At a recent church camp I showed a clip of one of my favourite scenes from one of my favourite movies, Matrix (1999). It’s the scene where Neo, the hero, has knowledge of kung fu downloaded into his brain. When the download was completed, he declares that he knows kung fu and, in a sense, he does. He has head knowledge of the various fighting arts. Then Neo’s mentor, Morpheus, tells him to show him that he really knows kung fu.

They then spar in a dojo but what Neo and, often, we the viewers forget is that this duel happens in the mind. It is not a physical fight. Neo, cocky and confident in his knowledge of kung fu, starts the fight. But he loses again and again. After another of his losses, when he is flat on the floor, Morpheus asks him a question: “How did I beat you?” Humbled now, Neo ponders the answer to Morpheus’ question and begins to understand how he is to fight in the digital plane. He eventually beats Morpheus. They then have this exchange:

I know what you’re trying to do —

I’m trying to free your mind, Neo
but all I can do is show you the door.
You’re the one that has to step through.

Morpheus cannot live Neo’s life for him. But he can show him the way. This episode illustrates some key truths of in-depth learning.

1. It begins with head knowledge, but head knowledge is insufficient.

2. You have to actually try to put your knowledge into practice to discover what works and what doesn’t, and that sometimes entails painful failure.

3.  Then you reflect on your experience and have greater clarity of your knowledge and better integration of that knowledge into your life.

4. Having a mentor to guide you in your reflection is a major plus in the process of reflection.

This way of knowing is key in things like dentistry. (I was a dentist in a previous life.) You may have all the head knowledge on how to conduct a dental procedure but it is in actually carrying out that procedure a number of times that you actually get to “know” how to do it. Each time you do it, you reflect on what happened and how you can do it better. The process is even more effective with the help of a lecturer or senior dentist guiding the reflection.

This is the basic thesis of Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap in their book Deep Smarts (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2005).

The single most important theme of this book is that people learn — create and
recreate knowledge — through experience. (19)

They go on to explain that we need to reflect on our experience and that this reflection is best done with the help of a coach.

. . . learning, particularly learning by doing, can be much more effective and
efficient if an expert knowledge coach is guiding the process . . . (233)

Leonard and Swap write from the context of business but I think their insights are applicable to all sorts of human learning.

Jesus seems to teach in this way too. In Luke 10:1–20, Jesus sends 72 disciples out on a mission trip. He doesn’t go with them. When they return, Jesus helps them process what happened and what are the real lessons of their mission experience (Luke 10:17–20); learning through reflected experience with the help of a coach.

So much of the teaching that goes on in our churches and our schools is lecture based. Leonard and Swap do not knock lectures. They understand that lectures help to provide knowledge frameworks. But for in-depth learning to take place it has to be reflected experience with the help of a coach.

I enjoy preaching and teaching. I think it is one of my strengths and I do a lot of it. But Bernice and I are also committed to mentoring because we believe that this is critical if we are aiming at transformation and not just information.

Leonard and Swap confirm this but I have long known this to be true. As I reflect on my ministry experience I realise that the most significant impact I have made in people’s lives is when I have walked with key individuals over a period of time, helping them reflect on their lives from the context of Scripture.

This way of teaching cannot be rushed and it is not mass production. I think that is why it doesn’t happen more often. We live in an age where we are obsessed with reaching as many people as soon as possible. But I don’t think we can do better than Jesus. He focused on a few over three years, but the disciples He produced changed the world.