How long does radical transformation take? What is a reasonable time frame for the development, first of competency, then of mastery? Put another way, how long would it take you to become Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods? Think you could reach mastery by attending a weekend retreat or a one day workshop? Of course not! What a stupid idea. Deep, lasting change comes at a cost. Mastery requires sacrificial commitments of time, energy, money, concentration, study, practice, and willpower. But we’re Americans. We want it now. We want to pick up a guitar and play like Clapton, pick up a tennis racket and play like either Williams’ sister, pick up a cookbook and make Rachel Ray look like a piker, attend a church leadership seminar and lead like Jesus. We don’t want it to be hard or demanding — we want to learn in 30 minutes the 7 Steps, 12 Keys, or 40 Days to create the kingdom of God come upon the earth.
Shortcut spirituality is no spirituality at all. I once saw an add in a “Christian” publications for something called PowerPrayer, a method of prayer for busy people that encouraged 30 second prayer first thing in the morning, at noon, and at bedtime. What a fantastic spiritual discipline for busy people — a minute and a half a day to stay connected with God! (Yes, I realize that’s a minute and a half more than many Christians give…). That brings to mind a program that encouraged “mini-fasting” from 12-5, both a.m. and p.m. The premise was to go without food from noon to five and midnight to five, and to consider this the spiritual discipline of fasting. Lunch at 11:30? Dinner at 5:30? Breakfast at 6:00? Snacks at 10 a.m. & 8:00 p.m.? No problem, because you are fasting 10 hours every day! Spiritual discipline-lite — discipline without any discipline; spirituality that doesn’t touch the spirit. We are a weird people.
But we carry this mentality into our church leadership and see very little wrong with it. I sat with a table of seven church leaders last week and asked the question, “What was the last workshop or conference you attended that substantially changed the way you do your work?” Everyone at the table sat looking around waiting for someone else to answer. Finally, someone said, “Well, I’ve gotten some good ideas at conferences.” Another chipped in, “I have found some good resources that I have used.” “I basically go to connect with other people, to network.” “I go to hear the speakers.” “But the question,” I repeated, “is what has substantially changed.”
The conversation underwent a tectonic shift — “you know, these kinds of events really don’t change much of anything. I have attended these things for my entire ministry — and I like them — but they haven’t really made much difference.” This statement epitomized the common consensus around the table. The conversation then shifted to “why” this is so.
Surface, Not Substance
Training events are not generally immersion experiences. They cover a wide variety of topics and large amount of information in a short span of time. They talk about things, but offer little opportunity for thorough investigation of any specific topic. They focus on “big picture” ideas, rarely on details. Real depth exploration takes time, study, discussion, and cannot be done well in a few days. There is a tendency to simplify the complex, and to generalize in unhelpful ways. We talk about “the church” as if it is just one thing, easy to grasp and universally similar. We know this isn’t true, but we employ reductionist language constantly (see?) to make our points.
Information, Not Formation
Learning “how” is not as important as learning “what” and “why” at most training events. If the emphasis is on “how,” it tends to be boiled down to following a prescriptive worksheet, checklist, or watered-down roster of “best practices.” Truly formational experiences are integrated and interactive. So many of our events are still stuck in an “upfront expert” dispension words of wisdom to a passive, receptive crowd. Many workshops are “information dumps” where good concepts and ideas are offered, unconnected to a larger context.
Program, Not Process
Too many of our events are isolated “mountain-top” experiences. We attend a program disconnected from any larger process or flow. People attend, listen, take notes, applaud — then return home, put their notes and notebooks on a shelf, and never talk of the event again. There is nothing transformative in this. Rarely do groups of leaders attending large events have a strategy for integrating their learning into their congregational or conference system once they return from the event. Much that people receive at training events are “pre-packaged,” but they generally have application in other settings. Any learning/training experience we pay good money to attend should connect to a larger process and strategy that benefits the larger system.
Expertise, Not Engagement
I am always amazed at the names we bring to our big events — generally because there are better people with more knowledge and expertise and better stories who never get asked to speak because they lack visibility. They don’t write the books, they don’t pastor the premiere large churches, they don’t run around telling people how smart they are — they’re simply faithfully doing what everyone else is talking about. It’s not that the speakers and trainers of our events aren’t good — generally they’re great. People love them. They’re popular. They’re dynamic and funny. They know a lot. But they aren’t the whole story. And sometimes they become celebrities rather than change agents. People come to love hearing them whenever they speak, ignoring the reality that if you hear them once, you don’t need to hear them again, because they don’t say anything new. The expertise of the leaders can only take you so far. The reason these people became experts is that they did something. And as with many successful leaders, part of their witness is that they didn’t get where they are by borrowing someone else’s ideas or following someone else’s model. Part of what makes a leader a leader is that they aren’t followers or imitators. (Duh!) Full engagement — active, hand’s on, interactive, on-the-job training is much more effective than listening to the stories of the successful.
