Carey D. Froelich, D.Ed.Min.
The term transformational learning caught my attention about ten years ago primarily through the works of Robert Mulholland, and it implies that study of Scripture should lead to lives “being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Mulholland has written that studying Scripture is intended to be a means—perhaps the primary means—by which believers can be conformed to the image of Christ. In Shaped by the Word he discusses the difference between reading the Bible for information versus reading it for spiritual formation. With elegant simplicity he summarizes what should be our purpose in gathering for Bible study: “The point is meeting God in the text.” (55)
Transformational learning is a teaching practice that encourages learners to “become a part” of a biblical narrative and thereby experience ancient lessons personally more than historically. It serves as a counterpoint to information gathering, which tends to be the classic result of most Bible study sessions. The familiar role of the teacher in these traditional classes is to distribute facts and opinions about the passage of scripture being studied; the pupil’s job is to collect this data. The underlying thesis of this comparative approach to lesson planning is that students often leave the typical Bible study session with a spectrum of thoughts about the scripture, but far too infrequently leave with a sense of having been changed by an encounter with the Living Word of God.
Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18:9-14) provides a Biblical example of the difference between information gathering and transformational learning. The Pharisee—who was “confident of his own righteousness”—had the background and preparation to provide him with all of the information he needed about the scripture. The tax collector probably had little formal training in the Law of God, yet it was he who had “met God in the text.” He—not the scholar—was transformed by the Word so that he knew his sin and his need for the mercy of God.
At the church I’ve served for the past twelve years, we have been attempting to encourage our adult teachers to intentionally focus on transformation instead of information—to help members “meet God in the text.” A recent lesson from Amos 4:1-5 offered teachers two distinct choices. As the Prophet addressed Israel’s superficial worship practices at Bethel and Gilgal, the teachers could have invested class time in helping members understand the significance of these twin “worship centers” and their place in the religious history of Israel. That information is valuable and helpful. However, the suggested lesson plan urged teachers to use the superficiality of Israel’s worship practices to challenge members to examine their attitudes about corporate worship and the depth of their private devotional experiences. The text became the basis for members to compare the shortcomings of an ancient people with their own perspectives on coming into the Presence of the Living God.
How do we measure “success” with such an approach? It is a fair question. Although we live in a time that constantly seeks objective measure to verify outcomes, transformation into the likeness of Christ is necessarily subjective and very personal. Teachers can listen for changing attitudes through members’ comments, or they can watch for signs of change, for example seeing acceptance where judgment and prejudice have previously dominated. We cannot control the outcomes—that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task as Christian educators is to do everything we can to help our students meet the Lord of the text in the text. That’s transformational learning.