14266274_sLater in the year I will be running a one day seminar on preaching for a church I am working with. I look forward to running these seminars for lay preachers. I believe preaching should not be confined to the clergy guild. Mature church members who are gifted in this area should be given the opportunity to share from the Word. Indeed lay preachers are sometimes more effective because they struggle to live out their faith in the world. Their reading of Scripture and their sermons are not just the product of the study.

But I was reminded recently that there is just so much you can do with a teaching seminar. There is no way that my seminar participants can absorb insights gleaned from more than three decades of preaching, (yes I started preaching in 1973) in a one day seminar.

In the article “Training Daze” in the October 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review (144), Don Moyer writes;

People learn from experience. The point of training is to compress a lot of experience into a short time to make students more productive more quickly. So why does so much training fail to improve performance? Motivation is part of  the problem, but there is a second, more thornier issue. In “Deep Smarts” (HBR September 2004), Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap focus on the expertise that longtime employees acquire by dealing with complex situations over many years. As the article says, “your best employees’ deepest knowledge can’t be transferred onto a series of PowerPoint slides or downloaded into a data repository. It has to be passed on in person — slowly, patiently, systematically.”

I can’t help but think of that scene in the first Matrix movie, where Neo learned Kung Fu by having the knowledge of Kung Fu directly downloaded into his brain. (“I know Kung Fu.”) We may wish we could transfer knowledge and skills in this way. (Not sure about wisdom though.) Just imagine the efficiency and cost savings. But all Kung Fu exponents know that mastering a martial art takes years of intentional practice and reflection. We quickly dismiss the “downloading” learning methodology in the Matrix as fantasy, which it is. Yet church, companies and governments alike, send their people to course after course, seminar after seminar, hoping that years of experience can be downloaded in a relatively short time in a class room context. Maybe that is fantasy too.

How then can we pass on the deepest lessons of life and work? Moyer:

What will work, then? Let students tackle real-world problems or convincing simulations, and coach them beforehand, throughout, and afterward to squeeze out the relevant insights. Leonard and Swap acknowledge that this approach takes time — and money. But in situations where knowledge is vital, they ask, “How can companies afford not to invest in it?”

I am reminded of how Jesus discipled the seventy-two in Luke 10:1-24.

  • He teaches them as to what to do and what they can expect on their mission trip. (v. 2-16)
  • He sends them out to actually do missions. (v.1)
  • When the disciples return they report on what they had experienced. (v.17)
  • He helps them interpret their experiences. (v. 18-20)
  • He gives them further instruction and encouragement. (v. 21-24)

It would seem then that a better way of learning is to have a mentor or coach who walks with you, who teaches you, and who helps you to learn by guiding you to reflect on the things you go through. The world of business is awakening to the critical role of mentoring in training and nurturing people. In his book, Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi writes:

No process in history has done more to facilitate the exchange of information, skills, wisdom, and contacts than mentoring. Young men and women learned their trade by studying as apprentices under their respective craftsman. Young artists developed their individual style only after years working under elder masters. New priests apprenticed for a decade or more with older priests to become wise religious men themselves. When finally these men and women embarked on their own, they had the knowledge and the connections to succeed in their chosen field.” (New York: Doubleday, 2005, 274)

Bernice and I run a mentoring group for young graduates, aimed at helping them make a good transition from academic life to working life. We follow a text but the main activity of the group is the opportunity for the group members to debrief, to share concrete experiences they have gone through since the previous meeting. Guided by Bernice and myself, the group seeks to interpret their life experiences biblically and to learn from their reflection.

And my seminar on preaching is always followed by a lab where the participants actually preach and get feedback on their preaching. I also encourage the preachers to form themselves into accountability groups that provide a relational context for feedback, reflection and encouragement long after the seminar is over.

I have nothing against classroom teaching. It is a great vehicle for instruction and inspiration. But I have long learned that the most profound and long-lasting change comes when we walk with people and help them to learn both from texts and from life. In this there are no short cuts.