Thursday, 21 May 2015

The church is the only place we teach by a speech

The title is a tweet I saw recently, and it struck a chord. The church is pretty well the only place where we consider a sermon - a speech - to be a means of communicating information.

Now whenever I raise this, the response comes back that "sermons aren't primarily about teaching, they are exhortation, encouragement etc." I sort of get this, at least in places that do have other means of teaching, of learning. But I still think that the pedagogy of the church is way behind anywhere else. There is nowhere else where the core teaching is done in this way.

I do understand that some universities still work of a lecture approach, but the majority of the teaching is on the back of this, writing essays, attending seminars, using the lecture material as one piece of insight into the topic, acknowledging that the main learning will be through the engagement with this material. And I know that for many, home groups provide the "seminar"-like environment, so for those who hear the sermon and go to a home group, and where the home group is genuinely engaging with the material in a more in-depth way, this might work. However, most home-group leaders are not experts enough to really help people take the material as real learning. What is more, they also have pastoral requirements, so the teaching aspect may get sidelined.

The other place that there are "speeches" given as information is conferences. I am not talking about Christian conferences, some of which naturally follow the church model, I am talking about professional conferences. In most cases, the learning material is partly provided in the talks - and they are always worth going to if the subject is of interest - but this is supported by notes and papers so that the real value of learning from these events can be drawn out and used in the weeks afterwards. It is usually only the "keynote" speech which is an exhortation, introduction or encouragement, which people are less expected to remember as such, but to be encouraged by to take what else they learn and use it.

So is this the purpose of sermons? Without the rest of the detail, the keynote is hot-air. It may be enthusing, especially if the speaker is a well-known personality within the field, but it is unlikely to be the information from this that people take home with them.

I know from my experience that if I am to learn something - a new programming language or methodology for example, something I have had to do a few times in my career - I need to have two things. Firstly, some starting information to get me up and running with the new idea, which is often a course or self-teaching package. Then I need to use it, explore it, work out how it actually works and what I can actually do. It is this latter phase where I can make the real difference.

I know that is schools and colleges, they try to do something similar -introducing ideas and then working with them in a range of ways, so that everyone can engage with them, everyone can find their own way of understanding the concept. We all learn in different ways, so I am not suggesting the my approach is the "right" one: I am trying to say that people don't tend to learn from talks. Most training is done by introduction, exploration with slides, and then experimentation by the student.

I do recall, interestingly, when I first went to university and had my first lectures, that I thought they were a superb way of teaching, because for me, I could learn well from them. What I can now see with hindsight is that this was only the case because a lot of the basic information I already knew. In that situation, it worked really well to formalise it, organise it, and give me a framework that I needed to understand it better. As I progressed, it worked less well.

I am a great believer in sermons. However, I think they need to be something different from the typical talk. This is difficult in the position I was in when I was told what my vicar thought a sermon should be. But a sermon should be a teaching opportunity. In my view, it should be an opportunity to explore where people are, what issues are concerning them. It should be a chance for everyone to work out for themselves, with help, the implications of world events/local events/personal events. I believe that the Christian community should seek these opportunities to find a spiritual insight and perspective on the issues that we face. For me, that is what a sermon should be - a genuine learning experience for everyone, in different ways.

But I really struggle to know what the real purpose of a more traditional sermon is, a talk that is without a pedagogic environment. Most sermons are forgotten about within hours or days - so what is the point? We should scrap them, and replace them with something else that actually does something useful, something valid that people will learn from, grow from.

Unless, dare I say it, there is a conspiracy to not help people learn, because if they learn, they might think, and if they think, they may disagree. If that was the worry, then sermons are the ideal mechanism.

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