The Learning Organization

Christians In Community Undergoing Radical Transformation Of Their Belief Structure

Mystery Quote: “No-one was ever matured in a theatre.”

Lets just pause a moment and think about how the communities we have been part of have shaped our beliefs. Our family formed our first beliefs and our school and social context many of our other beliefs and the church community then added yet more. On top of this networks you have belonged to and groups of friends that you have talked things over with have probably shaped you. Being involved in community placed an enormous amount of what we believe there. Communities have formed both our formal and informal beliefs, our doctrines, our prejudices our hopes and our paranoias. If beliefs are critical to our emotional health and beliefs are formed in community then fairly logically having the right kind of community will be a big help in emotional transformation. A dysfunctional family is an emotionally destructive community that places wrong beliefs and perceptions in people. The early church was a highly functional community that was emotionally transformational, full of joy and a peace-making, gospel-proclaiming, and miracle-working place to be. It certainly made sure the right beliefs; perceptions and practices were instilled in people. Thus the transforming power of an authentic loving Spirit-filled Christian community that is rightly grounded in the Scriptures cannot be underestimated.

We learn, change and grow best in an adventurous, faith-filled Christian community. That seems a simple enough statement but it is one of those important things that are often neglected. Trying to transform ourselves while neglecting the importance of true community is unfortunately rather common. If we forget about community what are the alternatives? I see only two, a) learning alone by suffering, introspection and “bootstrap” self-help books and b) learning in a classroom. Now God does use suffering to teach us and he does use classroom instruction and sermons – however in my opinion these are His “fall-back” alternatives to adventurous discipleship in loving community. Lets look at the fall-back alternatives first and see why they are less than optimal ways of learning. We tend to do what we have always done and get the results that we have always got.

The Hard Way To Change….

Bootstrap learning, on our own through suffering and discipline and the use of self-help books is the hard way to change. Some devotional writers glorify suffering as the true path to spiritual transformation that is intended to show us what we are like and to get us to trust God in all things. Their basis for this has some validity and is more or less as follows:

1. Even theologically correct Christians may have dysfunctional beliefs at the level of the "thoughts and intentions of the heart".

2. Generally we are blinded to what we truly believe in our hearts. We like to think we believe X when in fact we believe Y. Our real beliefs shame us so we hide them from ourselves.

3. Generally only trials and tribulations can expose our true beliefs and allow us to perfect our faith. In trials we find out what makes us anxious and fearful and we can then learn to trust God more fully in these areas.

4. Being perfected in obedience means allowing trials, tribulations and temptations to show us who we are and what we believe. We are then to adjust to a more biblical set of beliefs which we then live by with a single mind.

5. We can do this on our own through bible study, prayer, discipline, self-control, reflection on our sins, and the use of self-help books.

The problem is that suffering is a very slow teacher. For instance how many years of financial struggle does a person have to endure before they learn to trust God for provision? Also how do we distinguish suffering that is God's teaching and suffering that is Satan hindering? Though suffering has an honored place in the Christian life it is the hardest and slowest teacher of all. There must be an easier way.

The Slightly Easier But Fairly Powerless Way To Change

A book came out entitled "Why Most People Learn Almost Nothing At Church And What To Do About It". I like the title. It points out an important truth - Church, bible college and Christian education is not as transformational as we would all like it to be. As a part-time bible college lecturer I have taken classes in biblical exegesis, theology, church history and counseling. I see some change, some growth but rarely the transformational change that I hope for. The classroom can give you helpful information once you have realized that you need to change in a particular area and are truly searching for answers. If you are desperate to fix your marriage a Christian marriage seminar may well prove transformational. You were ready to learn. However most students in most classes are not ready to learn. They are just there to pass Church History. Worse even, because the students are extracted from real life they do not have much opportunity to apply what they have learned in a real life context and thus the learning does not “stick”. You see some of them five years later and shake your head at their mistakes. Did they learn a thing? Others of course are a source of joy. Books and classes and sermons can only take you so far. Academic, classroom learning is not powerful enough, it cannot blast through the huge blind spots we have. We go to the classroom but we don’t really learn much that changes us. So teaching stalls and suffering takes over.

So most Christians end up with classroom teaching where they are teachable and suffering where they are not teachable. Classroom teaching plus years of suffering – are they the only two ways we can be made to change? What about the transformational power of love? What about the challenge of adventure? Can we learn from powerful life-changing experiences? Might these move us along the track a bit faster than teaching and suffering alone? There must be a better way - and there is! It’s the method Jesus used to change His disciples and greatly enlarge and transform their belief structures. It’s the process of discipleship and of being a disciplined learner in a learning community. Lets see what led the disciples to be so transformed.

