[Gentile Christians] are those who have become lifelong learners and lovers of others. … We have entered the story of another people, Israel, and we entered as learners.—Willie James Jennings, “The Place of Redemption: Putting the Church on the Ground”1
Evangelicalism has a mind-body problem. We face a widening gap between the evangelical mind (that is, evangelicals in the academy) and the evangelical body (that is, evangelical churches). As early as the mid-1990s, Mark Noll identified this problem in the opening pages of his important book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Borrowing the words of Ronald Chapman, he observes of evangelical churches: “On one hand, there is enormous growth of the Church, and on the other is its almost complete lack of influence.”2 In 2016, more than 80 percent of white evangelicals cast their votes in support of Donald Trump and boosted him into the U.S. presidency3—much to the chagrin of many evangelical intellectuals. We find therefore that although the dynamics have shifted over the past quarter century such that evangelical churches now have considerable influence, the chasm between evangelical mind and body persists. How and where do we begin to address this chasm? The evangelical mind-body problem will be resolved, not in the academy or in Washington, but in our local churches, where we all gather to embody Christ together and bear witness to our neighbors of the good news of God’s salvation in Christ. In this article, I argue that noted business thinker Peter Senge’s concept of a learning organization may help illuminate a way forward toward a unity of evangelical mind and evangelical body in our local churches. I will briefly sketch how this problem has emerged, introduce Senge’s concept of a learning organization, examine its relevance for our learning and growing in our local churches, and conclude with a brief account of my own congregation’s journey toward becoming a learning organization.
The modern age has been one of fragmentation, beginning with the familiar thought experiment of René Descartes, as recorded in the Meditations. Descartes endeavored to disentangle himself from all his inherited tradition and explore what he could know solely on the basis of his own sensory perceptions and thoughts. Over the past half millennium, the shredding force of modernity’s existentialism has made rubble of human communities and our traditions of thought. Within Protestantism, a key manifestation of this modern splintering is the profusion of church traditions that have evolved in the 500 years since the Reformation. Churches are not the only communities shattered by the powers of modernity. Many of the communities that gave order and meaning to our lives in past eras—from sports leagues to fraternal organizations—also crumbled and declined over the twentieth century, as sociologist Robert Putnam observed in his landmark work Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.4 Descartes’s own dualistic framing of the mind-body problem has fragmented the modern imagination over the past several centuries such that we face a widening gap today between the academy and business, government, and even churches. This modern fragmentation that has shaped our imaginations as well as our daily lives is the origin of the evangelical mind-body problem that we face.
Within local churches, denominations, Christian universities, and seminaries, the destructive forces of modernity have rendered us without a singular narrative strong enough to bind us together and drive us forward. Instead, we find ourselves adrift on the polarizing forces of ideologies of Right and Left, vulnerable to the vicious forces of the marketplace, and isolated by the siloing forces of specialization in the school and the workplace.5 Evangelical intellectuals are often so specialized in their academic training that it becomes increasingly difficult to see the relevance of their daily work to the life and challenges of their local church communities.
