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My six-year-old daughter is the most competitive personality in our home. While the other kindergarteners on her t-ball team are picking dandelions in the outfield, Lucy remains vigilant and "baseball ready" for every pitch. She recently came home disappointeded from a summer backyard Bible camp.
"The games were too easy," she insisted. "They need to make it harder to win."
Lucy's desire to be challenged reveals a fact often neglected in our culture—we only grow when we are uncomfortable, and too much comfort can be downright dangerous. For example, a recent FAA study found that pilots are losing critical flying skills because they are under-challenged by state-of-the art planes that virtually fly themselves. Ironically, the push for safety through computer flying is leading to more accidents as pilots "abdicate too much responsibility to automated systems."
I wonder if something similar happens in the church. With the best of intentions, we have tried to make worship a comfortable place for both believers and seekers to learn about God. From cushioned seats to the spoon-fed sermon with fill-in-the-blank pre-written notes, the only challenge most of us face on Sunday morning is actually getting our families to church. Once through the door, we can relax and switch on the auto pilot.
If our goal is "teaching them to obey" all that Jesus commanded, then we may want to rethink our commitment to comfort on Sundays. Recent brain research has shown that when a person is comfortable, the more analytical functions of the brain (necessary for learning) remain disengaged. Psychologists refer to the brain as having a "system one" and a "system two." System one is the intuitive functioning that is active when relaxed, like when vegetating in front of a television or listening to a pleasantly clear sermon in a comfortable seat on Sunday morning.
System two is the analytical functioning of the brain that is required to rethink assumptions, challenge ideas, and construct new behaviors and beliefs. System two must be active to learn. Research shows that the brain shifts from system one to system two when forced to work; when challenged and uncomfortable.
That's why most people concentrate better in settings with some background noise. The challenge of focusing on my friend's voice amid the clatter in the coffee shop shifts my brain from system one to two. By having to work to listen I actually listen better than if we were to meet in the silence of my office. Of course there can also be too much background noise, making listening impossible, like at a NASCAR race or Chuck E. Cheese.
Think of it like riding a bike. Coasting downhill will never engage your muscles. A steep incline will make riding impossible. If your goal is stronger legs, you need some resistance, but not so much that you can't proceed.
These findings have made me rethink my preaching and teaching. I used to believe the best communication was crystal clear, simple, and easy to listen to. For this reason, like many other preachers, I was persuaded by advocates of PowerPoint and multimedia to use visual aids in order to make my communication easier. But is easier the right goal? Or should we be seeking engagement that requires more work on the part of our listeners rather than less?
I've largely stopped using pre-written notes. If someone is going to "get" something from my sermon, I now want them to have to work for it—at least a little.
We can all agree that Jesus was a brilliant communicator, but when we study his methods, it is obvious that the comfort of his audience was not a significant consideration. In fact, Jesus taught in a manner that challenged (sometimes baffled) his listeners. He expected them to work in order to understand his teaching. He asked them questions, wrapped his teaching in opaque parables, and often taught in distracting settings.
Jesus was anything but clear, simple, and easy to listen to. Even now, when we engage his teaching in the Gospels, it requires effort—and a large dose of grace—to understand his words. He doesn't give us three-point alliterated sermons, and neither do his apostles.
I'm certainly not opposed to clear communication, but our cultural drive for comfort and accessibility may have unintended side-effects. People, like pilots, do not thrive by being under challenged, but by turning off the auto pilot.
Skye Jethani is executive editor of Leadership Journal.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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