Connect activity and outcome

Brian D. McLarenConnected

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Before I became a pastor, I was an educator. I taught college English—writing, technical writing, and some literature too. If there’s one habit that educators develop, it’s the habit of making connections between classroom activities and desired outcomes.

When we fail to connect classroom activities with desired outcomes, students call it busy work. We educators call it wasted time—and parents and taxpayers call it wasted tuition and tax dollars.

To keep the vital connection strong between what we do and what we desire, educators habitually ask questions like these:

  • What’s the purpose of this lesson or assignment?
  • What skills is it intended to introduce or develop?
  • What concepts should students be able to recall and use?
  • How will students demonstrate mastery of educational objectives?

In a good educational system, these questions can be answered on every level. For example, a fourth-grade math curriculum can answer these questions for next Tuesday’s lesson, and for next week’s lessons, and for next semester’s lessons, and for next year’s lessons. Not only that, but fourth-grade math educators answer these questions in concert with first- through twelfth-grade educators, and their answers are constantly renegotiated in dialogue with current learning theory as well as with the demands of higher education and the business and science communities.

Math educators know a lot about how a child’s developing brain can handle increasing levels of complexity. They know when capacities develop and they know what kinds of exercises, what kinds of repetition, and what kinds of testing assure mastery of material. Not only that, but they also know what kinds of learning disabilities affect various math skills, and they have developed work-arounds to deal with those individual learning differences.

The same—or something similar— can be said regarding critical thinking skills for writing teachers (although “good writing” is quite a bit less easy to objectify than a “right answer” in math). Science teachers have a similar K-12 curriculum scope and sequence, as do physical education teachers. Through years of experimentation and professional development, we have matched learning objectives with what we know about human development and with what we know about market demands in the professional world. As a result, we have well thought-out learning arcs for math education, English education, and so on.

When I became a pastor, I kept thinking, “Somewhere, Christian leaders are making needed connections like these for the faith as a whole, right?” After two thousand years, we must have developed some kind of understanding of our educational objectives: what kinds of people we are trying to develop, what concepts they would hold, what skills and aptitudes they would possess, right? Surely we’ve made these vital connections between those desired outcomes and our liturgies, our church year, our church life, right?

Year after year, I kept hoping I’d be let in on the secret about who was making and monitoring these vital connections.

Well, it’s been decades now, and so far, I’ve seen no evidence for such a holistic Christian curriculum anywhere. Not from the Vatican. Not from Louisville or Nashville or Indianapolis or Colorado Springs.

What does it tell us about ourselves that we spend billions of dollars and billions of person-hours every year to keep Christian institutions going without a clear sense of the outcomes for which they exist? What does it say about us that we have no way of evaluating our effectiveness in actually forming disciples of Jesus Christ? What does it say about us that we have thousands of activities—liturgical activities, social activities, missional activities, educational activities—yet we seem less committed to connecting our activities to defined objectives than a fourth-grade math teacher?

The closest we come to identifiable educational objectives, I suppose, is doctrinal statements. Nearly all our denominations have identified a very specific list of statements with which we want people to agree. But we haven’t made a similar list of virtues and skills that we want people to aspire to, value, and actually practice between Sundays.

The bad news is that we’re often in a muddle when it comes to the vital connection between actions and objectives. The good news is that it’s not too late for that to change. Let me offer three examples of what I think is possible.

First, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus said of Jerusalem, “If only you knew what makes for peace.” OK. How do we help disciples of Jesus become peacemakers—in their families, in their neighborhoods, in their workplaces and nations and world? What makes for peace, and by what information, exercises, experiences, and practices would we help children, youth, and adults at all stages gain some level of mastery of peacemaking?

Second, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Paul also said, “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” What thought patterns represent conformity to this world, and what thought patterns represent the mind of Christ? Again, how would we teach this over the course of twelve or eighteen or seventy-five years?

