Yesterday I  attended the annual University of the West of Scotland Learning, Teaching, and Research Conference. Not only does it bring together these three areas of university life but it does so across a wide variety of academic disciplines. In doing so it allows different ideas from different disciplines to be brought together to ask the question ‘might that work for us?’ In this blog, what follows is my own “thinking aloud” to think through two different, though I think related, ideas I heard during the day to ask ‘might that work for a church?’ (Of course, it might not but sometimes there’s still value in asking the question!)

UWS Principal, Professor Craig Mahoney, shared a little bit about the vision of UWS and where he sees some of the trends developing in the future. He reminded us that a core principle of UWS is to “dare to be different”. In his talk he recalled a visit to the university in Bologna which is the oldest university in continuous operation having been established in 1088. He noted that the original lecture rooms there looked remarkably similar to those that we still have presently – a large room with seating facing frontwards for the purposes of listening to teaching. In over 900 years, the basic premise of a university lecture hasn’t changed despite the vast changes in the world around! However, he also shared a variety of ways in which the lecture room and therefore teaching has been challenged over the past few decades. One of the ideas that stood out to me was a “flipped classroom”.

There are a variety of ways of conceiving a flipped classroom but boiled down, it is where learning happens outside the classroom and the classroom becomes a place of ingraining the learning i.e. the dissemination of information moves from the classroom to outside the classroom hence learning is “flipped”. Professor Mahoney used the example of a lecturer who instead of delivering a lecture gave reading and other learning resources to be used outside of class time and in class time the students were asked questions about the topic to see how much been absorbed, used discussion groups to further ingrain knowledge, and if there were any areas that were still not understood the lecturer could provide extra explanation. This method showed a better use of class time concentrating on teaching that was needed and overall better student attainment. In many ways, it’s not unlike what many classes at SBC are already like but what caught my attention was thinking “could we flip the church?”

For centuries the model of church has typically been sermon-based where information dissemination is didactic and deductive and so imparted from the front to a (hopefully) listening congregation. In many churches a service, and particularly a sermon, is not unlike a lecture. And it is uncanny that it is this way in so many contexts the world over. But the question is, how effective is this? I can recall maybe a handful of sermons though I’ve heard hundreds, perhaps thousands, and though I am sure there has been some learning, I’m not sure that I’d say sermons have been my main source of learning. Of course, maybe sermons are not for learning alone, maybe they are for encouraging or challenging, but even so, there is still an element of listening and absorbing of information.

So what might a “flipped” church be like? Could we set topics / texts a week or a month in advance and prepare for them before the service (after all this is what we expect preachers to do). Could a preacher become a facilitator guiding a discussion and offering further insights? Could the congregation effectively co-curate the sermon? There’s clearly some practical questions to think through – large congregations and a mixed demographic – but I don’t think these are insurmountable. I know I’m not the first to suggest this approach but I’d be happy to hear of churches that have tried it or are willing to try it – or reasons why it shouldn’t be tried!

The second idea I heard about was a technique called Appreciative Inquiry. It’s often used in caring professions to help people identify what is going well and then amplify this. In this way it is the opposite of finding a problem and fixing i.e. encouraging the good rather than criticising the bad (though acknowledging that sometimes both sides are needed). However, what struck me was the process used to identify ideas and get participants talking. In the seminar itself we were asked to participate by choosing a photo that represented what we had taken away from a presentation earlier that morning. The exercise helped us to identify and clarify our ideas and, by using a visual aid, share our main thoughts. Another exercise saw participants select a topic and identify words  and feelings that were triggered by that topic. The emphasis behind this exercise was to create a dialogue and identify the issues that were valued by the participants. As the leader of the seminar said “who are we to determine what is valuable to someone else?”

It was this last point that got me thinking about the church and again primarily preaching. As someone who speaks in church I am often either given a topic or given the freedom to select as I see fit. But I am often left wondering “what does the congregation want or need to hear?” Or in other words, who am I to determine what a congregation would find valuable? Of course, we can add in the dimensions of being led by the Spirit and being true to Scripture – neither of these I doubt to be of good value – and furthermore in a local church the preacher may know the congregation well but I do wonder if a more collaborative dialogue would be a useful and interesting way to approach preaching. What might an appreciative inquiry of a church congregation look like?

Could we turn up on a Sunday morning with a theme –  ‘God’s greatness’ for example – and then ask a congregation what that provokes in them or to choose an image that represents their reaction? Could it be that for some it might provoke feelings of joy and relief to know that God truly is a good and benevolent God? But could it be for others a struggle to hear God is great when life seems to be tough? For others still it might be that God’s greatness indicates a distant, far-off being rather than a loving redeemer. In sharing some of these provocations I wonder if the “learning” would be more relevant and more encouraging, not to mention community-building, than a preacher determining what they think the agenda should be.  Again there’s maybe some practical implications to think through – community dynamics and the potential for domineering voices – but again I don’t think these are insurmountable. And again I know I’m not the first to suggest similar approaches (in some ways Messy Church is based on something similar to such principles but why should the Messy Church approach be limited to kids / families?)

In both cases, there’s lots more nuance and research behind ideas such as “flipped classrooms” and “appreciative inquiry” than I’ve given credit to here but I’m hoping to start a conversation and maybe spark some creative fires. I recognise that it would take a whole church to get on board and there wouldn’t be much room for coming to church to observe…but then is that such a bad thing? And it might take some re-thinking of the curation of church services and give up some control over what happens during a service…but in the hope that much more is gained back.

These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using or through social media if that’s where you see it!