Friday, June 15, 2012

The Four Kinds of Knowledge and The American Mega Church: The Acton Institute Series

This is the third blog based on my lecture for Acton Institute 2012.

Institutions, like individuals, draw upon four different kinds of knowledge to carry out their vision and do their work. Let's call these types of knowledge theory, phronesis, technique and tacit.

The Greek word teoria refers to a formal structure of thought, an abstract intellectual system (such as geometry or physics.) Theories allow us to develop concepts, which we may or may not ever apply to concrete situations. For example, physicists speculate about such things as wormholes and multi-dimensional universes. Theologians also speculate about issues that may or may not ever arise in our everyday lives. Nonetheless, such speculation is valuable. It strengthens and refines the concepts of the discipline we seek to develop and sometimes helps us discover surprising applications in real life.

Seminaries specialize in theory.

Phronesis describes the process of mentoring and coaching. We usually see phronesis at work in vocational training. It is a type of knowledge gradually acquired by an apprentice as he or she copes the actions of a mentor. For example, construction workers usually learn their craft in this way. Pastoral life also requires phronesis. Knowing how to baptize someone or to do helpful hospital visitation are not things we can really learn from a text but are skills passed from a gifted mentor to a teachable apprentice.

Smaller churches tend to employ phronesis better than larger ones. That is the main reason why most mega church leaders come from smaller congregations.

Techne describes the knowledge of the proper medium, skill, or presentation required to perform or communicate something.

The church growth movement has very effectively employed techne to analyze cultural trends. Church growth technicians taught churches how to use research to make needed changes in their organization, technology, and marketing. The technique of church growth has helped many congregations learn how to attract new members and adapt their organizational structures to maintain, reach and serve larger congregations than we were often able to do in the past.

Tacit Knowledge is a type of knowing that is “caught better than taught.” It is most effectively transmitted through metaphor, symbol and spiritual experience. Gestures, emotional affect, and other non-formal (and often non-conscious or non-deliberate) actions transmit tacit knowledge from one person to another. An example might be of the way we dimly perceive a shape at the furthest reach of our headlights as we are driving at night. We must quickly decide if the shape is a deer, a tree, or something else. We may make a mistake in what we think we see at first, but prudence tells us to slow down or change lanes nonetheless.

Pentecostals, African-American believers, and Southern hemisphere Christians tend to make this form of knowledge a major part of their training and discipleship systems.

Businesses like Apple and Google are rare examples of corporate use of tacit knowledge.

One of the things that helps create mega church culture is that they focus on techne more than on other kinds of knowledge.

In fact, the first generation of many mega churches began with a conscious and deliberate shift away from theological theory. The leaders of a congregation usually makes this shift in order to avoid the doctrinal and hierarchical systems that their mobile constituency often regard as unhelpful for their spiritual needs. This is another way of saying that knowledge about “how to” replaces the old concern about “for what purpose.

When mega churches began to emerge in American culture last generation, management knowledge offered by the likes of Peter Drucker, became much more interesting to many church leaders than the works of Calvin, Aquinas or Tillich. The move away from theory and toward technique deeply affected the theology and spirituality of the following generations, so much so that many influential church leaders theory now widely view theology as a rather esoteric, or even useless kind of knowledge.

The likes of George Barna have called for an even more drastic change in the skill set we should expect of from our senior church leaders. For him, the teacher/pastor as senior leader has become an impediment to church growth and cripples the church in its quest to reach a world that has become radically secularized. Indeed, the entire church growth movement – led by technicians, for the most part – have seemed ill at ease with theoria, phronesis and certainly with tacit forms of knowledge. Church growth, they have insisted, is the result of scientific measurement, evaluation, organizational structure, business plans and marketing.

Church growth technicians have thus influenced many of our largest churches to put doctrinal training and spiritual direction on the back burner. They have advised the churches to focus on meeting the people's immediate and pragmatic needs. As a result, many mega churches have raised a generation of children largely isolated from adults and who consequently formed a spiritual sub-culture differing considerably from that of their parents. As these children became young adults, they had little understanding of doctrine or scripture. They also felt little loyalty toward the church in which they were raised. Different generations of people within the mega church often sang different songs, taught from different material and acted as though they were entirely different congregations. This programmed generational alienation would exacerbate the already complicated process of mega church succession.

The church growth principle of “homogeneity,” which makes a dictum of the common sense observation that people prefer to be with folk like themselves, is also breaking down. Older mega churches cannot thrive in the new melting pot culture of America’s great cities if the homogeneity principle is about race or social class. New churches can operate that way further out in the new suburbs, where society often remains relatively homogeneous. The mega churches of last generation however, are being forced to change the unsustainable model they embraced in past decades. Furthermore, they must do this as they continue to carry the weight of their aging facilities and, in some cases, aging congregations suspicious of their new neighbors.

Nevertheless, older mega churches are usually located in a veritable gold mine of opportunity. The people most likely to convert to Christianity in today’s world – the real seekers – are often immigrants. Since some immigrants are people of means, an outreach to the newly globalized neighborhoods is not necessarily an exercise in romantic idealism. Many large churches around the world now serve congregations of people who come from all parts of the globe. This is new for much our country and is uncomfortable for some people, especially in the most traditional parts of the nation. However, demographic change is increasingly an important part of the environment in which we build and sustain our churches.

Succession is another elephant in the room when mega church leaders meet to discuss the future. Mega churches are nearly always founded by a powerful and innovative leader. He gradually forms a church culture around his style, aims and personality. As the leader ages, a plan for succession becomes increasingly important. However, in practice, a plan for the founding pastor’s succession is rarely discussed, much less implemented, until very late in the game. This is one of the most vulnerable spots of mega church culture. It must be addressed in a much more serious way if we expect very many of our great congregations to thrive after their founders retirement or death.

Southeast Christian is a notable exception. Perhaps informed by their culture of independent local church government, which encouraged various levels of authority and accountability within the church, the weight of the church did not rest entirely upon its founding pastor. This allowed him to peacefully transition to the next generation. Unfortunately, this has proven to be very much the exception.

Perhaps the most important take away point of this blog is that mega churches that want to transition past their first generation need outside voices that represent different perspectives. However great the past, the structures and victories of yesterday will prove inadequate for meeting the challenges of today. The church's original vision must not be lost but it must be tweaked. To do that successfully requires what the Bible calls "a multitude of council,"which ideally should include people with the four different kinds of knowledge: theory, pronesis, technique and tacit.

Theologians, business people, IT experts. artists and saints are some examples that come to mind that can offer different perspectives to church leaders who wish to remain effective as well as faithful to the gospel.

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