Stop learning and start acting

Photo by Meredith Farmer via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I’m surprised how much listening and reading we are expected to do as Christians.

  • Listen to a sermon each week – 35-45 minutes
  • Read from the Bible each day – 15-30 minutes
  • Listen to people read Bible verses and sing songs at church – 60 minutes
  • Attend a weekly mid-week service, small group, or youth group – 30-60 minutes
  • Listen to podcasts of even more sermons – 60-90 minutes per week

Is the Christian life just about listening and reading or is it supposed to be about learning?

Because if it’s about learning– I don’t learn very much by listening and reading in other areas of my life.

  • I have only read 1-2 books and maybe watched a couple of television shows about parenting, but I’ve learned how to parent.
  • Outside of the Bible, I can’t think of any non-fiction book I’ve finished… ever. I start books but never finish them.
  • I go to a job each day where I learn lots each day, and I’ve never read a book or listening to a lecture on almost any of it. “On the job training” has defined my work life.
  • I’m learning how to garden, but I haven’t read a book about it and I wouldn’t even know where to start to find a lecture about it.

On and on. In most areas of my life I learn mostly by doing and almost never by sitting passively and listening or reading the same book over and over again.

The Christian life is so passive. It is repulsive. We believe all of the right things and act on none of it.

Who is all of this instruction for?

The people hearing it or the person teaching it?

If I’m honest, I learn way more when I’m asked to teach from the Bible than I do if I just sit on my hands for 30 minutes and listen. And yet pastors teach and everyone else is expected to just listen… and even if we learn something no one is ever going to ask us to put it into action, nor follow-up with us, nor hold us accountable. Each Sunday is a new data dump. There will never be a test. We’ll never be asked to write papers. No one ever asks us if we are actually learning.

If the Christian life were a class– church is the lecture series we audit.

Did Jesus die so I could go to church and listen to sermons I’ll never put into action?

Is that what we really believe? All of the empirical evidence seems to point to that. Our systematic theology says no, but our practical theology says yes.

For all the messages that have been preached to me, the thousands of hours of Bible study, and the thousands of hours of mid-week teaching I’ve received you’d think, the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested into me– at some point, someone would look at me and say, “Dude, you know everything you need to know. Get out of here and live this stuff. Stop learning and start doing!

That’s never going to happen. Why? Because we measure passive activity and mislabel it as success. We lie to ourselves by rewarding the wrong people, we label passive reception of God’s word as good, and putting the Word to action is tertiary.

It’s not supposed to be this way.

James, who knew Jesus’ teaching well, was right. He addressed this danger directly.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:22-25

Get out and live the Gospel. Stop learning and start acting on what you’ve learned.

Jesus didn’t die for you so that you could go to church and hear people preach. Of course you don’t believe that.

Live otherwise.





19 responses to “Stop learning and start acting”

  1. Joel Mayward Avatar

    The irony behind this great post is that I’m passively reading it from my couch in my pajamas. 🙂

    I’ll offer some friendly push back: sometimes it’s simply hard to measure spiritual fruit and maturity. It can be a long, slow process, one that requires patience and grace for those who are still learning. Much like gardening or farming, what may appear to be a passive soil and seed is internally working quite hard to be transformed so that when fruit appears, it’s healthy. Plenty of Biblical leaders had long seasons where they don’t seem to do much at all besides be spiritually ripened; Paul and Jesus both come to mind. I totally agree that many in the church default to passivity when they should be actively serving and living out their faith, yet I wonder if listening and learning could be more spiritually active than we initially realize.

  2. adam mclane Avatar

    @joel- And you know enough of my stuff to know that I have a deep love for the church. I’m not knocking the church. I’m just not sure if a complete absence of application for about 80% of people who come to church is OK. (Myself included.)

  3. Nick Arnold Avatar

    Let me suggest that the issue with passive learning is that we’ve started turning church services into productions. Entertainment. So it’s no wonder when people go home they don’t do anything.

    The Christian life still requires learning. Hopefully as one matures in their faith that learning will shift from passive learning (sitting and absorbing) to actively learning through putting their faith into practice.

    Practically speaking, I think this can be lived out in small groups that are committing to growing and serving together.

  4. Jeff Goins Avatar

    Interesting. I like what Peter Lord says about this: “We don’t need more information; we need formation.”

  5. Drew Peterson Avatar

    I agree with Joel.

    But your response, Adam, is strong. It is very true that the majority or our pew-warmers aren’t responding and leading out the great commission. Or even living with a biblical worldview.

    Within the post, it wasn’t clear to me that you were speaking to only the majority. I felt you were speaking to the church as a whole.

    But otherwise, great post! Keep doing what you’re doing!

  6. Matt C. Avatar
    Matt C.

    James is hardcore. Always on the top of my reading list for anyone seeking to find out how imperfect they are.

    One reason why we don’t ACT is that our bar for training teachers and preachers has fallen so low. Real teachers/preachers inspire others to act, to dig in deeper and come out stronger, to ask questions that matter. Questions like is our ACTION in our neighborhoods healthy? Are my ACTIONS reflective of Christ, or my own desire to appear “spiritual”?

    You have a valid point, Adam. But if the consequence of your criticism is for less teaching/preaching to happen, I think it’s misguided.

  7. adam mclane Avatar

    @drew- thanks for the comment. Some background may help. I’ve made the transition from the guy holding the microphone on Sunday mornings to the guy in the pew with a busy schedule but wanting to make a real impact in my community.