Having Our Beliefs Changed The Jesus Way - How Did The Disciples Learn?

How did the disciples get to increase in faith? How did they learn? How did they go from astonishing incomprehension at the start of His ministry to men of God and founders of the faith at Pentecost? These were the most successful spiritual learners in history so lets look at how they learned and maybe we can learn the same way.

1. The disciples made themselves teachable apprentices of Jesus. The decided to be learners not know-it-alls. They were prepared to give up significant comfort in order to learn. (Matthew 19:27) . They broke with their usual patterns of living that reinforced their current belief systems. They left their fishing nets or tax offices and followed Him.

2. They planted Jesus’ teaching in their hearts. They probably learned the same lessons over and over again because years later they could reproduce them word for word to their hearers.

3. They had a strong desire to inherit the Kingdom of God. In fact it dominated their personal ambitions. (Matthew 18:1-5)

4. They expressed a strong desire for specific personal growth e.g. "Lord, teach us to pray".

5. They accepted Jesus' authority over them and simply went where He went, ate what He ate and did whatever He commanded. Even when Jesus rebuked them they did not sulk.

6. They believed that what Jesus said was true, absolutely true and sought to align their beliefs with His. (John 6)

7. They watched what Jesus was doing. They saw miracles and had their view of reality enlarged.

8. They asked lots of questions and sought to understand.

9. They discussed among themselves what Jesus said and did. (Matthew 16:7, Mark 10:26)

10. They accepted Jesus' high view of the authority of the Scriptures. (Matthew 5:17)

11. They took risks in order to learn such as Peter trying to walk on water or their various attempts at healing.

12. They lived with high levels of ambiguity, confusion and mystery. They seemed to accept mind-stretching confusion as the price of learning anything worthwhile. (Mark 9:32 , John 10:6 etc.)

13. They very gradually moved away from being competitive to co-operative. They stopped trying to outdo each other and instead, by the time of the resurrection appearances were trying to encourage and edify each other. They became an encouraging, learning community.

14. They tried to do what Jesus was doing. They started with baptizing people in large numbers(John 4:1,2) and continued to exercise their faith in healing and deliverance ministries and did so with some success (Luke 10:1-24).

15. They increasingly accepted responsibility for ministry. At the beginning they were fairly passive followers by the end they seem to have roles assigned to them. Eventually Jesus was able to deliver the Great Commission to them without incongruity. (Matthew 28:18-20).

The communities in the early church and the traveling bands of apostles and missionaries that spread the gospel in the 1st century also took adventurous discipleship in community very seriously. The reason we see so little change is that instead of being adventurous we try to stay in our physical and emotional and intellectual comfort zones. Instead of accepting legitimate spiritual authority and accountability (though it can be abused) we are independent and unteachable. Instead of tolerating ambiguity and confusion we demand simplified, watered-down paradox free theology. Instead of letting God set the learning agenda we try to decide what we will learn and how and when. We want to be in control of our learning, our lives and ourselves. We do not want storms as teaching aids. We value the Kingdom a little and the world a lot and consequently we don't take the risks and make the sacrifices to find the "pearls of great price".

Deep and revolutionary change of our belief structures and the emotional authenticity and joy that follows requires a very costly commitment to learning and personal transformation. While the Holy Spirit can work through a course or a book or a set of tapes and produce some personal change this is not the sort of deep change you get with adventurous discipleship over a number of years. I have seen greater change in young people in a one-week Christian camp or a four-week short-term missions trip than in years of good youth group bible studies. While information has its place and can be transformational if given at the right moment it is not the major means of transforming our beliefs. Revising our beliefs starts with becoming an active learner about life, about God and about people and plunging into experiences and relationships yet always being guided by the Scriptures rightly interpreted. To create the right belief structures in our lives we have to try to approximate the conditions the disciples lived under as much as is reasonably possible. The early Franciscans took being like the disciples with total seriousness and turned Europe upside down. It works.

The Importance Of A Learning Community

Jesus and the disciples formed a learning organisation, a community filled with disciplined learners in which beliefs were transformed and spiritual greatness produced. It is almost impossible to be deeply transformed outside of community or as part of a community that is antithetical to one's new beliefs and growth. Cults take this power to transform beliefs in and through community to a destructive and harmful extreme. It is the growth of the person not the service of the organisation that is of critical importance. A true leaning community is the opposite of a cult. It is a place where individual personalities are developed - not squashed into clones of each other. Unlike a cult a learning community is a place where difference is permitted and where accountability is mutual and constructive not hierarchical and destructive. A true transformational learning community is a place of great freedom and love and adventure. I once experienced a bible study group that was like this and it was an exciting and transformational place to be. I have seen families that were learning communities and mission teams that were on the edge of adventure and both changing the world and the people within the team. Small groups of friends seeking God together such as the Holy Club at Oxford under John Wesley and the Haystack Prayer Meeting have produced mighty revivals.