Amidst the ruins of Western culture, one the biggest educational challenges facing local evangelical churches in the twenty-first century is our deficient imagination for a singular narrative that can guide our discipleship, one in which God is reconciling all things in Christ Jesus. If we are the singular body of Christ, we will have a singular narrative that guides us. We will likely disagree on how various facets of this story should be interpreted, but we cohere in our submission to a singular narrative.6 Our churches also struggle to imagine how the shape of our life together bears witness to the good news of God healing and restoring the fragmented world in which we live. As one example, our churches too often have little imagination for how the daily work of our members—and perhaps especially members in the academic community—intersects fruitfully with the mission of God into which we have been called together as the church. The prevailing forces of specialization in the academy, the workplace, and the church, along with the rampant consumerism that casts a shadow upon our church experience, conspire to widen the chasm between church and workplace and to obscure how our skills and vocational learning might pertain to the revealing of “the manifold wisdom of God … through the church” (Eph. 3:10 NASB).7
Given the fragmentation pervading our language, our theologies, and the lived realities of our daily lives, what tools do we have available to us to imagine a different way of discipleship, in which the people of God—academics, business people, artists, and others—are being called together in local church communities to bear witness to God’s reconciling work in creation? Sometimes it takes a voice from outside our usual channels of discourse to wake us and stir our imaginations with new language and new possibilities for faithful living. In The Fifth Discipline, one of the bestselling business books of all time, Peter Senge proposed the concept of a learning organization.8 Although there is nothing explicitly theological about Senge’s depiction of a learning organization and although Senge’s theology and metaphysics are outside the scope of this brief article, he provides language and imagery that resonate with certain virtues of the historic Christian tradition that our churches deeply need amidst the cultural wreckage of the twenty-first century.9
What is a learning organization? Senge opens The Fifth Discipline with the recognition of the fragmentation of life in the late modern era and the conviction that our education trains us to propagate fragmentation. “From a very early age,” he writes, “we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.”10 Given these convictions about how we have been trained to learn about the world, and to live within it, Senge frames the contrasting vision of a learning organization:
The tools and ideas in this book are for destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces. When we give up this illusion—we can then build “learning organizations,” organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.11
Recognizing the persistent acceleration of Western culture, Senge argues that a learning organization promotes learning across all of its levels, to facilitate intelligent action within a rapidly changing world.
In contrast to the situation of many churches, in which Christian education is largely severed from the daily activities of its members’ home and work life (in the academy, for example), a learning organization tightly interweaves learning and action into a cyclical effort to
- create shared meaning by attempting to understand its context;
- jointly plan and imagine effective sorts of action;
- act in a coordinated manner;
- publicly reflect on the action; and
- start the cycle again.12
Senge’s model is particularly compelling because it focuses primarily on the identity and mission of the organization, as opposed to that of individual members. One of the most destructive forces of the modern age has been that of individualism. Within evangelicalism, individualism has come to dominate not only our reading of Scripture, but indeed nearly all facets of our understanding of Christian discipleship.13 In contrast, the scriptural story is fundamentally about the people of God—not autonomous individuals. The primary characters of the Old Testament story, for instance, are God and the ancient Israelites. In the Gospels, Israel continues to play a central role, but in Jesus the groundwork is laid for a new Israel in which God’s people are not defined by their ancestry and in which Jews and Gentiles faithfully follow God together. In Acts and the remainder of the New Testament, the primary characters are God and the churches that emerged across the Mediterranean world, expressions of the new Israel that God had initiated in Christ.14
The most pressing challenge for evangelical churches of the twenty-first century is the recovery of the church as the primary community in which we understand and act within the world. For us to continue to act as autonomous Christians—often guided more by our work in the academy, or elsewhere, than by our churches—is to continue to propagate the fragmentation of modernity. Senge’s concept of the learning organization parallels the scriptural narrative in that the primary construct is a community that is seeking to understand who it is, and how it will act and flourish in the world. In addition to recovering a sense of social identity, Senge depicts learning organizations in terms of five disciplines that give shape to their efforts to learn and to act. Each of these disciplines can be helpful for orienting our churches amidst the present challenges of fragmentation.
Recognizing that we are a community, we work together to understand who, why, where, and when we are. Personal learning, while important, is not sufficient. “The discipline of team learning,” Senge writes, “starts with ‘dialogue,’ the capacity of members to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together.’”15 Any community that understands itself as having a distinct identity and mission will require team learning to discern how to enact its mission. The Old Testament, or the book of Acts, can be read as accounts of team learning, the people of God discerning—largely through dialogue with God and one another— how to grow into their identity and mission as a community.
The organization benefits when all members strive to do their functions to the best of their capacity. “Personal mastery,” notes Senge, “is the discipline of continually deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience.”16 In the Christian tradition, personal mastery is nearly equivalent to vocation. Our calling into a specific type of work is not just about personal fulfillment, but about how that work, when done well, contributes to the well-being not only of God’s people, but also that of all creation. Learning organizations function best when all members know the functions they perform and seek to do them to the best of their capability and in harmony with the functions of fellow members.
