AT 37: Learning as Empowerment: Liberating Leadership in Learners

Noel Moules
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 37, October 2004

As Christians we are called both to be disciples and to make disciples. I have always liked the fact that the word ‘disciple’ means ‘a learner’ and not the popular notion of simply being ‘a follower’. You can follow another enthusiastically all you like, yet in reality be changed very little. However, the process of learning demands that change takes place. The old educational definition that ‘true learning brings about a relatively permanent change in behaviour’, may not say everything we want to express on the subject, but it makes an important point.

As a teacher I have always been passionate about learning, but for the last 22 years my particular focus has been to create an encounter with truth for people within, or close to the edge of, the Christian community; an engagement that brings about distinctive and effective personal change in someone’s spiritual and practical experience. In so doing my central aim has always been to help people find an empowerment within that can be translated into an expression of leadership that will go on to impact the lives of many others. The influences that have shaped my approach have been drawn from values similar to those that inspired the early Anabaptist groups, which in themselves take us back to Jesus and the earliest Christian communities.

The words ‘learning’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘leadership’ are understood in different ways within the church. When you raise questions and bring divergent perspectives to them it is interesting how strong the negative reactions can be. Not necessarily from established churches, where many times there is a genuine desire to explore fresh perspectives, but quite often from groups who consider themselves to be free and creative. These three ideas have an uncanny ability to reveal people’s insecurities and desire for control. That fact alone suggests they are significant areas to reflect on.

Jesus: learning and leadership

We meet Jesus in the Gospels as a teacher and leader, calling people to discover the transforming encounter of the kingdom of God. For Jesus, education begins with ‘repentance’ (Greek: metanoia), a permanent change in the way we think about everything, which gives our life a total redirection. Christian learning involves thinking differently; the weaving of information and experience together in such a way that all our perceptions change. This is the essence of the Hebrew word yada – ‘to know’. For Jesus, the learning of ‘discipleship’ is a total reorientation.

Over the years I have come to recognise that there are certain sessions that I teach, and even certain phrases I will use, that always have an electrifying effect on at least one or two people in any group. Cosmic pennies dropping! I never know who it will be until it happens, but when it happens I know they will never be the same again. Often it is sudden, but it can equally be like lighting a fuse, initiating a smouldering burn that will detonate later. For others, learning is more a process of ‘contamination’, truth seeping into the reservoir of their heart and mind, slowly infecting the whole, or like a virus affecting the central nervous system. Truth-learning is all-encompassing in its impact.

Jesus makes it clear that the learning of discipleship is about transfiguration:

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher’ (Luke 6:40).

Christian teaching, following the example of Jesus, has Christ-likeness as its goal. Character is the core of the curriculum. As a teacher this is both clear and disturbing. It is a reminder that how I live my life when I am not teaching is every bit as important as what I say while I am teaching. I cannot take learners further than I have travelled myself, though I can point them forwards in the direction that I myself am also journeying. So teaching and learning is a shared quest in which we discover, together, a growing Christ-likeness through the creative power of the Spirit.

Jesus shows us that true learning comes out of relationship. He loved the crowds who came to him and he had compassion for those to whom he spoke, but those who were most deeply and immediately affected by him were those who travelled from place to place and spent time in his company. My teaching has influenced many people but it is those with whom I have spent quality time thinking, arguing, discussing and praying that seem to take it into their DNA and can replicate it and pass it on to others without any necessary reference to the original stimulus. Relationship at the heart of learning is the example Jesus gives us.

In the world of education the big question we always have to ask about any teaching session is, ‘What evidence do I actually have that learning has really taken place?’ Discipleship learning must face the same acid test. For Jesus the assessment process is clear, ‘By their fruits you will know them’ (Matt. 7:16). The evidence for learning is in life-shape and behaviour.

The qualities of Messianic character are many; one that is foundational is freedom:

‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom’

(2 Cor. 3:17);

‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’

(John 8:32).

The true disciple is embraced by the learning of liberation, and this emancipating education leads to empowerment. The one who says we are to become like him, goes on to say that we will do even ‘greater works’ than he did (John 14:12). In walking with the teacher, the hallmarks of true learning are to be free, empowered and starting to lead others.

This liberated leadership calls us to learn, example and teach the ‘leadership of the servant’ (Luke 22:26-27), which is characterized by the strength of gentleness, the boldness of humility and a pliable heart that is both persuasive and persuadable. It is a leadership that enables others (Luke 22:31-32), liberates others (Matt 10:8) and rejoices when others experience and express diversity (John 21:21-22). The disciple is one who both learns and leads. A Christian understanding of leadership happens whenever someone takes spiritual or practical initiative in terms of another person, in God’s name, within either the church or society.

This ‘network’ understanding of leadership functions much like the nervous system of the body. It is constantly being empowered while at the same time systematically disempowering itself as it mediates its neural energy to other parts of the plexus. This is the body of Christ, challenging the hierarchical approaches of most societies and most churches. Learning to think and live differently.

Church: learning and leadership

Most popular Christian training is driven by particular denominations and much of it tends to stress:

  • gaining more knowledge / information;
  • gaining orientation / commitment;
  • gaining skills / abilities;
  • gaining recognised qualifications.

Properly understood this can have real value, but training for liberated leadership needs more; many people who have had traditional church training still feel inadequate and insecure, often with growing frustration with local church. What is needed is learning as empowerment.

Leadership inevitably mirrors the teaching and training that has been used to develop it. In spite of much discussion in this area the broad pattern of local church leadership displays most, if not all, the following characteristics:

  • hierarchical rather than relational;
  • structural rather than natural;
  • denominational rather than ecumenical;
  • patriarchal rather than inclusive;
  • functional rather than creative.

