Donald Miller recently admitted to attending church irregularly. Church services really don’t scratch him where he itches: singing leaves him flat and he doesn’t learn much from sermons. He argues that he is not alone in this, suggesting (controversially) that most men struggle with church services.
One of the reasons why he struggles with church services, and sermons in particular, he maintains, is because he is the wrong kind of learner. He alludes to research that there are three different kinds of learners: auditory (hearing), visual (seeing), and kinaesthetic (doing). As he is a kinaesthetic learner, sermons and church services—which are designed for auditory learners—just won’t cut it. Instead of church services and sermons, Miller has discovered that he connects to God through doing—in particular, through building his company.
Donald Miller and I inhabit rather different Christian worlds and only occasionally does he drift into the periphery of my radar. However, this particular post raises some interesting issues and is worthy of reflection. While some have criticized Miller for his theology or for his claims about the three types of learners—much could be said on both fronts—I want to take a slightly different tack.
At the outset, we should acknowledge that evangelical churches often do place far too much of an emphasis upon speaking to the mind, leaving the body unaddressed and under-engaged. Whether through a deficit in, marginalization, abandonment, or intellectualization of sacramental practice, this is a very pressing issue. But for now we will leave that issue to one side.
Granting for the sake of argument that everything Miller says about the different kinds of learners is true (and there are certainly a few things that could be disputed on that front), his conclusions about the sermon don’t necessarily follow. The sermon teaches us much more than its apparent content.
Even if you have forgotten the message of every sermon you have ever heard, you have probably still learned a great deal from them, lessons that few even recognize that they are learning. And many of these unrecognized lessons are kinaesthetic in character.
When we attend a church service and hear a sermon, we may often leave with the impression that we haven’t learnt anything. Without the ‘spark’ of new information or a sense of ‘connection’ we may wonder why we are bothering in the first place. The feeling that we are wasting our time may be compounded when, in addition to feeling that we haven’t learnt anything and have no frisson of ‘connection’ to God, we find the practice of sitting through a sermon burdensome and exhausting. Some of these issues may be particularly pronounced for those with academic theological education who doubt that there is anything a regular church sermon could teach them that they don’t already know.
However, determining whether or not we are learning isn’t straightforward: the feeling that we aren’t learning isn’t always a reliable indicator. Often this sense can be nothing more than our failure to appreciate the sorts of lessons that we are learning and how they are being learnt. People who focus upon receiving new information from every sermon will often leave disappointed. This doesn’t mean that they haven’t learnt anything, though: learning isn’t merely about information.
Feelings of ‘connection’ or emotional and imaginative engagement are also limited as indicators of our learning. Likewise, boring, unstimulating, or burdensome activities are not necessarily lacking in educational value. The popular belief that all meaningful education must be entertaining and stimulating is a misguided one.
It does not make sense to conclude that we can’t learn from a practice just because we find it difficult. Quite the opposite, in fact: the difficulty of an activity is usually evidence that we need practice so that we can become better at it, something that applies to learning activities too. Just as in the case of most other activities, sitting attentively through sermons is not something that comes naturally to us and is a practice that requires frequent repetition and much conscientious and deliberate discipline to master.
Like the difficult and unpleasant practice of resisting the urge to distract ourselves while reading dense books—the primary discipline of the reader is overcoming kinaesthetic impulses and sitting still—the practice of sitting attentively through sermons expands our learning capacities. As this learning capacity doesn’t come so naturally to ‘kinaesthetic learners’, perhaps they stand in particular need of the practice, a practice that will hone their learning and thinking skills on many fronts. Our attention spans can be extended by forcing ourselves to push our limits and resist our natural urges in this area.
We will best be able to recognize some of the unappreciated lessons that sitting attentively through sermons teaches us when, rather than viewing this solely as a means of receiving informational content, we start to look at the nature of the practice itself as a habit-forming discipline.
Some of the habits that we learn from sermons relate more closely to their content. So, for instance, hearing good preaching, week after week, teaches us the habits and skills of good Bible reading, training us in how to read a text, not just the meaning of the particular text being preached upon. It teaches us that the Scriptures need to be interpreted. It teaches us our need for the spiritual gifts of others and, in particular, for those gifted in and ordained for authoritatively addressing God’s truth to our conscience.
However, there are other lessons that we learn from sitting attentively through sermons that relate more closely to the form of the activity. And these more bodily lessons shape our minds. One of the most important of these is teaching us to relate to the Word of God as something that comes to us from without and that we must submit to as an authority. Reading privately and silently with our eyes is very different from public hearing with our ears. Our sense of the exteriority and personal authority of a word is typically more pronounced when we encounter it through our ears. It is also easier to control our seeing than our hearing. When we attend a church service, it teaches us the discipline of putting ourselves at the disposal of God’s Word: we can’t easily get up and leave, but have to hear out its proclamation, no matter how much we might want to be elsewhere. All of this develops a habitual ‘posture’ of mind in relation to God’s Word.
The spoken word also has effect of creating an ‘audience’, binding a group of people together in a way that individuals reading alongside each other cannot. This trains us in relating to the Word of God along with others as a community and not as something addressed to us alone. We are called to faithfulness together and hearing together should foster in us a sense of our responsibility to and dependence upon each other. It requires of us to come under the authority of Scripture publicly, before brothers and sisters to whom we are accountable.
This is also a form of ministry to others. Every sermon we attend we are being present to and with every other person attending, declaring that we stand alongside them under the teaching of God’s Word, encouraging and reinforcing their Christian habits in this area by our example.
What Mark Searle says about liturgy more generally can be applied to the act of attending to a sermon more particularly (similar observations can also be found in James K.A. Smith’s recent work):
Discipline might be defined as the kind of self-control which frees one from distraction and preserves one from dissipation. Ritual behaviour is a prime example of such discipline. By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.
The discipline that Searle discusses is often bound up in physical habits, habits that we are culturally inclined to devalue, but which shape us in important ways. Our presumption that only ‘didactic messages’ are worth receiving, and that anything that does not immediately cause us to think can’t be forming us in important way, causes us to miss out on much that God has to teach us. Searle speaks of a ‘discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning … which they mediate.’ This ‘mediated meaning’ isn’t a new set of ideas, but a form of life that emerges as we are shaped by such practices.
While preaching is often placed in contrast to the rituals and actions of the liturgy, it is a liturgical act too, and the things that the various participants in the liturgical event of preaching do are of great significance and formative power. Even the little ‘physical’ habits involved in hearing a sermon shape us. Leaving our homes to go to a different, communal context to hear God’s Word. Remaining silent and attentive. Learning how to be physically still. Learning how to use our ears in an age of the image. Sitting alongside others. Facing someone standing over against us. Etc.
Some of the lessons that we are taught through these practices could be particularly important for ‘kinaesthetic learners’. When sitting through a sermon, our urge to be ‘doing’ and active—supposedly more pronounced for kinaesthetic learners—must be resisted and we must let another act towards us. We must learn how to rest from our ‘doing’ in a hearing manner, allowing God’s Word to enter into and further shape our lives and actions.
Also, as Harvey Cox once observed, ‘Sermons remain one of the last forms of public discourse where it is culturally forbidden to talk back.’ Subjecting ourselves to such a form of discourse can shape us in healthy ways.
All of this should make clear that—even if all of the stuff about kinaesthetic, visual, and auditory learning were completely accurate (it isn’t)—the physical act of attending a sermon has something to teach everyone. Whether or not you think that you are learning anything, it is shaping you in significant ways.