Lifelong Learning for Christian Leaders

Graduation speeches are a mixed bag at best. But I did hear a fine one at my high school in 1977; one of his counsels for the graduates was: “Extend your education, both formal and informal, as far as is possible.” This phrase has stuck with me ever since.

Your brain is not a muscle, but it acts like one. The less you use it, the flabbier it becomes. The more you use it, the more robust. And if you push it to its limit, you will be surprised by its abilities. This has only partly to do with IQ; it has a lot to do with perseverance.

Some of us are required to take courses to retain our credentials: in the past few weeks, real estate people and medical professionals have mentioned this to me. At least one pastor from New South Wales says his denomination requires “Ongoing Professional Development.” But what if no-one makes you keep growing?

Our theme here is, the informal side of education – the kind that began for those graduates back in June 1977 and is presumably ongoing for some of them today. Someone defined informal or “lifelong learning” this way: “it’s voluntary, rather than compulsory, and is completely self-motivated – with the main goal being to improve personal or professional development.”

I’ve scouted around and bring you good news and bad news. Good news: Two of our pastors, one in Costa Rica and one in the US, very obviously read new books, they clearly keep on studying the Bible and wrestle with how to apply it. On the other hand, I read sermons by preachers who apparently have not explored the Bible text beyond what they learned in seminary. I have sat in classes given by professors, who, as a British comedy has it, “Never reads a new book, thinks a new thought.” I have heard other professors who are constantly on the job of learning new things, picking up new skills – from year to year their courses deepen and improve.

How might a Christian leader set a course for life-long learning? This is not a complete list; the 11 activities that I suggest, are ones I have profited from:

#1 Read. We’ll start with the most obvious one. Read, not just books, but with a focus on books or serious journals. Always have a book ready: for me, that used to mean a paperback in my back pocket. Now it means several books on my mp3 player, so I can do some reading while I am out walking or at the gym. I read for fun too. But for learning, read good material, read widely. Read the Bible through and through; read it in other versions. Read the church fathers. Read the great Christian books, not just this year’s bestseller. Nor should anyone imagine that “just reading the Bible” will make our teaching more biblical; after all, the apostle Paul was clearly cognizant of Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, and his preaching was better on-target for all that. Lately I have found Irenaeus, Tertullian, John Milton, Bernard of Clairvaux, Leslie Newbiggin, Henri J. M. Nouwen to be very thought-provoking. Likewise, The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz; Emerson, Thoreau; Mary Wollstonecraft. I also read a lot of history, and many novels. But as we read, let’s be curious. Be adversarial! Ask, Why? Ask, How do we know that? Ask, Who says? Because as Einstein said: “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

#2 Write. “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man (“conference” in the sense of interaction with others; see #4, below); and writing an exact man”; so, Francis Bacon. Again, I am telling you about my own experience, hence the profusion of “I, me, mine”! I write two blogs, in English, (the reason for your faith) in Spanish. I picked up this ministry in 2010 and have written perhaps 400 or 500 distinct articles on them. And most days someone writes me some theology question. Because I get many requests, I have to give brief but accurate responses.

#3 Escape from the Bubble. Please, if this has ever been relevant, it’s time we all leave our echo chambers (social media designed to reinforce your current beliefs and limit your knowledge; and please do not retort that only those other people have an echo chamber; we all do). If COVID is a plague, then so is the amount of false news that Christians circulate. Always doubt, always ask why, even if – especially if! – the data strike you as correct. Use dependable fact-checking; YouTube is not a fact-checker. Unfortunately, when someone says, “Oh, my friend Sue is very well-informed on all the issues, she knows what’s really going on,” it’s entirely possible that Sue has limited herself to one political narrative and has fallen into “cognitive bias” – she doesn’t question things that fit within what she already believes; she outright rejects whatever doesn’t fit. When you hear that the vaccination for COVID implants a microchip in your arm; or alters your DNA to be submissive to the antichrist; or that the planet Nibiru is about to destroy the earth – ask yourself, Who says so? Based on what evidence? If people reject this belief, what evidence do they offer for doing so? People with weak arguments at some point or another will play the card, They only oppose me out of jealousy or prejudice or personal hatred! Or my favorite, They called Einstein an idiot too! Watch out for those red flags. I write on this theme in other posts, starting here:  I also highly recommend: Mick West, Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories using Facts, Logic, and Respect. Of course, there are theological echo chambers too. If you are Reformed, when was the last time you read a solid treatment of Wesleyan theology? If you are not Reformed, when did you read something that was not third-hand? If you are amillennial, why not read Ladd’s The Presence of the Future? If you believe Israel should annex all of Palestine, why not read Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology?