    I know that I’m in the annoying part of the church scale. But I’m often left, leaving church, thinking… “gosh, if only I had spent that same time putting what I already know to action instead.”

    Then I reflect on James and know why I feel that way. I know more than I need to know already. And I need to act way more!

  8. Chris Schaffner Avatar

    I agree Adam. We are often educated beyond our obedience.

  9. adam mclane Avatar

    @matt- That’s OK. They don’t all have to be winners.

  10. MB McCandless Avatar
    MB McCandless

    I think the root of the frustration many feel is that this isn’t a problem of teaching/learning vs. doing.

    This is a misapprehension of what a faithful life is. A faithful life is fully integrated – a life where we don’t compartmentalize ‘learning’ into segments labeled ‘sermon’ or ‘Bible study’ and where we don’t compartmentalize ‘doing’ into segments labeled ‘witnessing’ or ‘outreach’ or ‘mission trip’ or ‘feeding the poor’. The relationships we have at work (or the grocery store) are as important an arena for exercising our faith as any planned event or experience. The way we study – the way we are attentive to God and apply what we learn – this is the active part of learning. The part where others are watching for ‘how to do it’.

    A fully integrated, faithful life is one where these areas of our life are (excuse the analogy) fully synced!

    It seems that most people don’t have their lives set to ‘auto-sync’ and then wonder why the ‘learning’ and ‘doing’ feel disconnected.

    And we have to remember the whole ‘waiting on God’ piece of this as well. Too often in our efforts to ‘do something’ we do good things that any good person could do. Oh what the Church might be able to be if we did more than ‘good things’.

    Thought provoking post Adam. Thanks.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      @mb- do you think we, called to teach, will be held responsible for James’ warning? After all, if people aren’t applying what we are teaching… Are we really teaching?

      It can’t just be that it is my responsibility to teach truth and no ones responsibility to see that truth is acted upon. I’ve taught and sat in the pulpit enough to know… “Sunday is always coming.” We have to put last Sunday to bed in order to prepare for the next. What if we didn’t do that? What of we didn’t move on until we applied the first lesson?

  11. MB McCandless Avatar
    MB McCandless

    You’ve completely missed my point Adam. It is every Christian’s responsibility to teach truth and every Christian’s responsibility to act upon truth. LIVING faithfully IS applying the lesson. You are right if minister’s (or congregation’s) only focus is Sunday to Sunday performances – but I don’t know many who see their roles that way. At least not many in vital, faithful churches.

    Maybe our Sunday through Sunday experiences are very different. I wouldn’t be part of a congregation whose only focus (or even primary focus) was a Sunday morning worship experience.

    I think the biggest difference in the way we are seeing this is rooted in the difference in the way we view the role of pastors, elders, teachers, congregations, and the Church. In my world, we are all together on this journey – responsible with each other, not for each other.

  12. jared Avatar

    i would say that we are getting what our structures are designed to produce. Lecture’s do not change people, lack of accountability and a caste system in the church hinders growth. For me it is a structure thing. If we are unwilling to look at our structure than we will never answer the deeper questions.

  13. Matt C. Avatar
    Matt C.

    @Jared… interesting concept, “caste system”. I’m assuming you mean that full-time ministers are the power and knowledge holders and lay people are all subservient. Is that your thinking? Might be a little strong. Maybe I misunderstood, but it’s a fascinating description of church hierarchy.

  14. jared Avatar

    it is strong, but i think it is accurate. Why else will people not share jesus and instead bring them to church so the pastor can share with them. It is why only pastors can lead communion or do baptism, or why they are the only ones who can teach. I am not saying there are not reasons for it, but the system only allows a few people to use their gifts when the church gathers.

    the other analogy i use is in the suburburs people hire someone to clean their pool, someone to mow there yard and someone and someone to do their religious work.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      To continue Jared’s analogy. We tend to hire experts and assume they are doing stuff. In truth, no one knows if they are really cleaning the pool or spending all of their time talking about cleaning the pool, or saying that they don’t actually clean pools, just get volunteers to clean the pool.

  15. Matt C. Avatar
    Matt C.

    What you’re describing sounds more like the influence of a commodity driven capitalist society, rather than a caste society. That makes more sense (to me at least).

    Overall, I think your criticism of church structure is important in that churches need to TEACH and ACT out the doctrine of a priesthood of believers much more forcefully and intentionally than we do currently.

  16. jared Avatar

    the problem with that is the person in charge tells people what to do, then they are supposed to act.

    i wonder if we changed structures if there would be different people. If we really teach the priesthood of all believers than would we still need paid staff? would we still need special people? We would need people to go apostolically to places without the gospel but in North America we may just decide that we no longer need someone to be a step ahead of us.

    the reason i use the caste sytem is because IN SOME CHURCHES their is an idea that the pastor is God’s man who cnanot be challenged.

  17. benjamin kerns Avatar

    this was a really challenging post and great follow up comments. my only contribution is that the issue might not be with the church. the church is an easy institution to blame. and i think this argument is a little bit of a straw man. but the church provides space for teaching, community, mission, etc. of course there will be some people who miss the point and make the rest of church people look lame. but i would contend that most people at church are putting their faith into practice. most people are “learning” 1-2 hours a week, and spend the other 166 hours living. we are out there.

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