Thursday, April 10, 2008

Learning, Retention, and Churches

This graphic comes as no surprise to me; a lot of schools really get this and are changing their curriculums to increase retention and traction. However, this time it hit me in a new way - because for a second, I put on my Church hat. This graphic spells trouble for the typical worship experience in the average evangelical church in North America, of which, according to George Barna, at least 75% are in decline.
Perhaps this learning pyramid relates to that sobering statistic.
I get to experience a lot of worship services in my role as a church architect. I visit many clients a year, and usually take part in worship services along the way. The most common worship experience is often 4-5 gathering songs, announcements, prayer, and a 30 minute sermon, prayer, then dismissal. There is sometimes another song or time for response at the end. In some cases, there is "special music" or a choir anthem. In a few cases, there are original or popular video clips, or a thematic image or over-arching metaphor for the worship experience. In some cases, the sermon is puctuated with images that illustrate the points being made. In very rare instances, there's a "talk-back" time of reflection and discussion, either in groups or in a "stump the pastor" style. In these latter cases, I find I remember far more for significantly longer. There are visual/metaphor-based/multi-sensory worship experiences over 8 years old that I can still remember. In even rarer cases, such as in my previous church, 4 times a year, we gathered on Sunday mornings to serve in the neighborhood instead of conduct a worship service. And apparently our pastor took some heat for that from our denomination's local governing body.
Lets go back to the learning chart. According to the National Training Laboratory, people retain only 5% of what they experience in a lecture setting. What is a sermon?
Add the reading of words on a screen - perhaps song lyrics and scripture. Maybe some sermon bullet points. That doubles retention, to 10%. Plus, the singing is at least participatory and aimed at God and gives us opportunity to reflect and listen.
Add images, pictures, video, props, illustrations, a theme, a metaphor. We're now at 20% retention. Not too great, but still 4 times the talking head.
Add interactive discussion and Q&A. We're now at 50% retained. Ten times the talking head.
Add service projects - either internal or external - hands-on, interactive ministry with concrete results. 75% - 90% retained.
I love worshipping and, yes, I do still enjoy a great sermon. But I've been trained my whole life to be able to sit and listen to a sermon, and I'm immersed in the proprietary language that is invariably used. I listen for God's voice in what I hear and sing and seek to be transformed. What is the experience of a sermon like for an unchurched person, particularly a younger person, when they are not even experiencing a lecture format that much in school anymore? Learning is more hands-on, inquiry-based and lab-format than ever.
How did we the church get to where half of our worship services are sitting and listening to a talking head? Is it because we are still so rooted in enlightenment principles and Reformation propositional truth? Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is the greatest sermon ever given, but 1) it wasn't part of a worship service and 2) it wasn't in the temple.
I am not a theologian - but tend to think very practically and am project and results-oriented. This whole topic has really got me thinking. What if we the church were to try to invert the learning retention pyramid as it applies to church life? What would happen if whole churches got together to serve each other and the community for 2-3 hours every week, and that was the main gathering and act of worship - not as an "advertisement" to get people to come to the real worship service. Our communities would notice, and would likely stand up and cheer. The media would be all over it. We would be transformed and perhaps absorb more of the experience than mere sitting and listening. People would be drawn to a group of people that is effectively making a difference and changing people's lives (look at what happens on Extreme Home Makeover or Oprah's Big Give). Is this not the lifestyle that Jesus expects of us in the parable of the sheep and the goats?
Of course, teaching and song have precedent in the Bible and are to be part of a church's diet. I guess I'm questioning: do we need that weekly, at the exclusion of a more robust church/life experience that has traction in our hearts, minds, and communities? Could we not get the Spirit-inspired, talking head teaching experience (5% retention) better through a directed, group setting (50% retention) elsewhere or at other times? Could we have a big interactive arts/teaching/music event monthly, and, if so, actually do it better and more meaningfully than as part of a diving catch every week?
Does Keeping the Sabbath or "not forsaking the Community of Saints" have anything to do with all of this?
Correct me if I'm wrong...

