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The Place of Learning in a Flourishing Congregation

As our research team began to survey the literature on flourishing congregations, one of the features that especially stood out for me centred on a vibrant spiritual life. A vibrant spiritual life is connected to discipleship. What does it mean to be a disciple? The Greek word for disciple is mathetes which means a learner. To be a disciple is to be a learner.

Flourishing congregations seems to have a learning and teaching environment that fosters spiritual growth. However, when we think about teaching we often times think about preaching. Let me be clear: I do believe strongly in preaching and that it does have a component of teaching; what worries me is that for many church members, it is the only “spiritual food” that they eat and it is the only model of teaching that they have been exposed to.

Recently, I asked my seminary class if they remembered last week’s sermon. About half of them did. I then asked them, did they remember what the pastor spoke about two weeks ago. Only a few hands went up. I then asked them, do you have any recollection of the pastor’s sermon from six weeks ago. No hands went up. My point is this: despite its many limitations vis-à-vis learning, why do we continue to think that the transmission of information week after week is the only effective way of teaching for preachers, Sunday school teachers, or small group leaders? Why do disciples think that this is the only way to learn?

Mike Breen in his book, Building a Discipling Culture, argues for three ways of learning that interplay with one another: 1) Classroom/Lecture passing on of information; 2) Apprenticeship; and 3) Immersion. I agree with Breen and I can think of at least eight other teaching models that could be used in a congregation such as the nurturing, case study, or guided discovery models of teaching that are not exclusively information driven ways of learning for the disciple. I would venture to say that flourishing congregations have multiple ways of teaching and learning. For teachers, preachers, or mentors many of you have thought through the materials and researched the topic, but have you also given careful consideration to the learner in a classroom, small group, or one-on-one setting? For the learner, have you thought about how you best learn and is discipleship happening that best fits your learning style?

Some congregations have begun to take more seriously the different ways that people learn. Fleming and Baume (2006) have proposed four modalities of learning: visual, auditory, read and write, and kinesthetic (VARK). Although the research can be questioned, it does provide a heuristic way of understanding learning in the congregation. Learners use all four modalities for learning but one modality is normally more dominant. Visual learners like to see the words or prefer the use of images and graphic organizers to access and understand new information. Auditory learners best understand new content through listening and speaking in situations such as group discussions or lectures. Read and Write learners also like to see words and take notes and like to read. Kinesthetic learners like to be up and doing and best understand information through tactile representation of information.

So how might you engage different learners in a particular teaching and learning context? For example, if the teaching is on prayer, Visual and Read and Write learners would like written summaries or PowerPoints/Prezi with pictures, diagrams or charts. Auditory learners would much prefer conversations about prayer or providing feedback. Kinesthetic learners do not want to be given a lecture or a sermon about prayer, they want to get up and pray.

How does a congregation tackle the diverse learning style in a particular learning situations? There are many ways to to do so but perhaps one way is to consider all four learning styles in a given teaching situation. I know what you are thinking: is this more work? The answer is yes. Will learning go up and increase in the congregation? Most likely.

As we embark on this multi-year flourishing congregations project, I wonder what a vibrant spiritual life in respect to learning may look like. My hunch is that these flourishing churches have multiple paths to teaching and learning. I welcome conversation and your thoughts and feedback on this matter or anything about flourishing congregations.

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