Inspiration, Not Implementation
One of the real values of well-run training events is the level of energy and enthusiasm. Bishops, preachers, professors, and practitioners deliver exceptionally passionate and motivational messages. The speaking is visionary. They charge up the crowd. They generate excitement. People feel they have been in the presence of God. But if nothing happens, nothing changes, because of our training events, they are not worth holding. The question (one of my favorites for years and years) to ask is, “What is the fruit of this work?” And it is not enough to merely produce fruit, but we need to know who is being fed and how lives are being changed. If church leaders attend a workshop and they get loaded up with “fresh fruit” they need to feed others with it — and use the seeds to plant more fruit. If we cannot (or do not plan to) do anything with what we learn, it isn’t worth learning.
Content, Not Context
I remember a wonderful stewardship program from twenty years ago that used agriculture as the dominant theme — raising crops and animals and produce of all kinds. It was a complete failure in a church where the vast majority of members live and work in cities, towns, and suburbs. The content was great, but it didn’t fit in most contexts. While I will not say that context is everything, I will go so far as to say that it is the critical key to success. Ignore context at your own peril. What works incredibly well in one place under the guidance of a unique group of leaders rarely produces equal (or better) results in another setting. What we do is signficantly shaped by where we do it and who we are. If a system is healthy, it will produce healthy results. If a system is broken or dysfunctional, it is unlikely to produce good results. Take an excellent resource and use it in a healthy church and it will produce good fruit. Take the same resource and feed it through an unhealthy church, and it will not turn the church around. The image I use is this: feed fine china through a wood-chipper — what you get on the other side is finer china, but no longer fine china. A keen example I have seen with my own eyes is The Walk to Emmaus program from The Upper Room. Walk to Emmaus is transformative and powerful in healthy congregations; but the same excellent program in unhealthy churches often produces division, conflict, bad feelings, and resentment.
Abstractions, Not Applications
Transformation is fundamentally heart and spirit work. Too often we approach it intellectually, as head work. Changing a culture requires more than just changing people’s minds. We use wonderful terms and concepts in our training events: systems thinking, paradigms, accountability, vision, values, and on and on — all excellent concepts (I use them all myself, so they must be good…) But without a system to work on, without a paradigm to unpack, without a specific group and process to improve, all these concepts are mere abstractions. When I worked with a church of 125 people a few years ago, we worked on “understanding the congregation as a system” — something many contemporary workshop leaders promote. But what does it really mean? Well, working over a four month period of time, we identified 263 congregational sub-systems comprised of over 3,000 processes connecting over 400 people in over 600 human workforce hours each week producing over 800 outputs to accomplish 68 separate outcomes. This was a case study to identify what the application of systems thinking to churches really means, and to figure out what parts of systems theory were most valuable, and which were inappropriate and less valuable. Visioning is another vague concept that everyone talks about, and there are a hundred and one different ways to “do” visioning, but very rarely does the application of the concept yield the results we need. In part, this is because we treat visioning as an abstraction — a great idea that we don’t take the time to fully understand.
Method, Not Meaning
Culturally, we have bought into a variety of bad training habits. Be very suspicious of any training based on:
- “It worked for us!”
- “We did it! You can do it too.”
- “Fill out this simple form/follow this easy process” (“Simple” and “easy” are not words commonly associated with “transformation.”)
- “Here’s a model you can take home and use.”
- “One size fits all.” (Usually, you don’t hear this, but the implication is that what we talk about works in every setting equally.)
- “This new book…”
- “Steps, Keys, Rules, or other prescriptive “guides.”
The strongest evidence of method over meaning is the way we measure our effectiveness and success. Quantitative metrics tie to method, qualitative metrics tie to meaning. We run into this dichotomy around church membership vs. discipleship. We count members, but we need to assess discipleship. We can develop tricky and effective gimmicks for getting people into our churches, and even keeping them. It is much harder to develop a set of steps to discipleship. Discipleship is relational, developmental, spiritual, and in some ways, non-linear. There are a host of critical componentsto spiritual development for Christian discipleship, but is there a “best” approach? Can we package “discipleship campaigns” like we do “evangelism campaigns?” It sounds stupid just asking the question. That doesn’t stop us from trying to create them, however.
A quick-fix mentality isn’t helpful in the church, and it is a lousy model for our training events. Evangelism provides a nice parallel lesson for our current passion for training/learning conferences and events. As a spiritual gift and practice, evangelism was a personal, intimate, relational activity. It wasn’t an event, but an ongoing process — not a learned ability, but a way of life. The ability to share faith and invite people into relationship with God was grounded in relationship, and relationships take time. It wasn’t about the words, but about the Word. Evangelism cannot be done well impersonally. You can’t do it with tracts, brochures, bumper stickers, or platitudes. You can’t do it in a stadium (well, you can, but it ceases to be evangelism in the biblical sense). You can’t do it on radio and TV. The depth, meaning, context, application, depth of understanding, level of engagement and effectiveness of implementation all suffer the bigger and less personal the experience. The same is true of event-gelism. You can’t deliver the goods needed for lasting change and radical transformation in a one-time event, stretched over a very few hours, with a minimum of interaction and relationship. The time has come to rethink our approach to training and learning, and to apply what we’ve learned (at workshops and training events) about fundamental, radical, lasting transformation.