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Learning at the speed of life

By: Steve R. Mills


Change! It is happening faster than ever before in history. In their book, Blur, Davis and Meyer say, “Built to last” now means “built to change.”

I suggest that built to last means built to learn, and our learning must be done at the speed of life. If we are not learning, growing, and adapting our methods and strategies at the speed of life, in a few years we will be ineffective and irrelevant.

We are living in a time of unprecedented dangerous opportunity. An epic shift is taking place in our world. Some are thriving, while others are wandering shell-shocked and immobilized by it.

Christian futurist Bill Easum describes today’s dynamics that challenge our ability to be effective in ministry as “a collision of paradigms.” He says, “Everything is uncontrollable, and everything is working both for and against. It’s called paradox. There is no one way to do anything anymore.”

Easum calls today a time of strategic mapping. You draw the map as you explore the new territory.

As we go on this uncharted journey, we are forced continually to innovate, experiment, learn, and adapt. Some of our previous successes and accomplishments mean nothing. If we don’t continue to learn, our ministries will become irrelevant to the culture, and we will miss opportunities God is offering us.

Let’s look at a few fundamental attitudes and skills to be embraced and developed in the church or ministry team committed to “learning at the speed of life.”

1. Keep your eyes on God and His purposes.

Preparing to possess the Promised Land, Joshua and the leaders of Israel admonished the people, “When you see the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests…carrying it, follow them…since you have never been this way before” (Joshua 3:3,4, The New Living Translation).

The Israelites were about to face issues they had not faced before. The land they were entering was a different culture from what they knew. That is why they were told to keep their eyes on the Ark (God).

We lose sight of God’s purposes when we follow routines and traditions without asking God for new insights. When we keep our eyes on God and His purposes, then we are able to stay on track as we adapt our methods to changing conditions. If there are conflicts over music style or worship times and formats, seek the Lord for guidance. God’s purpose for His church is reaching the lost and discipling the believer. This is the unchanging factor by which everything else is measured.

2. Develop a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

Because we operate in uncharted territory, the ability to live with the unknown is essential. Along with the changing culture we now experience unprecedented mobility. We must learn to work with unique combinations in ministry teams. The members come from diverse backgrounds, with broad ranges in priorities, values, needs, and preferences. Allowing them to innovate and take charge often becomes necessary, and this requires courage, confidence, and faith.

As we become convinced of God’s eternal mission and purposes and comfortable with our own calling and abilities, we gain the inner strength to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. Then we can create or facilitate new ways to respond to exciting and challenging situations. Repeatedly God tells Joshua to be “strong and courageous.”

3. Value individual differences, gifts, and ideas.

Sometimes a ministry becomes ineffective because of a tendency to see individual differences as threats or liabilities. We must learn to see differences as an asset to the team. Joshua recognized the tribes’ different passions, ideas, and gifts. Because of their unique needs, two and a half tribes stayed on the east side of Jordan, but only after their gifted warriors helped the other tribes to possess the land (Joshua 1:12-17).

If we complain because a person with a different idea or style challenges our norm, we jeopardize our ability to learn, grow, and produce as a team. Sometimes a leader acts like a coach who moves some team members to the second team or the bench, labeling them “rebels” or “mavericks” because they challenge the status quo, ask too many questions, or take too much initiative. Such persons may play a significant role bringing us into the future and helping us achieve relevancy. We must learn to recognize truly useful ideas and build on individual differences.

God’s strategy for reaching your community — discipling and equipping the believers — is directly related to the unique gifts, interests, and ideas of the people in your church.

4. Learn to capitalize on change.

Change is both a stimulant and a stress. It is exhilarating and fear-provoking. By anticipating conditions and events, and preparing for the consequences, you can learn to make change work for you and increase the effectiveness of the team and ministry. Change must be embraced with anticipation. Change needs to be seen as presenting new opportunities rather than overwhelming problems, with each turn of the road offering a new chance. Len Sweet, at a conference dealing with the changing church, stated:

“Change itself has changed. The founder of the VISA empire coined a word to describe the world today: Chaordic — a world on the border between chaos and order, where you are forced to lead on the boundary of that chaos and order. It’s a self-organizing, nonlinear, adaptive, complex system that simultaneously exhibits characteristics of order and chaos; a system that has both rigidity and flexibility overlapping, so it can be constantly prepared for the unexpected and be fast on its feet to adapt to change. We’re talking about a chaordic church, a church that can be always changing and always the same. This is a mystery central to the gospel.”

5. Believe in the wisdom and power of the team.

God has put all the members of the team together because He knows their individual strengths and gifts are not enough in themselves, but combined with those of others we can accomplish great things (1 Corinthians 12, 14; Romans 12; Ephesians 4). Joshua learned the team concept from Moses and used it in possessing the Promised Land. Jesus demonstrated the wisdom and power of the team with His disciples. It is impossible to affirm the priesthood of all believers without also embracing the plurality of leadership in the life and ministry of the church.

We may say we believe in teamwork, but the test comes when we are confronted with decision making and problem solving. Do we become autocratic and make decisions or solve problems when the team gets bogged down? Do we try to rescue the team and take control when things aren’t going just as we thought they should?

We must believe we can work as a team to find answers. Our role is to allow the members to wrestle through the issues and take action as a team. Accountability replaces control. Team members are encouraged to identify, develop, and use their God-given gifts.

6. Stay abreast of technological culture shifts.

The Internet, wireless technology, and advancement in computers and software provide the church with constant challenges but even greater opportunities in ministry. To continue to learn means that we must understand, embrace, and utilize technological advances. Churches are hiring team members whose total ministry role is to manage media and technology. Sermons and teaching times are becoming more interactive. To continue “learning at the speed of life” requires that the church develop and maintain its proficiency in computer and communications technology.

7. Always, and in all ways, continue to learn.

Joshua sent the spies into the Promised Land to investigate the situation. He maintained a learning attitude. Churches that survive and thrive in the 21st century will continually renew themselves and learn. As individual team members and as a team, maintaining a learning attitude and developing learning skills is not optional. “The biggest challenge today is not getting an education, it’s keeping one....Today it takes only 3 to 5 years for 50 percent of our skills to become outdated.” 1

Ministry teams and team members must assume full responsibility for managing their own learning to respond to the changing organizational and ministry needs. This kind of learning will take various forms. Rather than a set course delivered by some expert in the traditional classroom setting, individuals will find and develop their talents and creativity with personal coaches or mentors and in learning cohorts, a small group of other serious learners.

Learning will also take place by intentional feedback processes. Feedback must be invited, used, and given effectively. Keeping a finger on the pulse of the diverse strengths, needs, struggles, and decisions of team members requires that the team have open and clear two-way communication. Team members must know what’s expected and when they are on and off target. The team leader must be willing to listen to and accept the same in return.

When problems are observed, quick fixes are not allowed. Continuously seeking to identify barriers to greater effectiveness or causes and reasons for ineffectiveness is a constant and open dialogue among team members. Two-way feedback can both build and benefit from such mutual credibility and confidence.

1Price Pritchett’s MindShift, p.39 as stated in an internet article Building the Church for the 21st Century, A conversation with Bill Easum by Terri Martinson Elton)


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