June 21, 2011 Tony Morgan

Unstuck: When Teaching Creates Barriers to Change

One of the great myths in ministry is that we have the power to change behaviors by teaching more. We teach during worship services. We teach at student ministry gatherings. We teach at women’s events. We teach at men’s retreats. Even our small groups are built around teaching. We’ve fallen into the trap of thinking the only way people will take a next step is if we teach at them more.

My dad was a marching band director. Because of that, I grew up loving The Music Man. Harold Hill is nothing like my dad. Hill was a con artist. He really knew nothing about starting a marching band. All he wanted to do was sell band instruments and uniforms to make money. For his charade to work, he used the “think system” in order to train his musicians. Hill wasn’t concerned about the kids learning the notes to become better musicians — he just encouraged them to think their way to becoming a marching band.

My dad’s approach was very different. His system involved teaching, but it also included learning how to play each note, individuals lessons and practice, band rehearsals to fine-tune the music, marching drills on the practice field, band camps to master the programs, warm ups before each performance, etc. Dad implemented systems to support his teaching and it resulted in an award-winning marching band that became known as the “Pride of Piqua”.

Teaching is a good thing. Jesus did it. He taught in front of crowds of thousands. That was only one part of his ministry. His teaching was supported by faith steps, relationships, disciplines and actions that led to a movement.

If churches (and people) are going to get unstuck, we have to stop leaning so heavily on teaching to produce all the change and we need to begin creating healthy systems to support the teaching. Within the context of a church, a healthy system is a simple, replicable process to help people move from where they are to where God wants them to be.

For example, if we want to move more people into serving others, we should teach about what the Bible has to say on that topic. We need to support that teaching with healthy systems to encourage people to take their next step. Those systems may include creating ways to help people identify their gifts. You can train people how to “tap shoulders” of their friends to invite them into ministry. You can create “first serve” opportunities so there are obvious first steps into serving. You can streamline the connections points with one stop in your lobby and one stop on your website for people to sign up. You can eliminate competing events that deter people from serving. You can reduce staff to increase the reliance on volunteers. If your systems are broken or lacking, though, you can teach all you want but it’s not going to change behaviors.

Again, one problem I see in churches I work with, though, is that they believe the teaching is the system. When that happens, they begin to rely on what I’ve affectionately begun to call “The Funnel of Doom“. The funnel works like this. If we want to change behavior, we gather people on Sunday morning and we teach them. Then we promote an event, where we try to gather people again. When we get people there, we teach them some more. Then we encourage people to gather in groups where — you guessed it — we attempt to teach them even more. And, along the way we grow frustrated because fewer people are actually taking each step. We blame it on people for not prioritizing their time and showing up. Maybe it’s time we just acknowledge that “The Funnel of Doom” doesn’t produce life change.

Don’t misquote me on this. I really do believe that biblical teaching is a key component to encouraging life change. The problem occurs when it’s not supported by healthy systems to encourage next steps and application of that teaching. Teaching alone promotes personality-driven ministries where people show up and listen. We need to create systems to encourage people to put what they learn into action.

Your message has the potential to shift thinking. Your systems have the potential to shift behaviors.

What’s your experience? Have you seen healthy systems support teaching to produce change? Join the conversation by sharing your comment.

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You can read more about how churches get stuck in my new eBook, The Leisure Suit Trap. Or check out the other articles in this series:

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Tony Morgan

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com.
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