Learning from North Point, part 8
North Point’s fourth practice for effective ministry turns to the area of communication. “Teach Less for More” aims for simplicity in communication.
The North Point guys (the ones who write the book and speak on the recordings are all guys – Andy Stanley, Lane Jones and Reggie Joiner) remember their early days in church when they were inundated with information, so much information, in fact, that they didn’t know what to take out of it. Drawing from the previous practices (1) Clarify the Win, (2) Think Steps, Not Programs, and (3) Narrow the Focus, each ministry area identifies a short list of things that each group needs to know.
I remember my own early days as a Christian. I loved researching the End Times. I spent hours not only reading Revelation, Daniel, etc., but also Hal Lindsey, J. Dwight Pentecost and other dispensationalist authors. For a high schooler, I was well educated on the subject. But it didn’t do me or anyone else any good (unless you count the author’s book royalties). My model of the Christian life was very stunted: Being a Christian meant knowing lots of stuff (more than anyone else) about the end times (or the Bible). While this model was more attractive than the major competitor I experienced “God is nice. Be nice too,” I desperately needed a model that connected me with God and his Kingdom purposes.
Once you notice that Andy Stanley is Charles Stanley’s son, you might start thinking, “These guys are just a bunch of Baptists. What can we Methodists/Presbyterians/etc. learn from them?” For many years now, my estimation of the Methodist Mistake is that we tend to assume everyone is saved, and thus never talk about how to become a Christian, while the Baptist Mistake is tending to assume no one is a Christian and talk about nothing else. When the North Point folks talk about “Narrow the Focus” and “Teach Less for More” they’re not instantiating either Mistake. In other words, “Teach Less for More” is not “Get them saved and that’s all.”
Looking at each stage of life (which, of course, can be a gross over-simplification), they develop a short list of things people in that stage need to know. They refer to these in terms like, “things married couples need to know,” and “7 checkpoints for students.” A short list might give the impression their work will be quickly done. Taking the “7 Checkpoints for students” as an example, there is plenty of room to fill in years of communication, whether that communication be teaching or preaching. It is far more than a list of seven scriptures to memorize. Check the link and see for yourself.
As a church in the evangelical tradition, they clearly enunciate a high view of scripture. While they affirm that all scripture is equally inspired, they also say that not all scripture is equally applicable. This is nothing new, though I don’t hear it frequently articulated by many “bible-centered” churches.
How does this principle work itself out? They identify four steps.
- Decide what to say – identify irreducible minimums. Build a curriculum around those principles. [Have you noticed that “principles” are really big these days? I can’t help but think the evangelical infatuation with “principles” is their particular manifestation of Lessing’s Ugly Ditch (i.e., real religion is found in the necessary truths of reason, not the accidental truths of history).] They recognize that people need more than this, but they emphasize a desire that people WILL definitely get some things really clearly.
- Decide to say one thing at a time. Clear information on what to do with what you’re taught. Avoid information overload. [What about those of us who like to take up the biblical habit of saying more than one thing at a time? Is there no place for irony?]
- Decide how to say it. Focus on how to communicate in a way that your audience can hear what you’re saying. Build a team to design communication. Spend time reducing what you’re saying to one statement. Examples: “Purity paves the way to intimacy.” “When we see as God sees, we’ll do as God says.”
- Say it over and over again. Use repetition. Then say it again. It’s ok to use the same curriculum over and over again. Let people hear it in different ways depending on their stage in life. Fight the urge to always say something new and original.
4 Questions for communicators to consider:
- What do people need to know?
- Why do they need to know it?
- What do I want people to do?
- Why do they need to do it?
If one adopts some variant of the first three practices, this fourth would seem to be the necessary communicator’s corollary. The traditional church will likely find this challenging for a number of reasons.
- When it comes to Sunday School curriculum we tend not to look beyond the publisher. We either have a particular publisher that we’re supposed to use or simply one we’ve become accustomed to over the years. It takes a huge amount of work to know our audience, examine what they need to learn, and find or develop a curriculum that meets their needs and takes them to the desired goal.
- Many people think of Sunday School as a holding time for kids and fellowship time for adults. While adults need fellowship and kids need some holding, if our teachers and leaders don’t have a vision of Sunday School as true discipleship training, it’s unlikely the students ever will.
- As good Americans, we think that freedom of speech is a Christian virtue. We can’t tell our teachers what they should be teaching.
- We preachers tend to pick preaching planning methods that may or may not be conducive to such narrow-minded teaching. We may have a strong self-satisfaction in taking our people through the whole bible (either verse by verse or on a lectionary plan) or through the highlights of the whole of Christian doctrine, but they carry nothing home with them.
In the end, I find myself torn on this principle. On the one hand, it makes good sense. People seem to need a simple picture of what to do and how to do it. On the other, I’m an unreconstructed complexophile. I think complexity is more interesting and fulfilling than simplicity. Of course this might boil down to the fact that on the Myers-Briggs I’m an INTP. Since the majority of our people, however, are not INTPs, we must develop structures, strategies, and methods that take their styles into account.