How do we find or create such a learning community?

The Eight Creative Tensions Of A Learning Community
(1 Peter 5:1-7 NKJV) The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: {2} Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; {3} nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; {4} and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. {5} Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” {6} Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, {7} casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.

There are numerous bible passages describing the ideal kind of Christian community and the atmosphere of a learning organisation. One of these is quoted above. It seems to me that learning community revolves around two things – leadership and ethos. In reflecting on what makes good community I find that it involves balancing creative tensions. Too much one way and the community becomes dull and bureaucratic, to much the other and it self-destructs in disorganization. I have listed seven tensions (I am sure there are others as well) that my reading of Scripture sees as foundational to good Christian community they are:

1. Emotional safety - Spiritual adventure
2. Clear basic doctrines - Room to experiment and discover new things about God
3. Clear and definite leadership - Being without compulsion, exercising Christian freedom.
4. Sense of history, common purpose and tradition - Open to new methods & new territory, adaptable
5. Know they are part of the solution – Humbly dependent on God.
6. Homogeneous and united leadership - Great diversity in membership
7. God has brought this community into being - The drive to add more to the community
8. Not focused on money - True abundance, care of the poor.

Explanation of the eight creative tensions above:

Its impossible to grow very far in God or go on much of an adventure if the atmosphere is emotionally unsafe and you do not know when you will next be criticized or hurt. Christian communities must be safe for learning to occur. On the other hand they also need to stretch people because it is when we are stretched that we learn best. So we also need spiritual adventure.. Some churches over-emphasize emotional safety to the point of coziness and become nurseries. Others over-emphasize spiritual adventure and become demanding, strained and critical. Thus emotional safety and spiritual adventure need to both be present in every learning community.
Clear basic doctrines are needed for spiritual stability. A learning community needs its “times tables” and alphabet so to speak. Well-established doctrines such as the Trinity and salvation by faith are not up for grabs. Good churches teach solid foundational truths at great depths. Good Christian communities also build on the foundation. They try to find out new things for this generation and discover truth about missions, counseling etc. This book is one such exploratory attempt to build on the foundations. Good churches explore God’s truth so that as Martin Luther said “More truth may yet break forth from God’s Word”.
Good communities have good leaders. Jesus led the disciples, the apostles led the early church and Paul led his band of missionaries. These are definite clear leaders who tend to call the shots and who are treated with respect. The leaders impart definite vision and set the clear bounds in which the learning community joyfully operates. Such leaders lead in freedom and refuse to compel people to follow them. Jesus never forced anyone to follow Him. In fact He seemed to drive many away. (See John 6). Leaders of learning communities are not obsessive, compulsive people who fret over every detail and create an air of dread and compulsion in their wake. They do lead and they lead in a clear and definite manner, however it is without any heaviness, without “lording it over” the flock, and without compulsion.
Learning communities are well-defined. Somehow tradition helps learning. It is a different kind of education at Cambridge than at a new university – no matter how well-equipped it may be. Some of the most creative and successful missionary societies today such as OMF, CMS, Scripture Union, IVCF and SIM have long histories and a definite sense of tradition that gives them wisdom and the psychological foundations to tackle new ministries and territories. Stability enables learning and innovation. Some small missions have a new “mission statement” every 6 months which is the path to chaos and an indication of organizational immaturity. We need a solid sense of who we are and what we are about, common purpose, continuity, clarity of vision, and wisdom passed down through the informal teaching and discipling structures of the community. On the other hand such long-lived organizations can become smug and bureaucratic and sometimes have to pass through traumatic periods where the organization is swept with a “new broom” and is re-envisioned. No mission statement can be so authoritative that it can overturn God’s will. No tradition or corporate culture can be so “good” that it does not need new ideas from the Holy Spirit. When God reveals a new area of ministry to us we are to go into it boldly, wisely and well. When God speaks about a change in our culture then we are to listen and implement it. The learning organization uses its strong foundations to confidently plunge into new things for God. Balance is needed here. I think we have swung to one extreme – too far away from tradition. Too many organisations are busily doing “this month’s new thing..” to the point where nothing is built properly and half completed ministries and projects litter the landscape. Folly has become rampant under the guise of the leading of the Holy Spirit or innovation. In fact it is often just an immature “gold-digging” approach to ministry, trying first this for a season and then that until they find “the one” that will take them into the big time. Learning communities are stable and continuous allowing people to learn deep lessons in relative security and to prudently and wisely explore new options for ministry and Christian living.
