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Asking Questions to Learn

January 25, 2007

It was the first one that floored me and has caused me to reflect for days now, about how Christian leaders learn and interact.

I was at a 2 day conference last week, along with about 50 clergy from throughout Northern Ireland. How and why I got there I’m not sure, but it was fascinating on all sorts of levels. The stated purpose was to enable these church leaders to reflect on what it means to engage with the community around their congregations and to examine current government strategy on interfacing with faith based organisations.

The afternoon session was led by Duncan Morrow, who in his day job is the CEO of the Community Relations Council in Northern Ireland, and formerly a professor of politics at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. Duncan has this enviable gift of reducing the most complex of issues down to the nub and making it understandable. And he has a wonderful way with a flipchart and pen. His illustrations and drawings become progressively more layered that if you came in at the end of a lecture all you would see would be a scribble, but everyone in the room could explain in detail how he had developed the ideas. Truly brilliant.

Anyway, he outlined what he was intending to do over the course of 2 and a half hours, which was to examine how Northern Ireland society got to where it is today by looking at politics, economics and social developments. I had seen him do a lot of this before, but I’ve always learned something new, and I was intrigued with how the clergy would react. Politics, economics and social developments were not the obvious stuff of everyday life for them, and it remained to be seen how Duncan would relate it to their pastoral roles.

He spoke and drew for about 30 minutes, holding everyone rapt. Then he stopped to invite comment and questions.

It was the first one that floored me and has caused me to reflect for days now, about how Christian leaders learn and interact. After hearing from a genuine genius, and then being invited to ask him any question you like and being confident that he would give a clear analysis, the question was: ‘Is there a book you could recommend on this stuff?’

The question was asked genuinely and in the spirit of enquiry but I found it revealing. I’m still not sure what it means but here are some possibilities.

1.    Clergy are not used to being in the position of learners, sitting at the feet of someone who knows more than they.
2.    Some kinds of people don’t like to learn relationally. So long as I confine my learning to bookwork I can control what I learn. If I disagree with it I close the book. If I’m likely to disagree with it, or if it’s likely it will upset or annoy me, I don’t buy the book. Book learning need not be real life learning.
3.    Learning in relationship, or in community, means I must engage with people. Sometimes those people will know more than me. Asking questions will reveal what I don’t know (not good). Some debates I might be able to win (not good at all).
4.    The outcomes of relational learning are less easily controlled. Preachers who like to control the range of meanings offered don’t like this democratisation.

Maybe I’m being unfair, but I just feel this kind of question being the first one asked was revealing. I guess I could understand it better if at the end of the afternoon session there was a range of unfinished conversations, loose ends and so on, and the expert was no longer present, a book would help continue the conversation in a different way.

But not the first question.

I think some questions are designed to shut down conversation and learning. And that there are serious implications for how we teach/learn from the scriptures.

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From → Musings

6 Comments
  1. I’m using this post to start my class next week. I share your questions.

  2. Let me know what happens tim. And what questions the conversations spark.

  3. I wonder if this “First Question” is the result of years of Churches missing the point when it comes to discipleship.

    When we thing of a good teaching we think of somebody who imparts knowledge to us. Maybe, somebody who can get us through an exam.

    Jesus wasn’, necessarily interested in imparting knowledge, he wanted to change lives. You can’t imagine folk at the Sermon on the Mount with a pad and paper scribbling down what he said. It wouldn’t have done them much good if they had because Jesus taught by example and when speaking, he very rarely gave a straight answer.

    Today we want teachers to simply tell us how it is. We don’t want to “search the scriptures”, we want to look them up. We don’t want to uncover the truth of the mysteries of our faith, we want somebody to tell us what they are.

    As church, we don’t know how to do discipleship. We don’t know how to feed people if it’s not from a pulpit. And we certainly don’t know how to go about finding somebody to disciple us. (Maybe we would call it mentoring today).

    I’ve gone off on one. Did that make any sense? *smile*

  4. Preach it brother! You are so right Rob. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear a preacher say, ‘I’m not sure what this means, but maybe together we can feel our way towards an understanding.’

  5. mitch permalink

    Spot on, like a Henry free kick.

  6. I think some questions are designed to shut down conversation and learning.

    Very true. I like your observations here.

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