Learning from Learning Communities
So it’s great to be able to talk for a minute about how good the “Growing to the Next Level” learning community, hosted by Dave Smith and Kingsgate Peterborough, was in early March. I say this as someone who a) doesn’t instinctively enjoy pragmatic input from American überchurchpastors, b) has theological qualms about all sorts of things that some of them say, and c) has already been on two learning community leadership courses, which you might think would create a sense of diminishing returns. Which is to say: I am not, in most (if any) senses, the target audience for this sort of thing. Yet I still found it extremely helpful in a variety of ways. Here are a few things I really enjoyed.
1. Being part of a significant national gathering. I have had the privilege of going to a lot of leaders gatherings over the last ten years or so, but this was different, mainly because of the scale. There were three hundred people there from fifty churches, ranging in size from 250 to 2500, including many of the UK’s largest congregations (Life Church Bradford, Hope Church, Audacious, Jesus House, Trent Vineyard, Jubilee Church London, and so on), a huge range of networks and denominations (Anglican, AOG, Vineyard, Newfrontiers, Ground Level, Pioneer, and so on), and many of the nation’s key leaders (Dave Carr, Stuart Bell, Tim Hughes, Dave Gilpin, Alan Scott, Archie Coates, Tope Koleoso, Billy Kennedy, Dave Smith, John and Debby Wright, Andy Croft, Steve Tibbert, and so on). Just being in a room with all those people was inspiring in itself, even before there was any content.
2. The Learning Community model. The idea is simple: instead of fifty leadership teams in one room, listening—which would be the standard conference approach—you get ten leadership teams in five rooms, talking. With a bit of input from the stage, and some smart facilitation (team-based exercises, A1 sheets all over the walls, experienced megachurch leaders wandering around the room sharing ideas, feedback sessions, stuff like that), you can learn far more in two hours than you can from ten hours of listening to even the best public speakers.
3. Interacting with big hitters. On the first morning we had breakfast with a guy called Chris from Alabama, who seemed to know a fair bit about systems in the life of larger churches. We asked him how many people there were in his church, and he told us there were 42,000 last Sunday. That translates to 6,500 people under the age of 9 (!), 60,000 people for an Easter celebration, and all sorts of other numbers that have you spluttering into your coffee. He wasn’t an anomaly, either: everywhere we turned there were leaders of churches of 10,000 or more, who despite their very different gifts, and contexts, were happy to talk about anything and to help in any way they could.
4. Getting to know my new team. In many ways this was my first public outing as part of King’s Church London, and it was great fun getting into some of the big issues that the church is facing. It was even more fun to spend time together as a team, discussing and debating and laughing and learning. I’m sure there will be a host of challenges over the next few years, but I really like these guys, and I think that will really help.
5. Geoff Surratt. One of the puzzles of church growth gurus is the way that, without knowing anything at all about your church’s history or context, they can identify a problem and a solution quicker than you can. In the space of a conversation that lasted less than five minutes, Geoff Surratt made a point that may end up saving the church tens of thousands of pounds, and he did without (for all I know) ever having even been to south London. A few years ago, Dave Ferguson did the same thing for us in Eastbourne. It’s a little freakish, but an enormously helpful skill to have up your sleeve.
6. Discovering accessible frameworks. Say what you like about American megachurches, but they are good at developing frameworks that ordinary people can understand. Membership, Discipleship, Stewardship, Leadership. Lost people saved -> saved people freed -> freed people trained -> trained people sent. “We ask young people what they want us to do, and if it’s not sinful, we do it.” Know God -> Find Freedom -> Discover Purpose -> Make a Difference. “You can do less than you think in one year, and more than you think in five years.” And so on, and so on. Nuggets are everywhere.
There are, of course, corresponding weaknesses. The pith and apparent wisdom of some of the speakers’ statements disintegrate on closer inspection, either because they are benignly vague (“brothers compete, fathers complete”), exegetically inexplicable (“the third face is the face of the eagle, and in my opinion, the eagle represents excellence”), manifestly unbiblical (“the right church model is simply the one that works!”) or glaringly heretical (“John’s gospel is saying that Jesus is not a man, not even a servant—he’s God.”) Some sessions are too long, and rely too heavily on platitudinous lists. Panels with eleven people are far too big. And the controversial assumption underlying much of the input, that larger churches are those in which more people become believers, is never argued for or defended. Having said all that, most of us—or at least most of us who teach regularly—unintentionally pepper our teaching with jargon, waffle, muddle or quasi-biblical flannel, whether or not it is obvious to us; discerning listeners will be able to sift the useful wheat from the heretical chaff; and I would imagine most British churches are guilty of pursuing growth too little, not too much. All things considered, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
So if you’re leading a church that is looking to grow, and you’re in the UK, and these guys run this programme again, I’d really recommend it. Eat the fish, spit out the bones, and give thanks for the fish.