Of all the menial tasks of motherhood, spoon-feeding was one I really didn’t enjoy. Oh, it was fun at first – exciting to introduce my little ones to new flavours for the first time, a thrill to achieve the milestone of weaning. But the novelty soon wore off, and I would have to sit there for what seemed like forever (I’m a very impatient person), waiting for my child to swallow one mouthful before I could spoon in the next. The stage I really enjoyed was when they started to feed themselves. Sure, there was mess everywhere, and the highchair needed to be hosed down sometimes afterwards, but at last it felt like progress – the beginning of my child being able to feed himself for the rest of his life.
Churches today come in all shapes and sizes, with differing styles and a wide range of music genres, but one thing is consistent across most of them – the central “teaching” session consists of one person standing at the front and talking at a passive audience. Like a caring mother preparing her child’s food (in my case, it often consisted of grabbing a packet of baby food from the pantry – shhhh), the pastor has spent the week preparing the “meal” for the congregation, “digesting” the Scriptures, and organising the message into an attractively presented platter of palatable thoughts and ideas, ready to “spoon-feed” the listeners. The content is often superb, the message is often clearly articulated – but God’s people are not given an option to get their hands messy, to be involved in the learning process, to feed themselves.
God designed us to learn. Our brains are continuously integrating new information and creating new connections as we experience the world around us. However, passive listening is not a particularly effective way to learn. Did you know the average adult is only able to listen consistently for around 10-15 minutes at a time? After about 10 minutes, even the most dedicated listener will zone in and out if they are not allowed to participate in any way. We learn best when we are actively involved, when we are able to interact and participate. People have a far greater sense of pleasure and ownership in concepts and ideas they have discovered for themselves than those they are fed by others. When I went to school, we sat in rows while the teacher talked at us, telling us what to think – and many schools (and churches) are much the same today. Educators are now exploring active and collaborative approaches to learning such as the flipped classroom, peer instruction, learning by teaching, turn-and-talk, learning communities, and open space technology – techniques which encourage sustained engagement, deeper learning, greater collaboration, better thinking skills, and a stronger sense of ownership of new learning.
What if we moved on from the monologue-sermon model and created a learning environment where everyone could be involved? What if we let God’s people get their hands directly on God’s Word, rather than listening to one person’s interpretation of it? What if we structured active learning techniques into our regular meetings, allowing people to contribute, participate and take responsibility for their own spiritual learning and growth? We would see a remarkable shift in the quality of our communities. We would see people empowered to discover how to learn and how to teach others, rather than passively consuming a “service” provided by a “professional”. And we would give God’s people a voice, and see them start to use it in the world outside of the church walls.
Newborn babies need to be fed by their parents – but once they start to feed themselves, they don’t look back. God’s people don’t need to be spoonfed, week after week after week. They are capable of exploring God’s Word directly, of sharing their stories and experiences with each other, of finding their voice and teaching others what they are learning about God. The Holy Spirit can speak to and speak through the very least of God’s people – and does, when we take the time to listen.
In the next two posts I will outline two hands-on learning approaches to use in church, to get people involved and thinking, and directly accessing God’s story. If we let God’s people start to feed themselves, it will be messy sometimes, I guarantee it. But they will learn, and grow, and find a voice to share what they have learned with a world hungry for God.
The following posts in the series are now up;
- Introduction: Changing the way we meet, the way we learn and the way we lead.
- Part 1: Welcome to a new era.
- Part 2: Participation changes everything.
- Part 3: Rethinking the seating arrangement.
- Part 4: Connecting through story.
- Part 5: Food and fellowship.
- Part 6: From spoon-feeding to hands-on learning.
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