For some time now we have been living in an information age. The world has gotten smaller. There is a constant data stream on the internet. We spend increasing amounts of time in sound-byte-driven social media. There is an “app” for everything.
One aspect of our culture greatly affected by this boom in communication is education. Online learning is now all the rage. There are, of course, advantages in terms of cost and accessibility. Online universities offering courses and degrees in a virtual classroom have merit. There are some classes where the online experience is sufficient.
However, there is a difference between education and formation. Formation, whether it is social, personal, spiritual, theological, or vocational, happens best within the context of community. Life is more than data. We are formed by relationships. In order for true formation (and the resulting transformation) to occur, community is essential.
The most natural way formation happens, be it philosophical, sociological, or theological, is simply through conversation. Conversation involves more than simply hearing, memorizing, and regurgitating data. It is wrestling with the material, working it out in the context of a community where real formation takes place. Formation yields more than data or knowledge, formation yields understanding.
Reflection – Learning the data and information but then seeing it more fully. We reflect with one another and by doing so we gain not just knowledge but understanding.
Connection – Looking at the web of relationships, we see that formation does not happen in a vacuum. We are wired into a network. My thoughts about life, politics, faith, values, and more are expressed and lived out with others.
Experience – I live, breathe, and traverse in a world that is physical and requires all of my senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing). I don’t just learn concepts and paradigms, I interact with them.
Granted, some of these things can be leveraged in an online or virtual structure. Let’s do that where it makes sense. However, let us be thoughtful to craft and create space for true formation where we walk away transformed by having dealt more fully with the subject matter. When we do this, we become better in part because we entered a narrative learning that tells a story yielding so much more that multiple choice answers.
In 1988 I was a youth pastor at a church where, tragically, a 15-year-old, young, and beautiful girl named Kim was killed in a car accident. She was part of the leadership of the group. I had prayed with Kim to receive Christ and I knew of her deep and vibrant faith. As a community we learned many things in that moment: how to grieve; how to comfort one another; how broken this world is; and how death, though not the end, is still a moment of loss and sadness. We also learned of God’s sovereignty and mercy. We did not learn this from theology or doctrine. We experienced it together and were formed in that moment to trust, hope, give, and love. You can’t load that on a thumb drive.