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Getting published!

Above is a link to an article I've written for Church Solutions magazine. In magazine form, it'll have illustrations, including I think the "stained glass" windows at Monroe Community Church!

The Heroic Dr. Matthew Sleeth

Back to the Blog... it's been too long!

Several weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to spend several hours with Dr. Sleeth.

I attended his presentation at the Church Solutions Conference in Phoenix, AZ. He is disarmingly childlike (not childish) in his presentation style and demeanor, which is very engaging and story-driven. This humility and very charming presentation style is almost apologetic, until you realize he is hitting you right between the eyes, heart and soul. His self-described title of "Ecovangelist" is right on. He has extensive Bible knowledge, especially as it pertains to justice and ecological issues - despite discovering the Bible relatively recently as an adult. Actually, I have seen that before with passionate leaders who meet Jesus as adults - they get "sold out" in a different way and powerfully understand the patterns of truth in the Bible. He's also hilariously funny and comes off as if he doesn't realize why everyone is laughing.

The best part of his presentation is that it was very spiritual and very motivating without resorting to guilt. In a nutshell his premise was: as Children of God we are connected viscerally to God's creation - and environmental issues are spiritual issues that begin with each of us - and it is important to continue to examine our lives in this light. Example: he was asked, "Where is a great, easy place to start this type of lifestyle reflection and improve our impact on Creation?" He explained that until recently he would have said, "Switch out all of your incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs - you'll make the investment back in less than a year, and if everyone did so we could close 22 coal-burning electricity plants..." but he has a new, more holistic answer after a lot of spiritual reflection. Now, his advice is: "Keep the Sabbath." God's plan for our lives has been to give ourselves, our man and maid servants (who are they in today's world? The short-order cook, the waitress at Denny's? hmm...) and the earth a break once a week. And to get out in it - reveling in the presence of God. We were created in a garden, the Bible begins and ends with trees, and Christ died on a tree. We are "without excuse" in recognizing God in his Creation. He told many stories and gave many examples from his own life about choices and sacrificing for the good of others. It was profoundly true, profoundly spiritual, and profoundly motivating. I'm not sure why it should be so difficult, but I would be happy if I can implement just 1/4 of what he discussed in that presentation. That is something to keep wrestling with.

As my friends and I chatted excitedly with him after his talk, he suggested we have dinner together. There, he revealed that his self-imposed rule is that he orders the same meal as the person who sits across from him, which was funny, becaus it made my buddy Jim squirm about his order for the two of them. Almost 3 hours later, we all had a profound respect for the awesome tasks God had laid before us - he as a proponent for environmental awareness as it relates to faith, and we as architects and designers of church buildings that will ultimately require huge amounts of raw materials, resources, embedded energy, and utilities over their useful lives. It was one of the more spirited conversations I've had in a very long time, and it is still resonating. How can we help the church be leaders in this movement?

A very cool aspect of his work is that people are coming to faith at secular institutions because of his presentations. People who had never seen Christianity as a lifestyle of humility and responsibility and servanthood (only fear and judgement) are responding to this "new" depiction of the gospel of Jesus. Also interestingly, Matthew felt he got a better ovation at GreenBuild (a secular eco-conference) than he does at most church-based conferences. When are we as the church going to get over ourselves? If we don't praise God, the "rocks" cry out.

Every now and then, I've encountered someone and realize, "I want to be more like them - because as a result I know I'll be more like myself - what God created me to be and to do." It's that resonance that responds to inward yearnings that just need mentoring or a case study or a catalyst of insight. Matthew - thanks for being one of those people, and I pray that I can be a small blessing to you as well!

A few weeks ago, I recommended Dr. Sleeth to Calvin College as a speaker and he is coming! He'll be there on May 1 and 2, lecturing as part of a day of presentations on environmental student projects, and Progressive AE will introduce him as part of sponsoring his visit. I think he'll be leading a chapel service as well.