A new trend in academia encourages educators to focus less on lecture and more on active learning within the classroom environment.
"The danger with lucid lectures…is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners," explained Eric Mazur, a professor and pioneer for this educational model, in Harvard Magazine. "Sitting passively and taking notes is just not a way of learning. Yet lectures are 99 percent of how we teach!"
As I discussed Mazur's approach with my family of public educators, my thoughts went from public school classrooms to the church. Mazur advocates directed conversation in the classroom between students, debate, dialogue, and active listening, and he sees higher levels of success and engagement as a result. Could so-called reverse lectures and flip teaching change the way we approach the traditional Sunday church service?
Think of what a typical church gathering looks like. During the teaching portion, we sit in our chairs, take notes, follow along in the outline, and listen to our pastor deliver his well-prepared lecture on John's letter to the church in Laodicea, or whatever the passage or topic may be.
We hear the message, we write our notes, but are we learning?
According to Mazur, learning is more than simple information transfer. When we hear a lecture we receive information into our short-term memory, but to learn, we also need to assimilate the information we've received; meaning, we need to engage and apply the information.
Is the 40-minute sermon losing its effectiveness? Some might point to today's most influential preachers or the gifted communicators in their congregations and say the lecture is alive and well. The most popular pastors' sermons surpass the boundaries of the traditional church service, breaking into the digital world where they become accessible to any Christian tech-savvy enough to find and download them.
Christians subscribe to free podcasts of their favorite preachers with a simple click. Through iTunes, YouTube, and other media, we can instantly hear and see biblical teachings from any pastor of our choosing, from a wide array of theological perspectives, at any time convenient for us to learn. We don't need to sit through the average or mediocre sermons anymore, either. The number of views and shares, tweets and likes, let us select the best, most dynamic, most beloved, preaching available. (I'm quite surprised, actually, that a Christian entrepreneur hasn't invented a sort of Khan Academy for Bible teaching, with free videos explaining complex biblical concepts in 5-7 minute tutorials.)
Technology, in making virtually all things downloadable and digestible, has also diminished our attention spans. If you find yourself getting more distracted and unable to focus at church, you may get to blame your iPhone.
According to The New York Times, the findings of two research surveys of teachers in 2012 indicated many teachers believe that students' frequent use of digital technology is taking a negative toll on their attention spans. They also believe technology is affecting students' grit; that is, their "ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks." I only have to sit next to my 17 year-old nephew at lunch for a few minutes to witness this firsthand. We chit chat for three minutes about prom before he picks up his cell phone searching for the next injection of information stimuli.
If then, any eager learner can reference biblical teaching whenever he chooses, and if he can break it into bite-sized bits to accommodate his attention span, and pick an extraordinarily gifted preacher to deliver the lecture, what is the appeal of the Sunday church service?
Although the message from the pulpit can seem like the "main act," going to church is about relating to one another in Christian community. Spread so thin from our jobs, college schedules, parenting responsibilities, meetings, volunteer opportunities, community activism, social media, and extracurricular activities galore, we in the Western church hardly have time for each other. Many Christians are lonely; many people are lonely. We come to church eager for friendship, to connect with God and with one another, because he made us for relationship.
Yet, the format of most Sunday church services rarely affords more interaction outside a handshake or "nice to meet you." We sit shoulder to shoulder for 20 minutes of music, 5 minutes of announcements, 40 minutes of lecture, and 10 minutes of music to close. The greatest opportunity for community happens in the courtyard after service or on the slow trot to the car. Deepening relationships at church usually requires more time (which few of us have)–an additional Bible study, a prayer group, a mid-week community group to get "plugged in." Meanwhile, the most interactive learning on Sunday morning consists of asking, "What did you think of the sermon?"
Which brings us back to Mazur and this notion of flipping classrooms. He says, "Harvard is Harvard not because of the buildings, not because of the professors, but because of the students interacting with one another." We regularly remind ourselves the church is not merely a building. Would we allow that the church is not the church because of our pastor's sermons, but because of the interaction of the congregation, the formation of community around the Word of God?
Incorporating more opportunities to interact with one another during the Sunday service both addresses our need for community and our need to engage more deeply with the pastor's instruction. How would it be if, instead of a Sunday morning 40-minute lecture, the pastor chopped his teaching into four shortened podcasts or You Tube videos for the congregation to listen to during the week. What if we actually asked questions about the topic or discussed the teaching with others? What if the pastor directed us with prompts, texts to read, and specific questions about what we learned mid-week? What if each "sermon" was collected into a downloadable eBook that we could share with friends, available for reference on our e-readers, and accessible for discussion during the Sunday morning church service?
I'm not arguing, of course, that every person has such a limited attention span, or that the sermon is dead. Nor am I saying we should forfeit the Sunday worship gathering in exchange for 40-minutes of John Ortberg in our jammies on a Thursday morning via iTunes. I appreciate that many countries do not have access to technology, therefore the idea of altering our teaching pedagogy does not apply.
I also recognize the importance of the pastor remaining the key facilitator and leader of the Sunday morning worship hour. Yet if learning is most effective as a social experience, as Mazur argues, perhaps we should reevaluate our current teaching methodology to include more interactive learning in our chapels and sanctuaries, rather than just in classrooms and lecture halls.
Karen E. Yates lives in southern California and is a writer, non-profit consultant, dabbler in book marketing, and sushi addict. A mother of three children, two by birth and one via adoption, she writes on spiritual formation, books, motherhood, and church culture. She blogs at KarenEYates.com. You can also follow her on twitter: @KarenYates11.