Few topics incite discussion as much as effective discipleship. Most of the time, the debate centers around the content of effective discipleship; what is it a Christian should be able to do, or know, or be? Other times the discussion revolves around the method of discipleship, such as whether it should be a classroom experience or carry more of a mentoring dynamic.
In a recent address at The New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference, former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers offered a new dynamic to the conversation.
Namely, how a changing world is changing learning.
His premise was that despite a rapidly changing world, education has changed very little:
“Students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.”
But, wonders Summers, suppose the system was altered to reflect “the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn?”
Here’s some of what Summers suggests would become manifest:
1. Education would be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.
2. Tasks would be carried out with far more collaboration.
3. New technologies would profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed.
4. Learning would become less passive, and more active.
5. The educational experience would become more international.
All five of these points are worth digesting in light of the task of discipleship, for you cannot help but hear the ring of truth in each of them:
*There is little collaboration in the formation of disciples beyond mentoring and small groups, and much of that is not intentional, but serendipitous.
*Even something as rudimentary as electronic readers, which allow for constant revision along with the use of audio and visual effects, are seldom used in church’s discipleship efforts.
*Churches rarely allow for a variety of learning experiences when it comes to discipleship, but rather go for a programmatic design, which most of the time is passive in nature. Seldom do we ask anyone to actually use the knowledge they are acquiring as part of the discipleship process.
*The church is both local and universal, and increasingly centered not in the West, but in the global South. The way faith is often Americanized is not simply insular, but potentially heterodox, yet internationalizing our discipleship is hardly considered.
But it’s the first of Summers’ points that may be the most challenging.
Education would be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.
There has been a knowledge explosion with an aftershock of access. Summers suggests that in a day when the entire Library of Congress will soon be accessible on a mobile device with search procedures, factual mastery will become less and less important.
But this means there will be an ever-widening chasm between wisdom and information. Quentin Schultze writes that the torrent of information now at our disposal is often little more than “endless volleys of nonsense, folly and rumor masquerading as knowledge, wisdom, and even truth.”
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, recently noted that “Google has changed the relationship of people to information. For the last 300 or 400 years, information has been collected on college, university and seminary campuses … You went to the collected information to learn. Today the information is available anywhere you want, just Google it."
This creates a new challenge for those engaged in Christian discipleship. Rather than primarily dispensing information, we must spend an increasing amount of time helping people evaluate information. It is as if we’ve dropped a library card onto the world, but removed the classroom that gives us the literacy to read its contents, much less the education needed to interpret its contents.
Yet there is also a danger if the church was ever tempted to form discipleship wholly along technological lines of learning.
Namely the danger of dependence.
In an article on what would happen if solar storms knocked out the internet, the Los Angeles Times techblog team mused that “remembering who directed a movie would be a major project.” Their point is that we have become so accustomed to instant access to information through Wikipedia, IMDB and Google that a world without the Internet would leave us unable to answer the most basic of questions.
Yet with discipleship, knowledge is not simply that which is stored until needed, but often that which is practiced until habit. As Dallas Willard has written throughout his works, you do the things Jesus did in order to live the life Jesus lived.
The difference between spiritual formation and formal education is a profound one. The goal of Christian discipleship is never mere knowledge, but always becoming formed in Christ. So while we can look up a verse with ease, that’s no substitute for the importance of hiding it away in our hearts.
But let’s return to Summers’ main point.
How we learn has changed, which means how we disciple – at least in part – must also change.
In other words, whether you like it or not, they’re going to google “God.”
We need to teach them how.
James Emery White
Lawrence H. Summers, What You (Really) Need to Know, The New York Times, January 20, 2012. Read online.
“What if solar storms knocked out the Internet?,” The Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2012. Read online.
Quentin J. Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).
On Chuck Kelley’s comments, see “Theological ed. is “being redefined,” Gary D. Myers, Baptist Press. Read online.
The best introduction to the work of Dallas Willard in this area is The Spirit of the Disciplines.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.