Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lifelong unlearning

I have posted several times about the value of being a lifelong learner, but in a book I'm currently reading the author mentioned that "lifelong learning actually means lifelong unlearning."  He's right!  Quite often, in order to learn something one must first unlearn something.  I remember reading several years ago a quote by a Fortune 500 CEO who said that he had learned much in his 30 years of managerial experience, most of which was no longer true.  He had been successful because of his willingness to set aside old truths as they were replaced with new ones.  We in the ministry must be willing to do likewise.

Earlier this week a pastor friend and I were talking about a particular issue and found that each of us had changed our beliefs about this issue.  At one time we each believed one way, and as we continued to study the issue and discovered new information we found out we had been wrong.  As we talked we further discovered that the change was not easy for either of us, but facts and truth are stubborn things, and once new facts and truths are discovered one must either accept them or deny them.  I understand the Flat Earth Society had approximately 3,000 members in the 1990s so I guess it is possible to deny facts, but why would anyone want to?

Many church leaders continue to operate in the church as if it was still 1950 believing if they remain faithful and work hard that things will turn around and they will once again become the robust church they were back then.  That is Flat Earth Society thinking.  We are in the 21st century.  Our world is much different that 1950.  People's needs are different; their way of thinking about religion and faith are different, the family structure is different; people are facing new challenges.  The Good News of the gospel has not changed, but the way it is presented to people must change or the church of today will not impact this generation God has given us.

I hear a lot of small church pastors and lay leaders complain that nobody comes to the revivals any more.  Maybe it's because the day of revival meetings have passed.  Maybe it's because families have so many different directions to go each evening that trying to attend a revival service just isn't very high on their list of priorities.  Am I saying that's a good thing?  No, but it's the reality.  Maybe, instead of complaining that no one comes to the revival meetings, we should not schedule one and do something different.  I hear the same complaints about the lack of people attending Sunday school, and yet those who complain typically are doing the same thing today they did in Sunday school they did 30 years ago.  Maybe we need to restructure our Sunday school or offer something entirely different to promote biblical understanding and discipleship.  A common complaint today is that people don't attend association meetings like they used to (in 1950?).  Maybe that's a sign that it's time to stop having those meetings.  Maybe people are trying to say that those meetings don't have the importance they once had.

As I work with pastor search committees I often hear them say they would like a younger pastor with some new ideas.  Two things I want to say about that.  One, most of the committees that say that don't mean it because if the pastor came with a new idea they would reject it.  Two, it's not always the young pastors who have the new ideas about doing church.  I've seen a lot of 30 and 40 year old pastors who have some really old ideas of how a church should minister.  I've also seen some older pastors who have a much better understanding of ministry in the 21st century than their younger counterparts.  I'm now 63 years old, and I can tell you if I returned to pastoral ministry I would not function as I did for the 20 years I pastored.  In the past 11 years as a judicatory minister I've learned some things about ministry I didn't know back then.  To learn those things I've had to unlearn a lot of things I had been taught and some things I just assumed about ministry.

Unlearning isn't easy, but it's necessary if you want to remain useful to the Kingdom of God.  It's hard to give up some cherished truths you've clung to for years (decades).  It helps to remember those truths were once new truths that replaced some cherished truths our ancestors believed about ministry years earlier, and one day, as new discoveries are made and things continue to change in our world, these new truths will also be replaced.  That is why each of us must be committed to a lifetime of unlearning and learning.

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