I had lunch with Don Lewis on Monday. He is the Church History Professor at Regent College (Vancouver). He was making a lightning visit to Singapore for a friend’s daughter’s wedding. I first met Don in 1981 when I began my studies in Regent College. It was also the year Don started teaching in Regent. I remember him working hard to make church history come alive. I remember him encouraging a beginning student’s first attempts in grappling with the issues of church history. He gave me an A for my first paper. (I wrote on the canon of the Bible.) More than that he reached out in friendship. He became involved in my life. We have been good friends ever since.
I could write the same of most of my Regent profs. They were my teachers. They became friends. This has reinforced what I have believed for a long time — that education must be relational. In a recent article, Jeff Greenman, present President of Regent College writes:
. . . learners are people whose goal is to be complete or mature persons in Christ, equipped for participation in Jesus’ Kingdom mission. It turns out that what is needed for this sort of transformation is faculty members who are mature persons in Christ who share their lives with learners. This is why what is learned from an effective teacher is as much caught as it is taught. According to Gary Parrett and Steve Kang, “Learners tend to retain what they see in our lives far more than what they hear from our lips.” They add: “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text-people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they never forget.” This is a challenging statement for anyone who seeks to teach toward holistic, transformative learning . . . (“Head, Heart and Hands”. In Serving God’s Community, eds. Susan S. Phillips & Soo-Inn Tan [Singapore: Graceworks, 2014], 107.)
I have been the beneficiary of this approach to teaching. Hence I can call most if not all my seminary professors, friends. I have also tried to pass this forward, doing my best to befriend the students I have been privileged to teach.
Such an approach to teaching demands a lot of time. You can’t do a “one size fits all” in relationships. It also makes the teacher very vulnerable. If a student gets close to a teacher, he or she will get to know the teacher’s weaknesses as well. My response to this is that the teacher also models God’s grace, another example of treasure in earthen vessels.
Such an approach to education, especially theological education, imitates what Jesus did. In John 15:1–17, Jesus called his disciples friends (v. 14) and He shared His life with them. Indeed, He loved them (v. 9). He taught them in the context of this loving friendship ((v. 15) and He gave His life as a model for how they ought to live (v. 12). Therefore the approach that Regent and other schools like her try to use, the approach articulated by Jeff Greenman, is based solidly on Jesus’s teaching and example.
We live in a day and age when information technology gives us many new and innovative ways to teach. Online learning allows us to reach folks that we can’t otherwise reach. We remember that a lot of the New Testament consists of letters written to folks who were far away from the writer. Clearly we need to embrace anything that will help us connect with people, especially those who otherwise cannot receive any teaching at all.
But the Bible is also clear that there are some dimensions of communication that can only happen face to face (2 John 12). And Christian education must be relational. Maybe we need to keep asking ourselves what we are trying to do. Are we just trying to pass on information? Or do we want to see lives transformed?
It was good to see Don again. A large part of his ministry now includes encouraging younger ministers and other Christian leaders. It was good to be encouraged by my friend again.