where people experience the practical application of truth through expressions of grace, forgiveness, faithfulness, and love? What if we equipped those whom we lead to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers?
On Sunday we hear of God’s love and are encouraged to go and love others. Where will we try it and test it? Where will we fail at loving another and be shown grace and be given the challenge to try again? Without practice, we will return week after week to store away great truths in a dusty file cabinet deep in our intellectual vault. If we do not practice it, we do not believe it. Our churches must have a practice field where disciples of Jesus learn to follow him.
Making Groups into Places to Apply, Practice, and Learn
Many churches have established environments but do not use them for application, practice, and learning. Consider that a small group (or whatever term you use) has the highest potential for faith development of anything the church does. The fact that the early church gathered in homes as extended families is an indicator of how people best learn to follow Jesus. We must stop treating groups as another place to pour truth into caged spiritual geese as they are prepared to become foie gras.
Groups should be a strategic partner with preaching, worship, and outreach. A healthy group that functions like an extended family will apply God’s Word and be the practical and critical learning environment that many churches are missing. The transformation that happens within the group will, in fact, enhance worship participation, impact outreach, and more effectively fulfill the Great Commission.
We must facilitate learning spaces to fulfill the mission of equipping “his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature” (Ephesians 4:12, 13a). As followers of Jesus, we must set aside our egos and be the first ones in those spaces so we can model for others how to more fully understand our Father’s will through action and practice.
Wes Sebree serves as lead discipleship pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a graduate of Cincinnati Bible Seminary and has served as a church planter, business consultant, teaching pastor, and college instructor over the past 20 years.