Monday, November 22, 2010

Soul Nugget #10 -- Creativity and Control

Today I had the privilege of going into the radio studio with Randy Mahoney and doing a "stories behind the songs" interview and I got to play a couple of songs. It is yet to be determined whether or not it is going to actually get on the radio, but regardless I had a great time doing it.

Anyway, one of the thoughts that I wanted to share that we didn't have time for was this concept of creativity vs. control. Imagine a spectrum:

Control <-----------------------------> Creativity

This spectrum represents two different ways to approach any kind of art or creative endeavor. Good artists live in the tension between the two ends. As a songwriter, I am always faced with the same challenge when I try to write a song. I want the song to be honest, deep, introspective... I want it to arise out of the creative part of who I am. Yet, if it is all just unrestrained creativity, the song might mean something profound to me, but everyone else is going to think I'm on crack. Creativity without control breeds irrelevance.

I've also tried to write songs from the control end of the spectrum. This is when you sit down with your guitar (or paint brush, or a blank word document, or fill in the blank) and say, "I want to say something about (pick a topic)." While this usually makes the song more relevant and relatable, it also has the tendency to rob it of creativity. Christian musicians in particular run into this problem. The minute a Christian musician sits down to write a song, he/she has to submit their art to a certain set of rules/beliefs. As such, it is difficult to raise ambiguity in the mind of the listener, and any "edge" the song may have had is gone because he/she has written a song about something everybody already agrees with. When you start from the control side of the spectrum, you are limiting yourself to a set of rules which relate to the message you are trying to send, and this in turn stifles genuine creativity.

As I said before, I believe that good artists maintain the tension between creativity and control. A good piece of art arises out of creativity, but is directed enough to still be a powerful, interesting song. What do you think? What's more annoying: lack of creativity? Or lack of control?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Soul Nugget #9 -- 25 Ideas for Sunday School Reformation

One of the biggest problems in the church today is a lack of spiritual knowledge. Many claim to be Christians and say that the Bible is God’s Word, yet they know very little about what it means to be a Christian, or about what is actually in the Bible. I think that the best way to go about fixing this problem in the church is to try to revitalize Sunday school. I have a vision of a Sunday school that is relevant, yet uncompromising; interesting, yet stimulating; serious, yet fun and welcoming; a Sunday school that sees the needs in their communities and works together to meet those needs. I see a Sunday school made up of people who genuinely care for each other and provide one another with friendship, love, accountability, and encouragement. In order to bring this vision into actuality, some things are going to have to change. Listed below are 25 things that I would change if I were going to try to revolutionize Sunday school.

1. Give extra incentive to go to Sunday school – People usually like to learn and want to learn, but they don’t have enough time to do it. If there were urgency to go to Sunday school, they would probably be more likely to come. If I want people to come to Sunday school, I should give them some added incentive or goal to work toward so that they have an end in mind that they are working toward.

2. Change the meeting place – Humans get bored. It is important to continually change things up to keep people guessing. The last thing I want is to be predictable.

3. Assign homework – People always learn more when they are involved in the learning process. By giving them some responsibility, they will be more likely to take “ownership” of the class. I would be insulting the intelligence of my class if I thought that they were unable to do a creative, thought provoking, and realistic assignment.

4. Let them tell you what they want to learn – Instead of just preaching to the class on whatever topics I feel like talking about, I should ask and probe to find out what it is they are interested in learning, and focus on that.

5. Make the purpose of Sunday school more specific and clear – People often do not even know what the purpose of Sunday school is. I should make it very clear up front that the goal of Sunday school is discipleship, obedience to Christ, and transformation.

6. Make it more interactive – Give the class more opportunities to participate. Have more discussion, less lecture, more in class activities, less talking.

7. Have a broader focus – What if a Sunday school class had a broader focus than their immediate context? What if they were outward focused instead of inward focused? Think of the potential for outreach and evangelism that exists in a Sunday school class! In my Sunday school reformation, I am going to see if we can focus on serving those outside our group, and being actively engaged in issues of social justice and acts of benevolence.

8. Give handouts – Although some people are auditory learners, there are a large number of people who are visual learners or kinesthetic learners who need something to see or hold in order to learn. By giving handouts, I could make it easier for the class to take notes (note-taking guides), stimulate discussion (controversial articles), give visual aid/background to the passages of the Bible we are covering, and many other things.

9. Stay flexible – Some Sunday school teachers get frazzled when their lesson plans are interrupted. I am going to try to stay flexible and roll with it if the discussion goes someplace I did not expect.

