Ray Hollenbach blogs regularly at Students of Jesus, and is the author of “The Impossible Mentor: Finding Courage to Follow Jesus“, as well as writing for a wide range of Christian publications. He spent 15 years preaching from the front, but has recently begun looking for a way for God’s people to go deeper with Christ – and with each other. His search led him to start up DEEPER Seminars this year (here’s a great testimony from a pastor who took part in one). I asked Ray to share what goes on in these seminars – here is his response;
Leonard Sweet likes to call it the “Big Jug” theory of learning: when one source (the expert) has all the knowledge in a big jug and the rest of us (the students) gather around to passively receive. “The little jug’s job is to catch all the droppings from the big jug,” Sweet explains. I know there is a place for this kind of learning, but I’ve come to the growing realization that such a setting has very little to do with discipleship.
Each year thousands of people (tens of thousands, really) descend upon large cities to attend Christianity’s “big shows,” faith conferences—the parachurch equivalent of mega-churches. On stage is the big jug and the little jugs in the stadium seats soak up the droppings. I’m grateful for these gatherings and the excitement they generate. I also see how much is spilled and wasted when the big jug distributes the water of life apart from listening and relationship.
As a pastor of 15 years experience, I have great respect for the pulpit and the role of preaching, yet in the years after I stepped away from weekly preaching, I began to realize that preaching does not make disciples, people do. Preaching can (and does) lead people to Jesus. It sows hope like seeds on a hillside and dares people to believe the impossibly good news of God’s Kingdom. During those 15 years I also came to understand the limits of preaching—even on a Sunday morning.
At the beginning of 2014 I began visiting other churches with a subversive agenda: to engage in conversations about discipleship, rather than to lecture folks on what to do. This was the birth of DEEPER Seminars, an interactive small-group setting that leads to discovery of our deepest assumptions about what it means to follow Jesus. As the facilitator of these conversations, I’ve received more than I’ve given. Here are three lessons I’ve personally learned:
Each person’s history holds the presence of God. Through good decisions or bad, our lives confirm that Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us. I’ve heard story after story of how God has used our past as the foundation for spiritual understanding, and how he infuses every life experience with the wisdom necessary for our good and our growth. If I were the only person talking, these stories would never come to light. The church needs to hear these stories.
God’s grace is about more than forgiveness: it’s about growth. I’ve listened to men and women tell stories of how the Spirit of God whispered to them in their failures and taught them lessons that go way beyond book learning or doctrine. In the messy everyday situations of life, the Spirit brings insight and revelation, and this, too, is the proper operation of his grace. A preaching-only method of communication tends to reduce the vast topic of grace to acronyms and slogans. I’ve watched as people gathered together for conversation light up and say, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one . . .“
Sometimes we box Jesus into the role of “Savior.” Together, as we read the scripture in intimate settings and look closely at the life of Jesus, we discover the Lord’s longing for us to receive him as “Example” as well as “Savior.” This is good news with a deep challenge: instead of merely appreciating his actions, we are called to imitate them. I’ve discovered there’s no greater transition required of us today, and lectures can never accomplish this transformation.
I’ve found that the deepest transformations come in living room sessions, church basements, and in the circle of sharing the word of God with one another. This discovery has given me the passion to schedule DEEPER Seminars in the most unlikely places, and to realize that in God’s kingdom even the teachers have much to learn.
Do you see any value in a “seminar in a circle”? How would this compare with the Christian conferences and seminars you’ve attended over the years?