Church as a learning community – some thoughts…

This blog is adapted from an article a great friend and colleague, Carol Walker, and I wrote sometime ago. Please do add your thoughts, comments and suggestions.

Carol and I were wondering what could help churches become more ‘movement’ than ‘monument’? Most people would say “a visionary leader”. Perhaps. However, where this has happened, we’ve noticed that this tended to perpetuate the ‘one man’ ministry model.

As our conversation progressed, we began to imagine that applying the concept of the ‘church as a learning community’ might lead to such a transformation.

For this idea to work, we felt that there was a need to re-frame the traditional understanding of ‘learning’ from a discrete activity to something that goes on all the time, involving everyone. In other words, “learning as a way of being”. This refers to the whole person – to something that goes on constantly and that extends to all aspects of a person’s life – it involves all our levels of awareness, including our unconscious minds.

People make sense of social realities through a process of co-construction, in specific spaces at specific times. We gain words and explanations from one another, and then reject or hone these in the light of fresh encounters and experiences. In this way knowledge is co-created and built on by ‘learners’ as we shape and build mental frameworks to make sense of our contexts and challenges. (Inter)connecting conversations, enquiry and listening to one another respectfully is thus the essence of a learning. In this sense, learning is inherently communal – it emerges out of a process of interaction.

In our view:

  • Knowledge that brings about lived activity is not something that can simply be transferred in a linear way (eg, from teacher to student or preacher to congregation) but rather it is something that people work interdependently to develop. This relational process fosters active learning as opposed to passive learning, collaboration over competition and community over individualism.
  • Knowledge generation, acquisition, and sharing is a relational (social) activity that involves communal ‘sense and meaning’ making.
  • Learning involves deep listening… of being open beyond one’s pre-conceptions and historical ways of making sense. There are two aspects to enquiry, the asking of questions and the listening. There is an art to asking questions. However, ‘how’ we listen is equally important.
  • Healthy and productive relationships comes from “valuing listening” not “adversarial listening”. We noticed that listening can very often be adversarial! We listen in order to debate, so we look out for what we don’t like, for weaknesses, to identify problems. A valuing approach to listening, on the other hand, looks out for what makes positive contributions. How is the offering helpful, creative, and significant? In this way the positive contribution can be woven into the final decisions; what is problematic can be left behind. In doing so, participants will feel heard and valued.
  • The immense diversity of the world reminds us that Christian mission is always about learning!

 ‘The Ephesian Moment’ is a phrase used by Andrew Walls to describe the social coming together of people of two cultures (Jewish and Hellenistic believers) into Christianity in the first century, This led to a distinctive new Christian lifestyle that corresponded with their ethnic and cultural differences. For Walls, the Ephesian moment has come again.

“Developments over several centuries, reaching a climax in the twentieth, mean that we no longer have two, but innumerable, major cultures in the church. Like the old Jerusalem Christians, Western Christians had long grown used to the idea that they were guardians of a ‘standard’ Christianity; also like them, they find themselves in the presence of new expressions of Christianity and new Christian lifestyles that have developed or are developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to display Christ under the conditions of African, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Latin American life. And most of the world’s Christians are now Africans, Asians or Latin Americans.”

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