We imagine and live within the world on the basis of tacit assumptions about how the world works (or how it should work). “Very often,” Senge observes, “we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”17 The New Testament writers used the Greek word stoicheia to describe these assumptions about how the world works. Learning organizations function best when they reflect on the mental models guiding their actions as teams and, in the dialogue of team learning, rigorously scrutinize themselves and their effects.
A learning organization operates within a complex world consisting of intertwined systems. Therefore, we cannot function as isolated, autonomous individuals or groups, as our actions have effects that ripple broadly throughout creation. In biblical language, creation has a common origin, a common purpose, and a common end—“the reconciliation of all things” (Col. 1:19–20 NASB). No part of creation can be taken for granted. We act best as churches when we are mindful of this ecology of creation and are as attentive as possible to the possible effects of our actions.18
Building Shared Vision
Learning organizations are driven by a shared vision of where they are headed that organizes and energizes their work. “When there is a genuine [shared] vision,” Senge writes, “people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.”19 Our churches are given a shared vision in the scriptural story, but we also have to create a particular vision for our own congregations that gives life and shape to our efforts to live faithfully within the scriptural story.
In recommending our churches consider the concepts and disciplines of a learning organization, I suggest that we reflect on the ways in which Senge’s ideas resonate with the scriptural narrative and the historic Christian tradition we have inherited. We also should reflect on how the framework of a learning organization might orient us toward deeper faithfulness amidst the challenges of fragmentation in the twenty-first century. I am not, however, suggesting we accept Senge’s philosophical and theological convictions uncritically. For example, Senge’s ideas were admittedly developed within the business context, and the end toward which they are driving is undoubtedly one of financial profit. This end likely shapes the means by which it is pursued.
As God’s people, we have a very different end, the coming of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. Although Senge’s ideas might stir our imaginations, we will certainly embody them in different ways than practiced in the business world. One distinct difference is that the evaluation of success is much more complicated for us as churches. In the business world, success is generally defined quantitatively by whether a venture is making the expected level of profits. Discerning success versus failure—or faithfulness versus unfaithfulness—in our churches is significantly more complicated. Our discernments are never as simple as whether we are doing the right things, but also, whether we are doing them with the right motives and in love for one another and love for our neighbors. Even though these questions could all be answered with a simple yes or no, if we are truthful with ourselves, the answers are typically much messier, somewhere between yes and no.
Another related theological wrinkle in reading Senge’s work follows from the question of how we respond to failure. In the business world, some failures are indeed learning opportunities, but repeated failures ultimately lead to the death of the organization. For the church, the pressure of ultimate failure has been erased by the abundant grace of God. The Old Testament story, for instance, recounts Israel’s profuse failures, and yet they remained God’s chosen people. Of course, we should not cheapen this grace but recognize the sustaining hope we find in it to keep learning and growing in response to our failures.
The Local Church as a Learning Organization?
Given the rampant fragmentation of the twenty-first century, how are our churches ever going to be more than networks of autonomous individuals? How are we to bear witness to the good news of God’s work of healing and reconciling all things in Christ Jesus? Community has been a prevalent buzzword over the past decade in many churches and in popular Christian literature, but too often the exact ends and nature of this community have been left nebulous. What sort of community are we called to be as God’s people? How do we mature into that sort of community when the powers of this late modern age vehemently resist its formation? Peter Senge’s concept of a learning organization, and the disciplines that give it shape, can orient us to be communities of God’s people who are learning and growing in Christian faithfulness.
