The Case Method Teaching Approach Offers Much for Spiritual Enlightenment

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

The Case Study Method for Spiritual Enlightenment

By far, the most popular degree in colleges and universities is business administration.  It is very practical and seen as the gateway to a better job and pay.

I did my M.B.A. right after graduating from seminary.  The contrast was breathtaking.  Seminary was mostly theory and history with only the most obvious application.  The business school was a practical application with only the most relevant theory.  I did the M.B.A. to learn how better to organize church life. 

My pastoral career has been a time of wrestling with seminary-type church theory and result-oriented practical ministry application.  If something is not working, why do we continue to do it the old way?  Why aren’t we trying out new and better methods?

My years teaching Organizational Behavior in two business schools consisted of looking for more and better practical experiences or cases that could be analyzed in the classroom setting.  This approach was pioneered by the Case Method of the Harvard Business School and has been utilized for over 100 years.  Cases are essentially stories about people making a decision. Students recall concepts better when they are set in a case, much as people remember words better when used in context. The case method encourages the capacity for critical analysis, judgment, decision-making, and action.  The best cases don’t have an obvious answer.  Always the emphasis is on what students are learning, not just theories being taught.

Case Studies in Spiritual Enlightenment

The ministry issue at hand is what we can do to ease the way for the Holy Spirit to bring Spiritual enlightenment to those seeking God.  My instinct is to highlight cases of how real people have experienced God in their personal lives.  We have case stories of the experiences of people in Bible times.  Good preachers and teachers are able to make those classic case stories come alive for people today so we can reflect on how to apply them to our lives now.    

But what about cases of people living here and now in circumstances like ours?  These can add persuasiveness to the Bible message applied to lives today.  Such cases can illustrate how the Spirit changes lives today and builds anticipation of what he can do in my life, too.

For years I attended a monthly breakfast fellowship of Evangelical men at a local restaurant.  The feature each time was someone sharing his personal born-again story.  Evangelicals can become quite proficient at telling their personal story, with entertaining details and practiced punch lines.  I would leave encouraged and praising God for what he did in that particular life.

One of the men from our Lutheran church plant worked up the courage to tell his own story.  I was disappointed.  He was not a good storyteller, because he had never done this before.  What I noticed by the end is that his story was mostly about the highlights of his church life.  He was not talking about his personal relationship with Christ.  The church was a stand-in for his relationship with God.

I noticed the same orientation when I was interviewing candidates for a facility manager.  One of the job qualifications at the seminary was that this person be a Christian.  Some told their born-again story.  One could name the date of his encounter.  Two others were from mainline denominations.  One of those explained that he sang in his church’s choir.  The other was an usher at his church.  The church culture they grew up in let the secondary experience of involvement in church activities substitute for a primary relationship with God.

The Missing Chapter on the Holy Spirit

A good case study leads to reflection on the more general theory involved to provide guidance for understanding similar experiences.  In church life, that theory about God and man is called doctrine.  At the core is understanding the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In my seminary doctrine text, there is a curious lapse that took me years to discover.  The first volume of such dogmatic texts is usually on the Father, the second on the Son.  Logically, the third would be on the Holy Spirit.  But there is no chapter on the Spirit.  This third volume jumped right to sanctification.  What happened to the Holy Spirit?  Who is he?  What does he do?

Reformation heritage focuses on what God has done in Christ.  But it has a blind spot to what God is doing in lives today, beyond inference that the resurrected Christ will do today what he did in the Bible times.  In those Reformation years, the Holy Spirit was a dangerous topic because he could lead astray those who claimed a direct experience, as happened in the calamity of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1525.  Safer is to let the church interpret biblical truth and how God relates to humans.

The fundamental issue, in theory, is whether God does indeed directly speak to and interact with believers here and now.  This overarching issue comes to the surface in the question of whether or not God does miracles today, defining a miracle as an extraordinary event for which there is no natural explanation.  A positive view is not to be found in classical Reformation theology, which typically claims that miracles no longer happen after Bible times. 

Yet by far, most Lutheran pastors (80%) acknowledge they have experienced or witnessed a miracle, as defined above.  Such is the outcome of a large-scale research project I did.  Survey results are a modern way of reporting individual case stories.  If God can intervene to bring a cure that is otherwise unexplainable, he through the Spirit can plant thoughts in the minds of those seeking him.

Another way to recognize the Spirit at work is by sharing whisper stories of believers who experienced a sudden urge to visit someone or do something “right now,” and something faith-affirming results. Every discussion group I have led has one or two examples. That insight opens the door to broader discussions of experiences of the currently active Spirit changing people today.

The Theory of Experiential Learning

David Kolb is a psychologist whose theory of learning is popular today.  He states that styles of learning can be analyzed along several dimensions.  One is whether the individual prefers to generalize from concrete experience or to first learn abstract generalizations that are then applied to specific situations.

Historically, church education starts with abstract concepts of doctrine without much application to concrete experiences.  Learning can be improved by reflecting more on experiences and experimenting with new behavior.  I am continually surprised in pastoral ministry by how few ordinary church people have curiosity about the theories of why churches do what we do. They live in a world of concrete experiences.

Traditional seminary-trained pastors learned through a deductive process, starting with principles and maybe getting to application.  Enlightenment by Spirit happens best, I think, with an inductive process of moving the opposite way from specific experiences to generalizations.  How much could ministry be improved if pastors had exposure to business school-style case analysis in their own learning process?  Many pastors of growing community churches do indeed have a business background and even a business major.  They are oriented to concrete experiences.

I recognize this newer direction in the preaching approach Pastor Andy Stanley, Jr. writes about in Communicating for a Change.  He starts by mentioning an experience he has had and suggests maybe you have had it, too.  Then comes what the Bible says.  The flow goes to how I have tried to apply it in my life.  You can try it, too.

What the Bible says remains central. But this approach focuses on case studies of concrete experiences.  In a sermon, there are limits to case specifics that can be featured.  But the possibilities in other church settings are limitless.  One thing I have noticed over the years is that the attention level of participants goes up significantly with this kind of storytelling.

Do you want the Gospel to have a greater impact on people’s lives? Start with specifics, then add reflection and theory. Is the old approach of starting first with biblical theory easier? Definitely. But that leads to the question of how important it is to be effective in your ministry. Which approach can be best used by the Spirit to touch and change lives?

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