So, the final year of my theology Masters (with Westminster Theological Centre) has begun and a big chunk of the work this year will be on a dissertation. I have to write 16,000-20,000 words on... well, on pretty much whatever I want, as long as it's got something to do with Christian theology!
I've got a few ideas, which I need to develop into a detailed proposal over the next few weeks. I guess I'm writing this post to help me straighten out my thinking and get me moving towards that goal. So here goes with my ideas...
Firstly, I'm really interested in what people call simple church, organic church, or various other names. Church where the meetings are fairly (or completely) unplanned and people all have the opportunity to share what they feel would be encouraging and inspiring. It's obviously not your standard way of 'doing' church but there are glimpses through Christian history of Jesus' followers meeting together in something like this way. And there are groups across the world now gathering like this, in places like cafes, homes, sports venues, offices; wherever people meet, really.
The problem is, I need a clear focus for the dissertation. Something like 'Current trends in simple church fellowships' would probably be far too vague. We've been told our topic has to be narrowed down in some way, such as looking at how a particular biblical author tackles a certain issue. And nothing is really leaping out at me, in terms of an angle or focus on the simple church movement.
Which all leaves me with option two.
As many of my friends know (thank you for your patience, friends!), I have a thing about sermons. In many Protestant churches, certainly the more evangelical ones, the sermon is the centrepiece of the Sunday service. The minister or whoever's speaking will spend a lot of time preparing their talk, and then all the congregation will listen (or not...) for half an hour or more. That's a lot of cumulative time! But to what end?
Basically, it seems to me that sermons are intended for two main purposes; encouragement and teaching. The former purpose, I can thoroughly go along with. I've been inspired, challenged and spiritually re-invigorated by plenty of talks over the time I've been a follower of Jesus. Some people clearly have a gift of speaking to groups and imparting a fresh vision of the joy and adventure of being involved with God's kingdom and plans.
But, again it seems to me, many sermons – perhaps most – have the goal of teaching people about something or to behave differently in some way. And this points towards the second potential topic for my dissertation. Are sermons the most effective way of teaching people? What other ways might work? Are there examples of churches teaching, training and discipling their members effectively; how are they doing it?
I'm thinking about drawing in some ideas from educational theory, because it seems that most churches pretty much ignore what educational researchers have to say about how people learn. I don't think this should be so; Christian musicians don't ignore music theory; Christian counsellors don't cast aside everything that secular counselling and psychotherapy have to say. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Christians should embrace without question everything that comes from the secular world. But I really like the idea of investigating how stuff like learning styles, blended learning and peer learning might be of benefit in the church context as we help each other along the path of apprenticeship to Jesus. It just doesn't seem right that most churches rely on a mode of learning long since relegated to a bit-part role in most secular learning contexts.