#4 Talk With Smart People. What I am looking for is people smart enough to give me new information; and to make me re-evaluate my assumptions. The problem, of course, is that there are plenty who claim to be smart, or even have a high IQ, but you won’t be helped to grow by listening to them. I know some highly intelligent and articulate people who cannot or do not wish to escape from their bubble. A question for them might be: Can you imagine a situation where new information would cause you to change your mind on some important matter? If their answer is “no” or if it’s silly and unrealistic, they aren’t going to help you along your path. Of course, the trick is: you already have to be well-informed to know who is well-informed and who is not. The other trick is, of course, not to just talk to smart people but to be open to learning from them.

*** Our topic is lifelong learning. Now, let’s pause here, since some might raise the question, “Won’t all this focus on the intellect inevitably kill our spirit?” Isn’t the great commandment to love God, and isn’t intellectualism what killed the Pharisees and produce those individuals who don’t serve God? I say, No. Let’s look at the Great Commandment: “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (the Mark 12:30 version). As is plain, we are under strict orders to use our mind, our intellect, as a tool to love God! So let’s flip it over and put it this way: if someone seems to be intellectually alive, but dead in his heart, the problem is not that he uses his intellect too much; the problem is that he has exercised his spiritual life too little. He is like the freakish body-builder who only works out with his right arm. To put it another way, think of some Christians who have rigorously developed their intellect: Spurgeon; Bonhoeffer; C. S. Lewis; Calvin; Wesley; the apostle Paul! Shall we charge them with spiritual superficiality? ***

#5 Join a Club. A few years ago, someone said, “Hey, we’re forming a Facebook group to read the book of Isaiah in its ancient Greek version, the Septuagint! We’ll read all 66 chapters in a year!” That sounded intriguing, so I signed up. Now, in the definition we quoted above, they said that lifelong learning is “completely self-motivated.” And yes, I volunteered to join the club, and I didn’t receive a grade. But I soon found out that learning in a “club” is terrific motivation. I for one don’t want to fall behind while the rest of the group is pushing ahead. Since the Isaiah group, I have run a string of year-long Facebook clubs. They are usually to learn a new language or to do more reading in a language we already knew: thus, read the whole Greek New Testament; read the Apostolic Fathers in Greek; read the Pentateuch in Hebrew; learn Aramaic; learn Latin (in 2021). Our only longer group was, read the whole Septuagint in Greek in two years (2019-2020). Please believe me when I say that I wouldn’t have kept up to date in Latin without the peer pressure! Reading circles are a great deal of fun and are educational.

#6 Use New Technology. When I began preaching, I never used a microphone. We didn’t have a microphone! I wrote my notes on pieces of paper and shouted. Years later, and my technology lags far behind what I see other leaders using, but it plays a key part. I do half of my reading (see #1) on an mp3 player (books from Audible, also, which has many spiritual classics). My Greek students at ESEPA and our FB language clubs use the wonderful online app, Quizlet, to learn vocabulary. I have used Logos Bible software since it was still coming out on diskettes. There are a ton of useful resources online.

#7 Learn With Your Whole Body. Learn with your eyes, yes, but also with your hands, your feet, your whole anatomy. Our friend Jim posted on FB the other week – “I currently work at a research farm for someone employed by the University of Delaware. Big learning curve on everything from soil preparation, soybean growth, commercial irrigation, to driving a self-driving tractor. Everyday different, everyday nervous.” What is Jim, a farmer? Not at all! He’s a retired pastor, who has his doctorate in the writings of C. S. Lewis. But he’ll be a better theologian because his keeps his hands and back busy; it is scientifically proven to stimulate the brain. My wife has taken up woodworking. Since COVID struck, I am learning how to cook. We are using eyes and hands on something that’s not a keyboard!

