I'm an educator at heart. I love to teach.
Before becoming a pastor, I loved teaching literature, writing, even grammar. In my spare time, I loved teaching music. I
still love to take people into the woods and teach them about plants, birds, reptiles, weather, ecology. Anything I know,
I love to share with others. Most of all I love to teach people about God, the Bible, the gospel, the Christian life.
But the word about in the previous sentence
causes me pause. I don't want just to teach people about God, about the Bible, and so on. I want to drop the preposition
in the same way the apostle Paul does in Ephesians 4:20 (NASB), when he speaks of the need for
people to "learn Christ," not just learn about Christ.
When I taught people to play guitar, I wasn't just
teaching them about the guitar, how strings vibrate, what frets do, or why the grain of the soundboard is important. True,
I share this information; it does have some value. But I was interested in teaching guitar.
When I taught writing, it wasn't just information
I was interested in transferring. I wanted to help my students become the kind of people who could think clearly, feel honestly,
and convey those thoughts and feelings in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. It was the same with literature. Yes, there
is an about dimension, but it was always in service of the direct, transforming, empowering encounter: learning literature,
learning interpretation, learning poetry.
This difference between learning and learning about parallels an important
shift that is signaled by the change from "Christian education" to "spiritual formation." True, in many quarters people slap
a sexier new label on what they've always done. But elsewhere the shift in language reveals a profound shift in values, from
teaching about God to teaching people God, from teaching about the Christian life to teaching people to live it, enjoy it,
practice it. At its best, the change in language signals a shift in priority from transferring information to training for
This flows from a reality many pastors secretly
acknowledge but seldom verbalize: that too many of our most "educated" Christians are some of the meanest. They may know the
most information about the Bible but are the least Christ-like.
Too often there seems to be a direct correlation
between knowledge about theology on the one hand and arrogance, contentiousness, and an uncharitable spirit on the other.
No one is in favor of ignorance, but mere knowledge
that "puffs up," as Paul points out, isn't much better.
Many of us were initially hesitant to explore "spiritual
transformation" because it required us to learn and teach historic spiritual disciplines. Our resistance, I think, was less
a matter of laziness than of doctrine: we worried that spiritual practices, many of which were thought of as "Catholic," were
about earning salvation or achieving God's approval in a legalistic sense.
Eventually though, confident that we are saved by
grace through faith plus nothing, confident that the gospel means Jesus Christ plus nothing for God's approval,
we have begun to explore Christian practices for the sake of transformation. As Dallas Willard says, we've realized that the
gospel is opposed to earning but not to effort.
In my evangelistic conversations and in my visits
to a variety of churches, I am becoming more and more sure that, both for our current church attenders and for the unchurched
we wish to reach, one question is increasingly paramount: Can your church help me experience God and experience personal
transformation? By this question, they're telling us they don't just want to learn about. They want transformation. They
want to learn Christ.
We have well developed curricula and structures
for teaching information, but we are still quite primitive when it comes to training for transformation. But that problem
is also an opportunity, for us leaders, to seek transformation ourselves, from being educators who teach about, to
being spiritual mentors and trainers who first and foremost practice a transforming faith as a way of life ourselves, and
have effective ways of bringing others onto a transforming path, too.
Of all the many things I am optimistic about in
the church these days, this is one of the best.
Brian McLaren is founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland.