Learning at the Speed of Light
Did you ever play that game as a child where you stand on a low wall and try to make your opponent lose his or her balance? Sometimes she would push you on the shoulder and you’d go flailing about, arms swinging wildly in the air until you regained your balance? The more you played, of course, the better you became at staying on your feet, no matter how tricky your opponents grew to be.
As I think about the church right now—not just our presbytery—it seems like she is trying to regain her balance after being pushed from several different directions at once. Some people might experience this as terribly unnerving, but I see it as God’s way of preparing us for the years and decades ahead. Let me explain why.
Our presbytery’s mission statement begins, “Our mission is to further the Kingdom of God by being a learning community that fosters effective missional congregations.” This statement expresses our commitment to being a “learning people,” in constant learning mode—even of learning how to learn. The age in which we find ourselves simply requires it. Technology and society are changing around us so rapidly that the practices that worked just a few decades ago are simply not effective any more. Therefore, we find ourselves in constant learning mode so we can adapt quickly and become increasingly effective witnesses to Jesus Christ.
If you think about it, learning is such a fundament characteristic of being a disciple. Indeed, the Greek verb “manthano” is at the heart of what we are as disciples, “mathetes.” We are called to be learners, not just with head knowledge, but learners who attach ourselves to a teacher. Embedded in our calling, therefore, is this commitment to being learners attached to Jesus Christ and attached to each other as his learning community.
But let’s face it, there’s a lot to learn. There’s a lot to learn about the radical nature of discipleship. There is a lot to learn about how to connect with people who have an interest in Jesus but have little interest in the church. There’s a lot to learn about reaching children and young families. The sheer size of the challenge alone, even if the issues weren’t complex, would guarantee our learning to be awkward, off-balanced and involve not a little stumbling about. That’s just par for the course, but we, of all presbyteries, have designed ourselves expertly for the journey ahead. Our emphasis on partnerships and informal networks facilitates our learning from each other and learning from the edges. It is the only way to keep up with the fast pace of change, that is, for everyone to be learning from each other all the time.
I have a friend who is a pediatric physical therapist, so she is always analyzing the way people walk; their “gaits,” as she would call them. She will see people walking down the street and mumble, “Right heel lift. I wonder what’s going on with them?”
I have seen her do this on the mission field in Kenya, especially with children. She detects things that I would never notice on my own. To me it looks like just a bunch of children running around in a playground, but to her she can tell which children are developmentally on track and which ones will be stymied if they don’t get the help they need.
You just don’t decide to stand up and walk one day. There is a process of experimentation and learning. You fall, you compensate, you fall again, you learn, and you calibrate how your body works. Each step is important, no matter how small. In fact, I have learned that crawling is essential before walking. Learning how to fall is equally important, so you won’t be too surprised or think it is the end of the world when you do. It is just part of the process of learning how to walk.
I remind us of this now because we have made some developmental leaps in our learning recently. Our pastors and presbytery leaders have just spent four days with organizational and church consultant Russ Crabtree. Being with him reminded me of sitting with my physical therapist friend on the mission field and having her point out behaviors that were previously invisible to me. Russ brought to our attention elements of our presbytery’s life, which, if improved, will not only help us walk, but also help us run, dance, and leap for joy!
In the coming months, you will probably hear phrases like “organizational intelligence” and “evidence-based decision making.” Don’t let them scare you. They are just ways of expressing the learning we are doing about how to grow healthy, vital congregations in our presbytery. To that end, I want to invite you to my Open Space on Thursday, February 26, at 2 PM, at Geneva Presbyterian Church where I will share about what we are learning as a presbytery and how it can be of benefit to your church.