10. Have a big ultimate purpose for the group – There is nothing that unites a team more than a shared vision. If that vision is not big enough, however, people often lose interest. I am going to set a purpose for the group that is bigger than just an increase in Bible knowledge. Some ideas could be: a) A missions trip at the conclusion of the class, b) writing a Sunday school curriculum/devotional book and seeing if we can get it published, c) make journals to sell to raise money for AIDS orphans, d) anything else like that.

11. Do things together outside of Sunday school – Here at Indiana Wesleyan, it is commonly accepted that if you do not hang out outside of class, you are not really friends outside of class either. If I want my Sunday school class to bond, we need to do some fun things together outside of class.

12. Clarify the benefits and necessity of Sunday school – Many people do not even know about Sunday school classes, or if they do, they do not understand the importance of them. By communicating the potential benefits for a Sunday school class, we will get more eager students.

13. Provide and require better education for teachers – Learners in Sunday school (children in particular) are very impressionable in their faith. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the impressions we are leaving them with are correct and orthodox. Some of the peskiest heresies are kept alive by well-intentioned volunteer Sunday school teachers. In order to leave the right impressions, we must provide and require education in basic Christian doctrine and teaching skills before subjecting our learners to their influence. As Howard Hendricks said in his book Teaching to Change Lives, “To teach children that two plus two equals four, you need a minimum of four years of higher education. To teach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ, anything (tends to be) good enough (for us)… and that’s why it too often degenerates into a ministry of mediocrity.”[1]

14. Have classes at different levels of spiritual development – In college, there are varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to classes. There are 100, 200, 300 and 400-level classes, which are intended to be taken by freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors respectively. An adviser would never put a freshman in a 400-level class, for it would be far too complicated, and seniors typically do not take 100-level classes because the content would not challenge them enough. This is how it ought to be in Sunday school. People are all at different stages in their spiritual development: some need the basics of the basics, others are ready for complex doctrines and in-depth, exegetical Bible studies. In the Sunday school reformation, there will be varying degrees of difficulty of the classes being offered, and they will build on top of each other, like at a university.

15. Encourage more student leadership – In the upper level Sunday school classes, there are bound to be people who are experienced enough in Sunday school to be able to teach adequately. I should encourage student leadership so as to get others involved and introduce new viewpoints into the discussion.

16. “How to Teach” Sunday school class offered at climax of classes – After a layperson has gone through all of the different levels of classes, there should be a “how to teach Sunday school” class offered at the apex of the pyramid. This will enable more laypeople to teach Sunday school classes, making more classes available to the congregation.

17. Offer an intergenerational Sunday school class – Too often in the modern era we have separated the age groups for the sake of age-appropriate discussion and things of that nature. I think that this is a shame. We should offer an intergenerational Sunday school class in which grandparents, parents, teens, and children are all able to learn and participate, thus bridging the generational gap in the church.

18. Spend class time practicing what you learn – Howard Hendricks introduced a four-stage model for learning in his book Teaching to Change Lives.[2] He said that in order to learn how to do something, there are for stages that we need to progress through. Those four stages are (in order): telling, showing, doing (controlled), and doing (uncontrolled). In Sunday school we are very good at the telling stage, and to some extent the showing stage, but we are terrible at the later two stages. By spending time practicing what we learn, we are fulfilling the third stage. For example, if we are talking about prayer in Sunday school, let’s take some time to actually practice the discipline of prayer in a controlled environment.

19. Arrange the classroom for maximum interaction – It is often the little things that do us in as Sunday school teachers. Even something as small as arranging the room in a way that is conducive to discussion and adjusting the thermostat before people enter can make a huge difference in the outcome of the Sunday school lesson.

20. Always provide visual aids – This goes along with the “handouts” point. Because many people tend to learn visually, it is important to provide some kind of visual aid whenever possible. I can mix it up too: Power points, handouts, marker boards, puppets – anything visual.

21. Teach students how to learn – One mistake that I’ve seen many Sunday school teachers make is that they try to teach the students all the answers to their questions. While this can be helpful sometimes, it is usually a better idea to teach them how to go about finding the answers themselves. Like the ancient Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

22. Don’t do the students’ work for them – This one is closely tied to #21. Many teachers also make the mistake of doing all of the work for their students. They have all the answers to all of the questions figured out, and they (somewhat condescendingly) nudge and prod the class along until they all come to the same conclusion. True teaching encourages students to do the bulk of the work themselves – to think through crucial issues without receiving a spoon-fed answer from the teacher. If a math teacher was trying to teach her students their times tables, would she really be doing them any favors by doing all their math problems for them? No! In order to learn, the students must do most of the work themselves.

