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Replay: The Problem of Learning from Strangers

Posted by on Nov 10, 2012 in community, discipleship, fellowship | 4 comments

Replay: The Problem of Learning from Strangers

Four years ago, back in November 2008, I wrote a post called “Learning from Strangers.” Have you noticed that when you ask a Christian a question today, they will tend to suggest a book to read on the topic? Or, when you’re talking about something, someone tells you what several of his or her favorite authors wrote about it? Perhaps you’re lucky and that doesn’t happen around you. But, I’ve noticed it happening more and more. I think this illustrates a big problem: we’re primarily learning from strangers, i.e., people we do not actually know. That’s the point of this post.

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Learning from Strangers

As followers of Jesus Christ, we should be ready to learn from anyone – especially other brothers and sisters – even if we do not know them. However, when reading through Scripture, it seems that the authors thought most learning would happen within relationships.

These relationships as described in Scripture are “full life” relationships, meaning that we primarily learn from people that we actually know. We know what they say. We know how that treat their family. We know about their work ethic. We know how they treat other people. Thus, we learn from people that we really, truly, actually know.

But, today, things have changed. Strangers (or acquaintances at best) are the primary source of “information” and learning for most Christians. We read books written by people that we do not know. We watch and listen to sermons given by people that we do not know. We attend conferences where the speakers are people that we do not know. We often listen week after week to teaching from people that we do not know – even if they are part of our church.

Thus, when our favorite author, or a powerful speaker, or a gifted musician “fails” we feel betrayed. But, in reality, we are failing ourselves by putting our trust so heavily in people that we actually do not know.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Books, and tapes, and CD’s, and lectures, and conferences can be very helpful. But, these things should complement the really, true, actual learning and discipleship that takes place through really, true, actual relationships. These things (books, tapes, cd’s, lectures, conferences) should not take the place of relationships.

In fact, we’re now part of a “Christianity” in which relationships are not only secondary, but they are rare. When talking to others, we would prefer to quote our favorite author than to listen to someone we know, perhaps because we don’t really know them.

Jesus not only spoke the gospel of the kingdom, but he also demonstrated it. Paul told people to consider his words and his manner of living. John said that our fellowship with one another is actually fellowship with the Father and the Son. We’ve replaced learning through relationship (knowing someone and their manner of life) with learning from strangers (people we do not know – including their manner of life).

Your favorite author may be able to wax eloquently concerning the theological implications of the love of God. But, you will learn more about the love of God from the person that you actually know – the person who is struggling with his boss, but continues to love her – the person who gives to others while going without himself – the person who would walk into a low income neighborhood because of her concern for the neighbors there.

Relationships are more than pastimes or good ideas. God worked in Scripture primarily through relationships. Discipleship occurs primarily through relationships. Spiritual growth occurs through relationships. Its time to spend less time with our favorite authors and more time with the people that God has placed in our lives.


4 Comments

  1. 11-10-2012

    Well, you are quickly becoming my favorite author… so I hope I get to know you someday. Seriously, though, I agree that it’s clear that most NT teaching takes place within the context of relationship. Often it seems like in Christian circles “teaching” is valued above relationship, which is weird, because the goal of teaching is the same perfection of relationship within one another and the Father that Christ has with the Father now.

  2. 11-10-2012

    Tim,

    Wow… I’m honored! I really like this: “because the goal of teaching is the same perfection of relationship within one another and the Father that Christ has with the Father now.” That reminds me of what John wrote about fellowship in 1 John 1:3.

    -Alan

  3. 11-11-2012

    We can learn a great deal from people we don’t know personally, and that’s good as you say, Alan. And we depend a great deal on Bible characters that we don’t know in exactly the same sense – Paul especially, John, Luke, and of course even Jesus!

    But the people we DO know, the living stones that I’m in contact with, they are important in a different and particular way. As part of the living temple, the body of Christ, I have most effect on the stones above and below me (we take one another’s weight) and those beside me (we keep things steady and prevent one another slipping out of place).

    And where Jesus is concerned there is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. I do actually ‘know’ Jesus through the action of his Spirit within me.

    Perhaps we need to rejoice more in the company of those around us, celebrate their presence and place in our lives even if sometimes they may disappoint us or let us down. Forgiving one another, loving one another, comforting one another, encouraging one another, these things are the cement that holds the stones in place and makes the irregular surfaces fit.

    I would not like a world in which I couldn’t read the blogs of people I value and feel I know a little (even though we haven’t met). But I could still function without that joy and privilege. But could I function without hearing the voices, seeing the smiles and feeling the touch of people who live nearby? It would be much more difficult, I think.

    Perhaps we really discover ourselves in relationship. Perhaps we learn most from those who are affected by our own words and actions. The people who reflect back the effects of our love, anger, disappointment, joy and all the rest.

    And what about the people Papa has placed in our lives so that they can meet him? If my head is stuck in a book or a website how will they receive anything of him through me?

    Thanks for reminding me of these truths, Alan. I must spend much more time reading your blog.. Oh, hang on a mo’… :-)

  4. 11-11-2012

    Chris,

    Yes, I agree. There are many benefits in reading what other people say and there are benefits in reading widely. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many set aside the ability to interact with and learn from those nearby. To me, that last part is what needs to change.

    -Alan

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