Moving from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’

Image of a classroom
Should our churches adopt this model for teaching? (image by weathertation CC:By-NC-SA)

Yesterday I attended Evangelical Alliance’s Social Media for Social Change event in London and thoroughly enjoyed it . As others have noted there was probably greater emphasis on social media than social change but this was not really surprising or a negative thing. Something that came up almost as a side comment in one of the Q&A sessions was the issue of teaching within our churches. A comment was made about how the education system underwent a change from “a sage on a stage to a guide by your side”. This is rather catchy but it does sum up the issue well. I attended school well within the “sage on a stage” era but still encountered teachers who would very much work with me and were approachable, encouraging and available. They really did guide me through my studies rather than dictate what they felt I needed to know to pass an exam. By stepping away from he blackboard, taking time to listen and being more human they gained a greater respect from me than other teachers. Coincidentally I find I can now – all these years later – remember more of what they taught me than those who simply lectured.

A change or a return?

Anyway back to the church. Can and should the way teaching is undertaking in our churches undergo a similar change as the education system? And if so how? A round table discussion took place at the conference on these very points and various concerns were raised. Moving people out of their comfort zones is a risky business. Churches who had tried something other than a preach-cum-lecture approach had received significant negative feedback and yes as expected threats were made.

And yet something in me thought of this passage from Luke 4:

16 When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. 17 The scroll containing the messages of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him, and he unrolled the scroll to the place where it says: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, 19 and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come. ” 20 He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. Everyone in the synagogue stared at him intently. 21 Then he said, “This Scripture has come true today before your very eyes!” 22 All who were there spoke well of him and were amazed by the gracious words that fell from his lips. “How can this be?” they asked. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Luke 4:16-22 NLT

When Jesus finishes reading the scriptures he sits and every eye is on him. This is because it was traditional at the time for Rabbis to sit in the synagogue when they taught. By sitting down Jesus indicated he was about to teach. I’ve been to a few Bar-Mitzvahs and most synagogues I’ve been to are not arranged in the same way as churches. There is no pulpit and the “congregation” are not facing in one direction. They sat around the teacher and listened. Another way to put it is that the teacher sat among them. Scholars suggest this may have been how synagogues were arranged in Jesus’ time. How different is this to the arrangement in our churches? Another difference is that Jesus when he teaches permits and even encourages interruption. Witness how he permits the children to come to him and how often we read of someone asking a question while he is teaching. How often have you sat in a church and somebody has raised a question only to be told that they can “have a chat” later with the preacher – which often sounds like “Sit down and be quiet while I make my point”. (I do appreciate why this is done and that it is not often what is really meant but it does sound like that).

A challenge

So here’s the challenge:

Can and should the teaching methods in our churches change? What would happen if the preacher/teacher sat among the congregation? What would happen if they were not only allowed but encouraged to ask questions?

It’s interesting to note that this happens in many churches already. Those who run a “cell church” model will already meet in a more “guide by the side” way. Home groups are often similar and many a youthworker will tell you that is how they work. All these are often successful within those contexts and yet when all this is put aside and we come to “do proper church” we revert back to “the sage on the stage” model. Another point to make is that I personally — and I know I am not alone here — am uncomfortable with the gravitas that is automatically bestowed upon anyone standing up the front. Sometimes it feels like you are taken as some kind of super-Christian when nothing could be further from the truth. Thankfully this is on the wane as people are remembering that preachers put their trousers on (if they wear them) the same as everybody else and might even get annoyed if they get their foot stuck.

I’m not sure how or even if this change should take place but surely it must be worth thinking about?