23. Use a variety of media –One way to provide a spark to class is to use different kinds of media. Rob Bell’s Nooma videos are usually very good for generating discussion, as are Veggie Tales for little kids. Clips from popular movies are also an excellent way to relate to a congregation.

24. Utilize the gifts of your students – Everybody has their own gifts and talents. In order to maximize those talents that your students already have, I should provide opportunities for them to use their gifts to make the class better. If someone is very artistic, have that person paint a picture as a visual aid for class. If someone is good at arts and crafts, use that person to come up with creative activities for kids.

25. Appeal to the senses – Humans are very sensual beings. We love to taste, touch, smell, hear and see things. When giving a Sunday school lesson, use descriptive language that can create an image in the minds of the learners. Don’t just talk about abstract concepts like “sanctification,” talk about a concrete example of sanctification that they can imagine in their minds. I should try reading a Bible story, asking them as we go to imagine and describe the different tastes, smells, sounds, sights, and feelings that the Bible characters must have been sensing.

[1] Howard Hendricks, Teaching to Change Lives, Multnomah Books © 1987, (20)

[2] Hendricks, (105)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Soul Nugget #8 -- On Cogs and Mechanics

A machine is made up of all sorts of parts, gears, and cogs, which all mesh together, serving the one purpose for which the machine was created. Usually the point of a machine is to produce something. With a machine, there is always an end goal which it is trying to accomplish. If a machine does not fulfill its purpose, it is considered "broken," and is either trashed and a new one replaces it, or it is taken to a mechanic who knows how to fix it.

The church is like a machine, and there are two kinds of people who make it run: cogs and mechanics.

Cogs are positive thinkers who have utmost faith in the machine -- that it works and achieves the purpose for which it was created. Sure, the machine may be flawed (no machine is perfect, is it?), but overall, the machine does more good than bad. They happily accept their role in the machine, meshing together with the other gears and cogs, because they are optimistic about the effectiveness of their system. If the machine seems to not be fulfilling the purpose for which it was made, the cog's response is typically to "work harder" and telling the other gears and cogs to pick up the slack. They believe in staying the course by completing their role in the system and getting others to do the same. Why? Because they believe in the effectiveness of the course.

Mechanics, on the other hand, are improvers. They make their living off of fixing broken stuff. They look at a machine, and it could be running fine without much of a problem at all, but the mechanic's mind is constantly looking for a problem and/or ways to improve the effectiveness of the machine. As a result, they come across pessimistic. Sometimes, they take one look at a broken, obsolete piece of machinery and decide to trade the whole thing in for an upgraded version of the machine. Mechanics are big picture thinkers who will look at a machine and ask, "Is this machine achieving the goal for which it was made?" If the answer is no, the mechanic will try to improve the machine on a systematic level. His response is not just, "work harder! Persevere!" His response is, "How can we make this machine more efficient and effective in accomplishing its goal?"

I've noticed that in the church, cogs and mechanics tend to butt heads sometimes. Cogs point to the mechanics and say, "You arrogant Mechanics are always trying to fix what ain't broken! It's easy to criticize when you're standing so far off, but you don't know what it's like to be in the middle of the action. The church is not about grand schemes and strategies, it's about the gritty, day-to-day lives of people and building relationships. It's just about loving God and loving people. Why do we have to complicate things so much?"

Mechanics fire back, "Well, you Cogs are just part of an obsolete system! You have become entirely irrelevant! Times are changing, and we have to change as well. Look, it's really simple: all we have to do is change this part, move that gear, tweak that gizmo and there you have it!"

I think we need both Cogs and Mechanics in the church. Without the cogs, the machine couldn't run. You need someone who will buy into a system and run with it. However, the mechanics are necessary too, because machines get old and break down. Can you imagine what Indiana Wesleyan University would be like today if they still tried to run the entire university using typewriters? In the same way, the church needs to be changed and adapted on a big picture level if it is going to remain functional, efficient, and effective.

I am a mechanic. I naturally see things through a critical eye, not to cut down and discourage, but so that we can improve the machine. I'm watching as all the cogs are spinning and turning, working their butts off trying to make a system work, only to watch as the end result does not meet the goal for which the machine exists. I see people coming into the church, getting saved, but staying at a shallow level spiritually for the rest of their lives. I see teenagers graduating from high school, then going to college only to have their faith pulled out from under them like a rug, and because their faith was not deep enough, they could not withstand the storm. I see all these things and I can't help but think, "What could we do to improve things on a systematic level?" Most of the cogs aren't to blame; the system is. And so if you are a cog and I have stepped or am going to step on your toes at some point, I sincerely apologize, it's nothing personal. I'm just being myself.