Shared-Church Insights from Online Classrooms

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Teaching, so they say, is the best way to learn. They are right. Over the past four years, I have learned much from teaching online for the Bakke Graduate University. For example, leading these classes has expanded my understanding of shared church. In what follows, I’ll explain how.

My courses cover the “theology of work,” focusing on what God’s Word says about our everyday work. Because nearly all the students are Christ-followers, each class is full of those to whom the Holy Spirit has given various gifts. So, class members have received resources God gave them for the benefit of others.

Creating a Learning Environment

Because I earned a graduate degree in the theology of work, I bring to each class a wider grasp of the subject than almost all who enroll. But my background does not mean I am the only one with something useful to say about how God views our work. Instead, my challenge is to create a learning environment. This means putting together an agenda made up of a series of experiences that will change how the students think, believe, act, and pass along to others what they have learned.

Woven into those experiences are resources I have written. For example, I ask them to read my articles, “How to Weave Theology of Work into Church Life” and “Regaining a Biblical Worldview.” They also view and listen to my narrated PowerPoint presentation, “Stewardship.” Assigned reading also includes a variety of books by many others—for some of which they must write book reviews. Learning requires instruction by gifted, knowledgeable, and authorized teachers.

Yet another critical element in this carefully shaped discovery environment is what they learn from each other. An instructor who knows a subject well can easily lose a sense of what those still trying to comprehend it for the first time are going through. Fellow students, those also struggling to grow in their understanding, are often in the best positions to say it in ways others in the class can “get it.”

Interaction: the Benefits

To help that kind of learning take place, I have devised assignments that ask students to interact with each other. For instance, in one lesson I task them with reading a case study, answering three questions about it in writing, and posting their paragraphs in the online classroom for other students to read. But there’s more. Before the end of the week, each student must respond in writing to what at least two other students have posted on the case study. This interrelating results in several benefits as students:

  • Encourage and affirm each other. Supportive statements like these are often posted: “I concur with your comment here.” Or, “You have well articulated the idea that ‘all work matters to God as God matters to all our work.’” And, “I am compelled to borrow your idea of ‘working as a family.’”
  • State truth in words that help fellow students understand. One student had posted a comment about “Church members who have been taught to glorify their leaders. . ..” To which another responded, “That is an interesting perspective I hadn't thought about before, about those who idolize the leader.”
  • Raise questions about unclear points. One student had written, “all positively positioned work (i.e. not illegal or immoral) is sacred work as it aids in the establishment and flourishing of human communities on God’s planet Earth.” In her response, a fellow student wrote: “I am seeking clarification on two things when you spoke of work that is not illegal.” This resulted in a fruitful dialogue that benefited not only these two but the rest of the class as well.
  • Tactfully disagree and offer a contrasting viewpoint. For example, one student had written that, “We have to become vigilantes on the war on adverse waste disposal.” When another objected about that language as too strong, the first writer responded, “In retrospect the word 'vigilante' may be too harsh and inappropriate. I would like for us to be in 'advocates of change' instead.”

Making Disciples in Shared Church

How does all this relate to shared church? When Jesus told his first disciples to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:19), the word he used could be translated, “enroll people as learners.” Making learner-disciples should be a vital part of gathering as a church. My experience with online classes has demonstrated that learning takes not only through one-way communication from a teacher but also requires interaction among the learners themselves.

 Shared church, like an online classroom, must include instruction by qualified pastors and teachers. But enrolling learners also calls for structuring a church-meeting learning environment in which they may interact with and teach each other. Even though he had not yet met them, Paul was convinced that the believers in Rome were “competent to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). And he urged believers in Corinth to meet in a shared-church format in which everyone had opportunity to participate (I Cor. 14:26).

 Churches are not just preaching stations where one or two exercise their teaching gifts. Rightly structured, the congregational meeting itself offers opportunities for disciples to learn how to articulate their growing faith in front of each other.