Learning communities know they are part of the solution not part of the problem.. They know they have something to offer their members and even to offer the world. They are positive and they are going places. On the other hand they do not think they ARE the solution. They humbly point beyond themselves and say “Jesus is the answer!”. They combine humble dependence on God with a deep sense of mission and calling and the belief that they can do something for the world – with God’s help.
To be a bit controversial it seems that homogeneous, united leadership and diverse membership is a Scriptural pattern for effective community. The apostles were all Jewish males mainly from Galilee. They were culturally homogeneous and good friends, some were even related to each other, yet they would lead a church that would soon be comprised of many nations. David’s choice of leadership was very homogeneous –people he knew were absolutely loyal to him and had shared his troubles, mainly from his own tribe and clan line. His generals were his cousins! Yet David ruled all 12 tribes. In modern times George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers formed the “Holy Club” at Oxford that ended up becoming the Wesleyan revival. All the early leaders of that movement were educated white males, Anglican clergymen to be precise, yet the Methodist revival touched all levels of society and was very inclusive. The reason for this seemingly unfair principle is probably that if the leadership is not knitted together the whole community will fragment. The leadership needs to be able to deeply understand each other and to get along and have similar objectives and strong loyalties to each other. This requires both cultural and personal affinity. On the other hand no Christian learning community can exclude or demote someone because of gender, race or class. The community is to welcome diversity in membership while it maintains loyalty and unity in leadership. There needs to be a balance even in this – especially in interdenominational works. Nepotism and preferential treatment or the predominance of a particular denomination can destroy a work of God. Homogenous united leadership is separated from the sin of partiality (James 2) by a very fine line.
The 1 Peter passage above talks of the “sheep allotted to your charge”. God forms the community and it is God who allots the members and builds the Church. To be aware that God has brought you into existence is a good and empowering thing. All learning communities should believe that they are God’s people, called out of darkness and commissioned for His transformational purposes on earth. The early church saw itself as a community formed by divine mandate for divine purposes. This sense of being formed by God and used by God gives a powerful dynamic to the learning organization. However the learning organization should not be unduly puffed up by this and thus become exclusive or spiritually proud or separate themselves from other believers who do not seem to share their sense of vision and mission. They should not draw boundaries around themselves too tightly. The early church in Jerusalem was a very open, humble and welcoming place. Learning organizations should always be open to new members and believe that there are yet more to be added to the flock, “others not of this fold”. They should also maintain open linkages of real integrity with the rest of the body of Christ. To draw the boundaries too tightly is to become a club or even a cult. A learning community sees itself as formed by God and involved in His purposes yet is humble and gracious and open to new people and to fellowship with the rest of the body of Christ.
A learning community has a healthy attitude to its financial needs. On one hand it knows what it means to be dependent on God, excited about His provision and free from the love of money. It is thus free to experience His transforming challenges to material comfort. On the other hand the learning organization truly cares about its members and their financial needs. The early church took great care of its poor and in the post-Pentecost Jerusalem church “there was none among them who lacked” (Acts 4:34). Thus it is God’s clear desire that His Kingdom should not contain any abject poverty. The twelve fasted from discipline but there is no indication that they starved from want. The New Testament regards God as the Master and money as the servant to be used for Kingdom purposes. Learning organizations need to be free from the love of money, living lightly, simply and adventurously but able to take care of people and their financial needs and use finances to accomplish God’s will on earth. Neither crass materialism nor financial disorder is God’s will for a learning organization.

The Learning Community, Beliefs and Emotional Health
Lets put this together. First we looked at the disciples as the ideal community members with their high commitment to finding spiritual truth and allowing themselves to be stretched. Lately we have looked at the eight tensions that the leadership of a learning organization need to be aware of and bring into balance. In such a community grace and truth and love will meet and people will be transformed in their belief structures and emotional lives. They will learn, they will grow and they will have lots of fun.