#8 Diversify Your Interests. To keep learning you have to exercise the mind in many directions, not just in the field of theology or ministry. I do those hard crosswords from the New York Times. I am taking a course on drawing – it’s fun, but also it helps me to be a better theologian by keeping my brain sparking. Why not make a list of things for yourself? And listen for opportunities for fresh learning: We’re getting a group together to volunteer at a house for Habitat! We’re getting tickets for the local symphony! A bunch of us are going snorkeling! I have a telescope, want to come over for stargazing?

#9 Take Courses. These fall outside of the definition of “informal” education; however, nobody was forcing me to take the following classes, so I count them here. In the past two decades I have taken these: Mentoring; Theology of Latin America; How to Design Significant Learning Experiences (Diseño de experiencias de aprendizaje significativas); Advanced Reading Comprehension; History of Evangelicalism; Language Families of the World (from Great Courses); the new language, Symbolic Universal Notation, so I can help edit an Old Testament for the deaf and blind. And, believe it or not, Business Math and Geometry (at one time I was considering taking an MBA in leadership of non-profits, and this was a requirement).

#10 Learn a New Language. Many pastors and most theologians in Latin America can read and speak English, plus whatever Bible languages they have studied. In Canada, they study French and English. In the US, unless you were born to first-generation immigrants, chances are you are monolingual: only 15-20% are bilingual. But the brain science is conclusive! Fluency in a second (or third or fourth) language staves off dementia and will make you a better thinker, and not just because you can get information from other languages: it makes the brain more agile overall. The early church was multilingual: Paul I am guessing knew four languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, for sure, and Latin probably). We think of Peter as this rustic fisherman, yet in our canon we have 1 Peter, written in lovely Greek about 30 years after Pentecost. I can only speculate: did he spent those decades improving his Greek? James the brother of the Lord also knew how to write an epistle in good style. There has never been an easier time to learn a second modern language (I recommend Spanish!) or to study an ancient one. Courses are readily available, free resources online. And think of the big brain you’ll have!

#11 Teach Others. They tell medical students that the way to master a surgical procedure is by these three steps: See one, do one, teach one. They have captured the idea for this point: if you want to learn a thing, really learn it, you might want to teach it to someone else. Preachers regularly report that, “I get more from preparing a sermon than most people do listening to it!” Professors make the same observation. One direction that I have found helpful is: teach people with less education or children. Why? Because it’s easy to say “I know all about X” so long as we can use all the big words and hard categories of thought. You will know if you understand Christian theology if you can teach it to kindergarteners through, let’s say, third graders. (See #2 in the Feynman Technique)

Read, Write, Escape from the Bubble, Talk With Smart People, Join a Club, Use New Technology, Learn With Your Whole Body, Diversify Your Interests, Take Courses, Learn a New Language, Teach Others. These are the things I do and can personally recommend. And while I don’t have an 12th or 13th tips, here’s two friendly words of advice –

FOR THOSE WHO ARE SAYING, GARY’S SUGGESTIONS ARE JUST FINE FOR PEOPLE WITH LOADS OF FREE TIME!! Mothers of young children in particular might be seething! My advice: first, just do what you can, when you can. Second, and more importantly, life changes; trust me, the little ones will grow up. If you cannot take a course or write a blog during this season, wait for the season to change. Over 10 years of college I hardly ever read a book that wasn’t homework, and I had no manual hobbies. Now my kids are grown, and my bosses urge me to learn new things. Why not do a little dreaming about what you would like to learn, once things open up?

HAVE FUN WITH IT! For example: When I decided a few years back to go through all of Shakespeare’s works, I located all but one as stage plays on video. I watched them as they were meant to be: seen, not read. MAKE YOUR LEARNING FUN AND YOU WILL ONLY GROW HUNGRIER FOR MORE!

“Lifelong Learning for Christian Leaders,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament from Aberdeen University

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