Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Learning as a Christian Adult

I’ve been thinking about this post for over a week and a half now, because I feel it is so important. When we become adults, our learning doesn’t stop. In fact, a lot of times it is only just beginning. This is especially true for Christians. We need to never stop learning about our Lord and our faith.

After a lot of prayer, study, and personal observation, I’ve come to a conclusion that I pray won’t step on any toes. I believe that learning as a Christian adult must come through community. In community, we both speak and listen, teach and learn. It is a cycle that leads to much fruit that can’t come from simply being alone. (There is definitely a role for independence in Christian learning, stick with me for a little bit).

Although I don’t have a specific passage to point to where God spoke audibly and said, “Learn together,” I see much evidence that this was his original plan. Act 2:42-47 explains the fellowship of the early believers… “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship… they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” I get the impression that the believers continuously were together discussing and living life as a team.

Paul also talks to the church in Hebrews about learning in community: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:25). He realized the power that community has to shape us and drive us to Christlikeness.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to be a small group leader at a gathering of Christian college students from all over Downstate Illinois (plus about 10 kids from Missouri, too). This was my 3rd year attending the conference, but only my first leading. I went into the weekend in “teacher mode” until I came to the revelation I mentioned before: As a Christian adult, the line between teaching and learning is so faint that it may not exist at all.

I want to make a confession – I have a pride problem. I wanted to “help,” and “guide,” and “encourage,” while ignoring the desperate need I have myself for those things. Friday night’s session and discussion went horribly because I was trying to teach. I wasn’t being real. After a long (long…) heartfelt prayer that evening, God opened my eyes to many memories of other classes and SGs I’ve been a part of. As well as modern learning theory a la Dewey and Constructivism. He gently guided me into realizing that to teach adults, I have to be willing to learn from them, too. I may have the discussion questions written in front of me, but that isn’t some kind of power. My listening and asking thoughtful questions for my own learning’s sake would be the vehicle for their learning as well.

Discussion is a funny thing. When I jump out to answer a question, I am forced to think about what I am really thinking. More often than not, my conclusion at the beginning of a statement is completely different than what I believe by the end. I’ve talked to many many people who have experienced the same thing. Talking out loud is one strategy for processing our thoughts. When we have to explain ourselves, it becomes much clearer in our own eyes.

Discussion also opens the door for finding someone else in a similar situation who can either commiserate or give you advice. I experienced this over the weekend, too. One of the girls in my SG is going through the same battles I fought with love and relationships when I was in high school. I was able to relate how God healed me, which gave her hope and opened the door for an ongoing friendship. I also received advice and confirmation about things God has been showing me in my own walk. I’ve thought about fasting before, but I’ve always worried the desire was from myself. I was able to talk to two of my dear friends, who are each currently fasting from different things for different reasons. Through them, I was able to discern that the call wasn’t from my own desires but from Christ.

An experience Wednesday night confirmed my realization. I had the chance to volunteer at a shelter downtown and participate in their Bible study. It blew my mind – these people, who live on the same streets which only hours later were filled with well-wishers for Lincoln’s birthday, the invisible poor who are always with us – these people chose that evening to discuss humility. And it was the most Christ-filled discussion on humility I have ever heard in my life. I had nothing to contribute because my understanding of what it means to have nothing cannot even come close to comparing with theirs. And even still, they had hope.

Learning can certainly take place alone, but I have come to believe that it will be limited to head-learning. It is one thing to learn about poverty, to read books and pray about it, and another entirely to sit for half an hour listening to a man who has had nothing but pain in his life but still walks around clinging to the hope of heaven. It is one thing to read the Bible and another entirely to live it.

I believe that learning alone as a Christian adult serves to lay the foundation for further learning in community. We read the Bible and other books and listen to sermons at church or online so that we can step out with our brothers and sisters to have heart-to-heart conversations. I believe that God works through other believers to shape us, grow us, and change us in ways that we can never experience in our prayer closets. However, let me be firm in this: without personal time spent learning the Word, there aren’t enough building blocks in our heart for community learning to take place. It will be limited to experiences and observations without the depth that only the Word can bring. Community learning and personal learning are two sides of the same coin; one can not exist without the other.

How you define community for yourself is between you and God. In my life, my “community” is frequently only my husband. I also make the most of the few visits I get with my Christian sisters, sometimes only once every few months. I’d love to be involved in a small group or Sunday school on a regular basis, but that isn’t happening right now for various reasons. This doesn’t let me off the hook. I have to intentionally integrate my faith into the few conversations I do have so that I can reap the benefits of learning in community.

I have even more thoughts that I’ve edited, but this post is getting tediously long already. I’m eagerly anticipating response and further conversation. I feel I’m far from done exploring this topic.


Sarah Jane said...

I felt very convicted as I read this and realized the absolute truth of your statements. I have been waaaayy too focused on head learning lately. Actually, I think, my whole life! I am so picky about whose society I like to be around and I love to read, and would much rather "learn" that way. . .yet, as you mentioned, we should not be neglecting our community. Right now, mine is pretty much just hubby and the boys. We don't go to church and make our own here at home. I feel at times it is my fault that I decided to leave the church we were going to, when it stemmed from personality conflicts, which led to conflicts of beliefs and actions with other members of the church. While I was thinking about this, I realized that even having conflicting ideas/thoughts can be used as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than as a leverage point to break off from someone or somewhere (am I making sense? :) ) as "iron sharpens iron". . .soooooo much to think about!!

Mrs. G said...

I agree with Sarah Jane, this is an excellent thought provoking post!