Spirit-Led Excellence, Pt. 5: Never Content with Content

May 22, 2023

by Anthony Blair, President of Evangelical Seminary and Professor of Leadership and Historical Studies; David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary, and Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University; President, Sioux Falls Seminary


Have you ever regretted buying something that said “some assembly required?” Several years ago, Tony made an online purchase of a stationary exercise bike. It was a good deal. It seemed easy enough. Until the day that a couple of cardboard boxes arrived on his doorstep, with literally hundreds of small parts inside. “Okay, this is going to take a bit longer than I thought, but at least there’s an instruction guide for assembly!” Well, as it turned out, the instruction guide was a collection of photocopied pages, translated poorly into English from another language, with drawings that did not quite match the model of bike he had purchased. There were no YouTube videos to help with assembly either?

What do you do when you don’t have useable content for learning? In this case, all that was left was experimentation. Tony looked at the picture of the bike on the box and started putting pieces together, large ones first and then smaller ones, seeing what fit where and what didn’t, hoping that the finished product at the end of the day would look and function like the bike he had purchased. It did! To this day, the electronic monitor is still not operational, but the bike works! But it required Tony to learn the assembly process differently than he had anticipated. So much of learning is like this, isn’t it?

We’ve been exploring the concept of Spirit-led excellence in this current series of posts, including how excellence is to be understood, who gets to define it, and how it is upheld and even improved over time. Last week, we noted that the primary creators and owners of standards of quality are the communities of practitioners—that the people who actually do things are the ones most invested in making sure they’re done well. And that is true, of course, for communities of learning, like Kairos.

But all communities of practice sometimes get lost. They inherit standards from the past and fail to update them, and the instruction guides become quickly out of date. Or they receive them from another context and miss the opportunity to translate them, so they fail to become relevant and appropriate to a new context. What’s left in those situations is something not terribly useful in the end, like a half-assembled exercise bike that sits in a corner but doesn’t work.

This is exactly what has happened in higher education. Many institutions have become content with content, choosing cognitive awareness or understanding over personal transformation. “Content” and “knowledge” are regarded as virtually synonymous in the language of the academy. Most institutions act under the assumption that the more content one gets, the more knowledgeable one is–and that such knowledge is the end of the process. The problem with this reductionist approach to knowledge is that it strips away other essential aspects of knowledge, particularly those that have far more potential to change us.

All three of us have led seminaries that had initially offered this content-driven model of learning. And we all eventually arrived at the startling realization that students taught with this model demonstrated little correlation between success in the classroom and success in ministry. We saw it in our alumni. We heard it from denominational leaders. We heard from parishioners. Sometimes, we even heard concern that the content we were teaching was actually detrimental to ministry.

What was most often identified as being missing was the positive impact of the education on the students’ personal life, on their growth as disciples of Christ, on their emotional and relational maturity. We understand this from our own experience—how someone might have a cognitive grasp on the Bible, might even have a coherent Christology, but not know Jesus. A graduate might know how to preach about grace but not how to receive it, much less offer it. One could spout polysyllabic words but not know how to listen to hurting people. They have knowledge that puffs up but are lacking in the love that builds up.

How could that be? It was almost as if their instructional guide for ministry had been written in the wrong language! And, indeed, it was, and so the final, assembled product wasn’t quite what was hoped for. We weren’t the only ones to encounter this problem, of course. It was (and remains) common in higher education and in ministry. But what to do about it? A typical response was to simply add more content!… as if more of a less-helpful thing was what was most needed. No, we realized that a more holistic approach was needed—a model of learning that was not content with content, but that would seek to integrate content into character and craft as well.

And so, the Spirit led us, and you, to come together in this thing called Kairos, at this opportune time, to embody and flesh out a different approach to the learning journey, one that refuses to be content with content, one that aims for greater excellence. And that’s what we’ll describe next week!

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