Third, John says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.” Like him, Paul says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” and 1 Corinthians 13 gives a lengthy exposition on what love is and isn’t, including this: “Without love, it profits you nothing.”Assuming a baby is born in our congregation or denomination this week, how are we going to teach her to become a truly loving person over the next twelve, eighteen, twenty-five, and fifty years? How will we know if we’ve succeeded? Since without love, nothing else matters, wouldn’t you think that our religion would have developed the world’s greatest love curriculum over these two thousand years?

I think it was Jim Wallis who first got me thinking about this years ago. In one of his books he mentioned that we spent our first five centuries focused on precisely articulating the identity of Jesus in terms of Greek philosophy. Christology is important, no doubt. But at what point do we decide to move beyond correctly articulating, “Lord, Lord,” and actually start focusing on doing the things that he said? Might our third millennium be a good time for such an endeavor?

Imagine, for example, if we connected every minute of every service, class, retreat, seminar, or group with the two primary values of discipleship, according to Jesus: loving God wholeheartedly and loving neighbor. Ideally, if we had complete creative and educational freedom, how would we use an hour of gathered time to maximize those outcomes? How could each minutes of that hour be maximized, week after week, to actually produce people who love God and neighbor? How could children be moved forward, year after year, toward that ultimate goal of love? How could we bend, adjust, revise, and reform what we’re currently doing to be more like that ideal hour? How would we evaluate progress?

Such a project would never be complete. It would never be perfect. It would always be contested and up for renegotiation and improvement. But wouldn’t that struggle for vital connection be eminently worthwhile? And wouldn’t anything less be … inexcusable?
I can almost see it, taste it:

  • A church life where leaders are making the vital connection between every element of every Sunday morning gathering and the outcomes of love for God and love for neighbor.
  • A periodic ministry audit where ways of measuring progress are developed and improved—and employed in evaluating every dimension of church life.
  • A church life where curricula weren’t purchased for flash or pizzazz alone, but for a coherent vision of Christian aliveness. Denominational life where congregations focus on the kind of world that would more reflect the Lord’s prayer (“Your will be done on earth…”), and leaders focus on the kinds of people that would produce that kind of world.

These possibilities are what drew me into ministry and have kept me at it all these years.

The truth is, our default curriculum does have objectives. They are just unarticulated, unconscious. They typically go something like this:

1. Keep things running as they have been, as long as possible, with as little change as possible.
2. Avoid offending the complainers, especially those who give the most money and volunteer hours.
3. Increase the bottom lines of BIP and DIOP (Butts In Pews, and Dollars In Offering Plate).
4. Keep staff employed and fulfilled until retirement, and keep retirement funds intact thereafter.

It’s a little scary to think we are asking gifted young adults to invest forty to eighty thousand dollars on a Masters of Divinity to achieve paltry and pathetic desired outcomes like those. It’s even depressing to think we’re asking attendees to invest 52-plus hours a year to achieve this little.

Ah … but if we articulated more worthy educational objectives, the kinds inspired not by institutional survival but by the gospel, what could happen then? What would happen if we got serious about the vital connection between activity and desired outcome?

Let’s find out.

Brian D. McLaren, the keynote speaker at the 2014 APCE Annual Event, is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is an ecumenical global networker among innovative Christian leaders.

Born in 1956, he graduated from University of Maryland with degrees in English (BA, summa cum laude, 1978, and MA, in 1981). His academic interests included Medieval drama, Romantic poets, modern philosophical literature, and the novels of Walker Percy. In 2004, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity Degree (honoris causa) from Carey Theological Seminary in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and in 2010, he received a second honorary doctorate, this one from Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal).

In 1982, he helped form Cedar Ridge Community Church, an innovative, nondenominational church in the Baltimore-Washington region (crcc.org). He left higher education in 1986 to serve as the church’s founding pastor and served in that capacity until 2006. During that time, Cedar Ridge earned a reputation as a leader among emerging missional congregations.

Brian has been active in networking and mentoring church planters and pastors since the mid 1980s, and has assisted in the development of several new churches. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for denominational and ecumenical leadership gatherings – across the US and Canada, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. His public speaking covers a broad range of topics including postmodern thought and culture, Biblical studies, evangelism, leadership, global mission, spiritual formation, worship, pastoral survival and burnout, inter-religious dialogue, ecology, and social justice.