Above all, Senge’s concept is predicated on the reality that the learning organization has a shared identity and is learning to function well as a community. The five disciplines serve to deepen and give substance to this identity. Follow ing in the footsteps of the early churches of the first century that are depicted in Acts and the Epistles, team learning is a discipline by which we practice talking openly with one another and discerning our next steps together as we grow and mature toward the fullness of Christ. Meaningful work is essential for healthy, flourishing communities,20 and we should encourage personal mastery among the members of our congregations. But beyond personal mastery, part of team learning is developing the capacity to coordinate or orchestrate the vocations of our church’s members; that is, how can their gifts and skills be drawn upon in synergetic ways that complement one another, build up Christ’s body, and bear witness of the gospel to our neighbors?21 Just as a baby learns to crawl and then to walk and do many other categories of action, our churches are bodies that need a similar kind of coordination, all the parts and subsystems of the body talking and working with one another for the body’s growth and health.
In a fragmented world such as ours, we need a willingness to name and critique the mental models from which we are working. We often adopt particular understandings of concepts from the wider world, and these understandings need to be named and discerned. Many people today do not stay in the church tradition in which they were raised;22 they often bring the language and theology of other traditions with them as they come to our churches. Pick a familiar theological term—for instance, gospel—and you are likely to get a wide range of answers when you ask each congregant to define this term. These definitions are mental models giving shape to our life together, and they need to be surfaced and discussed. Additionally, we need broader imagination for the positive and negative consequences of any given action, the sort of imagination that Senge and others have called “systems thinking.” Churches too often propagate fragmentation because we think and act too narrowly and are not paying attention to the unintended consequences of our actions. Lastly, we will not continue to learn and grow unless we build a shared vision of who we are and the specific directions in which God is calling us. A shared vision and the conversations through which it is discerned are not only energizing, as Senge has noted; they are a vivid, everyday demonstration of the possibility of cooperation, healing, and reconciliation in a world that generally moves in the opposite direction.
Life Together as a Learning Organization
Peter Senge’s depiction of a learning organization is personally compelling because it fits the experience of my own church community over the past 30 years. Englewood Christian Church, on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, was a church of almost 2,000 members in the early 1970s, but we had been reduced to a small fraction of that size by the mid-1980s. Over the course of this numerical decline, we made the intentional decision that we were not going to move to the suburbs as many urban churches were doing at the time. We would stay put in the Englewood neighborhood where we had been sharing life together since we were planted here in 1895. This decision was the kernel from which we would begin to mold a shared vision of our faithfulness as a church in this place.
About 20 years ago, we gave up our Sunday evening worship service in favor of creating an intentional space for conversation. Our Sunday night conversation became a catalyst for team learning, where we could surface our mental models and assumptions and examine them in the light of Christ. These conversations regularly drew upon the gifts of academics in our congregation and beyond (for example, we have read a diverse range of books together as part of our conversations, including many that are rarely read outside of postsecondary classrooms). We looked to these academics not only to understand difficult passages of Scripture, but also to understand the socioeconomic, educational, business, and regulatory dynamics at play in our engagements with our neighbors and others. As we matured in our ability to talk together, we also started businesses (affordable housing, early childhood education, The Englewood Review of Books, and more) that drew upon the skills that God had provided in our members and provided channels for what Senge calls “personal mastery,” challenging our members to learn and mature in specific vocations, and providing opportunities for at least some of them to do so in direct conjunction with the shared life of the church. As we continued to learn and grow as a church, we were frequently reminded of the importance of systems thinking, of taking a broad perspective and paying attention to efforts that are already in motion and the various interconnected parts that surround any particular area in which we are working.
The call for communities of God’s people to think of ourselves as learning organizations could transform our imagination for Christian discipleship from a highly individualistic pursuit to a shared one rooted in our particular congregations, to which we devote ourselves fully—including all our knowledge, skills, and resources as persons and families. This vision will also reshape the ways we interact with universities and seminaries, offering a new set of objectives (related to growing and maturing communities of God’s people) that will undoubtedly shift and enrich the means and methods of education. Too often our educational institutions have functioned primarily on the narrative of an individual’s personal vocation, and students have been trained to function as autonomous individuals. Local churches that understand themselves as learning organizations could open up a wide array of new opportunities for interactions with universities and seminaries.
