I worked for six years with Bill Hunt, who was our youth minister at the East County Church of Christ. Bill had studied with David Wray at ACU, one of the best churchmen I know, and had learned from him the importance of action-reflection. Every significant activity Bill did with our youth, of whom my son was one, had a built in time for reflection. Feed the homeless in downtown Portland, spend time reflecting. Mission trip. Spend time reflecting. Often, this reflection took the form of Bill interviewing the teens in front of the entire congregation. Gold.
I didn’t work this way. I worked from theory to practice. Get the theology straight, teach the theory, and the rest would follow. It wasn’t long before I noticed Bill’s practice produced more notable results.
About this time, I also read Richard Osmer’s book, Teaching for Faith. Osmer critiqued the theory-practice model in strong terms, noting that faith grew and took root in more active learning environments. About that time, I read from Walter Brueggemann that people don’t change much because they receive new information. Change takes place when persons learn to tell a different story about themselves, a view underscored in conversations I was having with a therapist friend of mine, Chris Metcalf.
Here’s when all of this changed, got traction, for me. I was determined that our congregation be a group characterized by prayer. Not just a congregation that prays, but one that knows it as a way of life. So, I preached a sermon series on it. What else could you do? I would be remiss if I did not say that these sermons were brilliant. En fuego. And I even had a plan whereby members could join prayer groups that would change our lives. Who could resist this opportunity?
Turns out, nearly everyone. Lots of people told me how good the sermons were. Only one prayer group formed and they lasted only a few months.
Later, Nancy came to our elders to ask them to annoint her with oil and pray for her healing. Our elders didn’t know what to do. They could read James 5 like everyone else and knew this was something they should probably do, but they didn’t practice this verse and they didn’t know what they believed about it. After some deliberation, they prayed and anointed with her oil and God worked through that to heal her suddenly and dramatically.
Well, now we’re in a different ballgame. Others came to the elders for prayer. The results were mixed. Now we had more to reflect on and with many people. What did it mean to pray this way and to experience such mixed results? How is God at work in all of this? We couldn’t answer all the questions, but the elders prepared themselves for prayer to be at the heart of their ministry. A few months later, we started a fifth Sunday evening service for prayer and healing. We expected that the elders would receive only a few people for prayer and we would be done in under an hour. But we were still praying two hours into the service. Soon, prayer groups were popping up all over the congregation.
Now, information was important all along the way. It helped us clarify what we were doing. But the main action happened around our experiences and our collective reflection on them. I was changed as a minister.
One more piece to add. I had noticed how formative it was for people to actually say things out loud, how once you confessed it, you had it. And I stumbled across Paul’s statement in Rom 10:10, “one believes with the heart, but one confesses with the mouth and is saved.” It’s not enough just to reflect on experience, its important to say something meaningful about it. In fact, the effort to bring to expression a word that all consent to is a transforming act in and of itself. Over time, we got fairly good at saying what it was we thought God might be doing or calling us to. These statements were like little ebeneezers along the way, making us a belief-ful congregation.
So, now, action-reflection-articulation is the primary way I think about ministry. We begin by doing something. We reflect as a community on its meaning, and we find something meaningful to say about it. When I teach a ministry course, I always build this rhythm into my courses.
Let me go back to Brueggemann’s comment about change coming around a new narrative. All of us have narratives that authorize behaviors. We’re enacting a certain vision we have of ourselves that comes in the form of a narrative. Congregations do this as well. The best way to tell a different story about yourself is by having new experiences that give the occasion for a new narrative to be born. Theory to practice gives you little in the way of new narratives. But action-reflection-articulation…