Digital and analog

Recently, I’ve been preparing some training for younger leaders on pastoral care, evangelism, and mentoring, and in doing so, I’ve come across some difficulties. There is an inherent artificiality to the way we do training and teaching on these topics, which is unfortunate given their personal and relational nature. It feels weird to write training that says ‘Convey empathy by saying “I understand. When I went through x, I felt like y.”’ People object – quite understandably – to training on evangelism that instructs them to ‘Connect with the person’s interests and then relate those interests to Jesus’, or whatever the instruction might be. Shouldn’t we just love people and have everything else follow?

The way I’ve come to reconcile these difficulties is through the analogy of digital and analog signals.

Analog and Digital signals

Pastoral care, mentoring and evangelism are all highly relational. They fit much more comfortably in the analog category. For each of them, you need to be flexible and responsive, able to individualise and recognise nuance.

However, in teaching and training on these topics, in a classroom environment, we have to take what is essentially analog, and make it digital. We create step-by-step guides for conveying empathy and understanding, how-tos for explaining the gospel, sample questions for generating discussion. This is clearly deficient, given the nature of what we’re seeking to do, but it’s not wrong. We’re simply tracking backwards from what we might do naturally in a particular situation, to the essential elements – the whys, whats and hows that underlie our interactions – so that we can extend their reach from one situation to many.

We’re often uncomfortable with this because we’ve subscribed to the idea that anything that is intentional, anything with any pre-planning or forethought is necessarily un-genuine and uncaring. That doesn’t accord with how the Bible speaks of ministry. Jesus’ engagements with people had a definite sense of purpose – he wanted people to recognise who he was, and what he was going to do, and be on board with it. Yet Jesus loved the people he was engaging with. These are not two opposing values that, in his specialness, Jesus was somehow able to hold together. They actually flow from the same value: love. It is because God loves us that he has intentions for us.

The problem is when we don’t understand the limited value of the digital. The problem arises when the people doing the training, and the people being trained, don’t understand that the value of the digital is in its use in the classroom and in the classroom alone. We should always be aiming to train and teach others so that they see how the digital should switch back to analog again. How to take what is being taught and apply it in your own context, with your own disposition and personality, and in response to the other person with whom you are engaging. How questions which convey empathy are valuable when you actually have empathy. How step-by-step gospel explanations are helpful when you have a rich, deep understanding of the gospel yourself. How having plans to grow people include plans to love, serve and care for them.

The digital step is usually a necessary one because it crystallises what we might ordinarily do unthinkingly or value implicitly. We need these things to be crystallised in order to explore, question, probe them. What biblical bases do these rest on? In what way do they express the character and purposes of God? How do they draw from the gospel narrative? We also need these things to be crystallised so that less experienced people can benefit from more experienced leaders. What might be ‘natural’ for one person, because of their experience (and/or giftedness), will not necessarily be natural for another, yet it is great for them to receive the benefit of someone else’s experience in that area. People who fail to ‘digitalise’ their teaching or training will likely impress their trainees, without imparting anything of use to them. There will be little that is replicable from the training, because the training is so idiosyncratic to the leader. People will go away saying ‘I wish I could do it like so-and-so does’, without having a clear sense of what it would look like for them to do it like they should.

This has been a lesson in humility for me. To be honest, I’d prefer to lead idiosyncratic training which impresses people. It feels clunky to create systems that people can follow. But I do want whatever is good in the ministry I do to be replicable. I do want people to be empowered to do their own ministry, in the way that God has equipped them to do it, shaped and motivated by the same biblical principles that shape and motivate me. So whilst I see the insufficiency of the analog-digital-analog process, I also see its necessity and value.