Still Relying on Medieval Motivation

If you just logically and clearly tell people what to do, they will indeed do it. 

Does this assumption square with your experience?  Is it true in church life?

To me, it seems quaint.  Actually, it is quaint, going back to Medieval times.  What formal education existed at the time of the Reformation was based on three primary courses, called the Trivium:  grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar was the basics of how to construct a sentence.  Logic taught how to reason from the premise to an application.  Rhetoric taught how to put together grammar and logic that would be persuasive to others.  To be good at rhetoric was to be able to persuade and move people into action. Good rhetoric was the key to motivation, according to that approach.

The application in churches was in one-way sermons with the preacher telling the audience what to believe and do.  Some preachers were indeed very good rhetoricians and could attract an audience, like Martin Luther, or 18th century George Whitefield or 19th century Albert Finney and Dwight Moody, or 20th century Billy Graham.  Most were not and could be described as droning on and on while the minds of listeners drifted elsewhere.

The problem with the medieval lecture approach to preaching and teaching is that communication research repeatedly establishes one-way communication to be absolutely the least effective way to shape values and change behavior.

The most effective teaching is to involve the learners in discovery with others of useful knowledge and practical application.  Values and behavior are changed best when discovered by the learner and affirmed by others.

Shouldn’t this insight have some application in church life?  Churches are all about affirming beliefs, shaping values and presumably changing behaviors of the participants.  Why depend on the least effective way to accomplish that purpose?

This issue of motivation led to the widening gap between mainline churches and the newer born-again evangelical churches.  Mainline churches were all at their beginnings European state churches, which mandated what Christians should believe and do, at least in that country.

In this country, they dominated through World War II.  How?  A large portion of the population was seeking the community and respectability they saw in the old established church bodies.  Protestantism, especial in its Calvinist forms, was the civil religion of America.  Those days are swiftly disappearing.

The great revivalists—Whitfield, Finney, and Moody—worked with a different approach to motivation.  Their messages ended in a call for action to consciously accept a new relationship with God that would result in a changed life.  Many did come into this new relationship.  But from a pastoral viewpoint, too many saw this change as something they did. They drifted away when they no longer had those intense feelings.

So, what approach to motivation is appropriate for the new circumstances Christian churches confront now?  Could it have something to do with discovering that biblical beliefs and values really do work for finding a better life in this world as well as the next?  Key to that outcome is a better appreciation of how the Holy Spirit changes believers and produces more of his fruit now, fruit like love, joy, peace?

Too often in previous generations, Christians could be viewed as hypocrites that did not practice what they believed, and they too often conveyed a sense of superiority that drove others away.  The challenge now is to demonstrate the life-affirming changes found in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Lectures and sermons by themselves are not going to revive withering churches.  The key is helping believers discover more love, joy and peace and be able to describe their growth.  Those changes are best learned from the experiences of other believers.

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