How can we do this? How can we create a therapeutic, healing, loving, sanctifying community that really works? I have explored these issues in two ebooks that can be downloaded from . The ebooks are Beyond Denominations – The Networked Church, and Temples and Tithes. The first looks at abandoning denominational hierarchical structures in favor of networks of churches in a local area. The second looks at some of the doctrines, particularly misinterpretations of the Old Testament and the law, that keep Christians in bondage or which confine them in dysfunctional structures. Traditional church structures are not transforming people at the rate they should be. It is imperative for our own personal spiritual and emotional growth to find or create alternatives. Here is my suggested pathway:

Create a united leadership group that shares the same passion and direction. Pray for 6-8 people (say 3-4 couples) to start things rolling.
Don’t decide on any forms or structures at the start. Just meet in a home and spend some time studying the Gospels and Acts together and looking at early Christian community. Allow the Scriptures to speak to you and the Holy Spirit to lead you into the forms the groups should take.
Act on what God reveals to you.
Invite others to join you after a while.

On the other hand you may just want to make your current church more transformational. In that case start by throwing out those things that don’t work for you and doing more of those things that do work for you. Ask God to show you where to start. Generally if you spend more and more time doing things that do work for you they will gradually and naturally push out the dysfunctional elements along the way. For instance if you find that small groups help your people to grow then have more small groups! Get more and more people into small groups and delegate more and more functions to them. Even allow the small group leaders to baptize and administer the Lord’s Supper. After a while you will have most of the preaching and teaching and praying and counseling and baptizing and sacraments being done in people’s homes in small groups. They will be in small mutually accountable communities and the pastor will be teaching the leaders to lead and dealing with the most complex questions. Maybe everyone will be so involved in their small groups that they won’t “come to church” any more. They will just be the church. That will solve the problem of the parking lot.

The above example may shock you but it poses a fundamental question – what is our community for? Is it for the people? Is it for God? Or is it for a structure? We need to find a way of being together that makes us most like Jesus Christ. The present way of being together does that a little and is better than nothing. However there has to be a better way of being church and thousands, if not millions, of Christians are searching for it.

What has this got to do with Biblical EQ and in particular with our belief structure? Church structure seems a long way from emotional health. To answer that - emotions flow from beliefs and beliefs are formed in community and how far we can go with those beliefs and what they really mean is often reinforced day by day in that community.

An extreme example of dysfunctional communities is the cults. Cults are communities that form wrong beliefs and produce destructive emotional states. Cults are community gone wrong and are a huge danger to emotional health. Just do an Internet search on “cults” or read the biography of someone who has been in one and you will soon see the terrible damage they can inflict. Structure can quietly shape community so that it goes badly wrong. For instance if there are a small handful of highly coveted church positions in a large church then that will tend to create lobbying and internal politics as people try to get elected. Or if the structure is one of professional performers “on stage” and a large audience in the auditorium then it is natural for people to be spectators rather than actively involved with their faith. I was mulling this over with respect to why mega-churches seemed to be so shallow unless they had good home groups, when God suddenly and almost audibly spoke these words: “John, no-one was ever matured in a theatre.” (Hence the mystery quote at the beginning of the chapter).

On the other hand in the past twenty years or so whole therapy movements have grown up around getting community right – notably family therapy. Or they employ community as a tool for healing emotions in T-groups, encounter groups, support groups, Twelve Step groups and so on. Even in the business world various branches of systems theory and the study of organizational behavior has revealed that structures, beliefs, emotions and behaviors are inextricably linked and that good companies must have good structures if they are to maximize the potential of their staff. The emotional potential of people is released best in a good and rightly structured community. Thus the link between community culture and transformed human emotion is well documented and strong.

When we do get community right it has tremendous healing power. This can even happen on a small scale such as the “Jones family”, a loving Christian household that people just keep “dropping in on”. There they are welcomed and loved and changed. More counseling is done in the kitchen than in many a pastor’s study. Over the years this small functional community of just one family will help hundreds of people towards wholeness as they absorb the atmosphere and feel the love and warmth there. Love is the great transforming force in biblical EQ.

People are matured in families, groups of friends, marriages and good groups. They are matured in communities that speak the truth to one another in love. People are not matured in a theatre, even by the best performers. When we turn churches into theatres we rob Christians of the chance to mature. So structures and beliefs and emotions and community and maturity are all part of one seamless whole.

In the last few chapters we have explored how emotions are formed in the realm of the spirit and the soul and in community. In this next chapter we will look at another place emotions are generated – in our bodies, and turn to the complex topic of the interaction between our physical bodies and our emotions.

Discussion Questions

1. Why is no-one ever matured in a theatre? Are you excited about the idea of community?

2. What results do “suffering and classroom teaching” produce? Are they largely ineffective means of making disciples? What percentage of our beliefs come from our communities?

What made the disciples the best spiritual learners in history?

What are the eight tensions of a learning community? What is your favourite one? How can we prevent communities becoming cults?