For example, schools could provide instruction for churches on how to understand the socioeconomics of their particular context (such as suburban, urban, rural) or provide entrepreneurial training that helps churches prepare for new ways of working together and of sustaining themselves. Although I am advocating for the local church as the primary community, I believe the emphasis on learning could be the genesis of a whole new world of educational opportunities for Christian institutions of higher education. My hope is that all our institutions would be reoriented toward our primary call to discipleship within the community of God’s people.23
Cite this article
- Willie James Jennings, “A Place of Redemption: Putting Church on the Ground” (lecture, Slow Church conference, Englewood Christian Church, Indianapolis, IN, April 3, 2014), http://englewoodreview.org/willie-jennings-slow-church-conference-audio;in part 2, starting at 19:20.
- Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 10.
- See Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “White Evangelicals Voted Overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, Exit Polls Show,” Washington Post (November 9, 2016), web content: https://www.washingtonpost. com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/09/exit-polls-show-white-evangelicalsvoted- overwhelmingly-for-donald-trump/.
- 4Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
- See, for example, on the fragmentation of modernity and narrative, Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007); on the effects of this fragmentation on churches, Jonathan Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1997); on the polarizing forces of ideology and their effects on the church, David Fitch, “Engaging the Antagonisms of Our Culture: The Peculiar Challenges of Mission in a Post-Christian World” (lecture, Ekklesia Project Gathering, Techny, IL, July 9, 2017), last modified August 23, 2017, https://ekklesiaproject.podbean.com/e/ gathering-2017-plenary-4-david-fitch/.
- See Wilson, Living Faithfully, 26–38, on the difference between pluralism and fragmentation and the nature of a coherent community.
- See, for example, Amy Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011); C. Christopher Smith, “Discerning Our Call,” chap. 4 in Reading for the Common Good.
- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
- Senge’s ideas, as I have interpreted them here, do not offer us a theological model, but rather provide us with basic language and concepts, which we can interpose with the historic Christian tradition that we have inherited to fashion new theological models that I believe can guide us into deeper Christian faithfulness.
- Ibid, 3.
- 12Peter Senge et al., “The Wheel of Learning,” in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 59–65.
- See, for example, on the fragmentation of individualism, Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2016); on the effects of individualism on churches, Wilson, Living Faithfully; on the effects of individualism on our reading of Scripture, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012).
- For a deeper exploration of this idea, see C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, “A Theological Vision for Slow Church,” in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014), 21–35.
- Senge, Fifth Discipline, 10.
- Ibid, 7.
- Ibid, 8.
- For a deeper exploration of this idea, see Smith and Pattison, “Ecology,” in Slow Church, 99–152.
- Senge, Fifth Discipline, 9.
- See, for example, on the virtue of work in forming Benedictine communities, Joan Chittister, “Work: Participation in Creation,” in Wisdom Distilled from the Daily (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), ch. 7; on the virtue of work within the Christian tradition more broadly, R. Paul Stevens, “Doing the Lord’s Work,” in The Other Six Days (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999), ch. 5; within society-at-large, Jon Wisman, “The Moral Imperative and Social Rationality of Government-Guaranteed Employment and Reskilling,” American University Department of Economics: Working Paper Series, Fall 2008, http://w.american. edu/cas/economics/repec/amu/workingpapers/2008-20.pdf.
- For a deeper exploration of this idea, see Smith, “Discerning Our Call,” in Reading for the Common Good, 68–82.
- See, for example, “Changing Denominations Common among Evangelical Leaders,” National Association of Evangelicals, December 2014, https://www.nae.net/changing-denominations- common-among-evangelical-leaders/; “Religious Switching and Intermarriage,” in America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, http://www. pewforum.org/2015/05/12/chapter-2-religious-switching-and-intermarriage/.
- This paper has been adapted from central ideas in the introduction to my book Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016), 13–21.