There are of course exceptions, but they do tend to prove the rule. It is not just that the church finds itself in a post-modern, post-Christendom world where such thinking and practice is no longer appropriate. It is simply not Christian; never has been, and has no place in how we express ourselves. No excuses, no argument; we have to change.

Learning: as empowerment

Christian learning is about thinking differently, from which empowerment flows. Rooted in a vision of the character of God to which it draws disciples, it works with essential principles that are woven from primary biblical values.

Truth as integrity: Truth is much more than simply information that is correct and accurate. From a biblical perspective truth is ‘moral’ rather than ‘cerebral’; a person’s character increasingly harmonises with the nature of who God is. It is to do with:

  • ‘character’ rather than ‘criteria’
  • ‘personhood’ rather than ‘propositions’
  • ‘disposition’ rather than ‘information’
  • ‘right person’ rather than ‘right ideas’.

As we communicate truth, people are set free because they are changed from the inside out. It confronts them with the essential question, ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’ It provokes fresh insight into values that mesh them together from within, liberating them, but it is also to do with understanding.

Understanding as holistic: ‘Being able to join all the dots together’ is how the biblical concept of ‘understanding’ has been described. People live much of their lives with fragments of information and experience, which is often very precious, but it is disconnected and fractured. We need to teach in a way that fits it together into an integrated whole. Making connections between the biblical text, theological ideas and contemporary questions and challenges, linking spirituality and mission with doctrine and church life, and so the permutations continue.

At first sight this can seem obvious but experience proves that this interconnectedness happens very little. Enabling people to have a ‘big picture’ inspires both vision and confidence, fitting everything together.

Questioning as creative: Christians love to feel they are dealing with certainties but in so doing continually diminish and distort truth. Local church leaders often discourage questioning seeing it as a sign of dissent rather than an example of growth and maturity; more than that, they do not understand it as essential. The way we teach must smash the sterile trap of accepting the status quo, provoking enquiry for the enrichment of all. We must get people to delight in creative debate that looks for fresh insights and application of truth. For years I have said that the essential learning environment should be a safe place where terrible things happen! Dangerous thinking in a safe environment is an essential step towards empowerment. Doubt can be destructive but more often, properly handled, it can become a radical step towards certainty and maturity. We must encourage people to live with paradox and explore the world with the wide-eyed wonder of mature childlikeness.

Spirituality as radical: The life of the Spirit is the deep well at the centre of our being beside which the Tree of Life grows. Its multi-flavoured fruit conveys the aroma and texture of the character of God in Jesus. In enabling people to learn we are nurturing and cultivating the roots that give life to this sacred plant. As it flourishes so do those in whose heart it is planted; this is the process of discipleship. While rooted and connected it is also grows under the open heaven, experiencing the removal of the barriers between the physical and spiritual, developing broad horizons. From this comes maturity, empowered by the Spirit, generating profound excitement about God, and drawing richly from every Christian tradition, historically and internationally.

Wisdom as practical: In a world that is awash with information and data it is astonishing how little discussion or understanding there is about wisdom. A core biblical value, it is almost entirely absent from the vocabulary and thinking of the contemporary church. In a powerful subtle way, wisdom takes knowledge and understanding and ingeniously applies truth to life in a manner that works to God’s glory and is most appropriate for the moment and circumstances. It learns from experience and prayerful reflection, struggling with ethical issues in a way that enhances freedom, meeting objections to our faith with a sensitive confidence. Wisdom is replete with creativity, imagination, inspiration and so much more. It is at the core of empowerment.

Church as inclusive: So much Christian thinking about church is parochial and local; what is needed is to fling open the doors of their understanding to the reality that there is only one church. It is historical, global and eternal. There are historical and theological reasons for differences between groups that are usually valuable and enriching. Learning to live with diversity within unity is a key principle to embrace. Being able to critique and respect another person’s perspective in equal measure is essential. We must give learners the confidence to carry their responsibility to create an ‘enabling environment’ for others to grow and the inter-connected body of Christ to flourish.

Hope as central: It is astonishing how little genuine biblical Christian hope is around in the community of faith. Few have a ‘living hope’ (1 Pet 1:3) or could give ‘a reason for their hope’ (1 Pet 3:15). Much of it is little more than a vague superstition that they are ‘going to heaven when they die’. This has to be swept away. A foundational stepping-stone towards freedom and empowerment is for learners to encounter the awesome biblical vision of shalom with its promise of the final and total integration of all things in Jesus. Over the years I have seen the thinking of thousands of people transfigured by this truth. Eschatology inspires destiny and as a result the mundane becomes alive with a sense of the eternal.

Leadership: as liberated

These themes and principles have proved time and again to have a liberating and empowering impact on the lives of those seeking to be disciples of Jesus. The result has been to see a belief in leadership blossom in the lives of those who were previously inhibited by insecurities, fear and doubt.

We are living at the most exciting time to be a Christian in 2,000 years of the church. Everything is changing and the possibilities seem limitless. What is needed is diversified leadership, shared by everyone in a way that is appropriate, that is truly liberated and empowered. People with a passion for mission, who understand the gospel as cosmic and the church as global, and are enthused by the vision and values of shalom.

All this should inspire us to invest time and effort in creating quality-learning experiences that truly empower living as Jesus’ disciples.

Noel Moules is the founder of the Anvil Trust and co-ordinator of its training programmes. The first is Workshop: Applied Christian Studies, from which has recently been developed Advanced Workshop, focusing on ethics, hermeneutics and apologetics.