Coaching, Curiosity, and Leadership for a Digital Age

The advantage of the discerning church

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Could curiosity be the most critical skill for ministry in a digital age?

Or to be more specific, could the application of curiosity, along with the cultivation of curiosity in others, represent significant leadership opportunities for today’s church leaders?

There are two types of ministries we see today.

A prescribing ministry provides directives. Often drawing upon the scriptures, but at times integrating tradition, theology, and reason, a prescribing church concerns itself with proclaiming what the faithful ought to do under highly specific conditions. A prescribing church has detailed, yet sometimes nuanced, perspectives on a catalog of cultural questions and challenges: how do I lead my business? How do I act as a Christian father? What should I donate to the church each month? While a prescribing church is attuned to contemporary realities, its focus is on equipping members with a clear Christian playbook. 

A discerning ministry inspires curiosity, teaching both contemplation and action. Integrating spiritual practices of prayer and meditation along with the scriptures, tradition, and theology, a discerning church learns to consistently ask key questions. What is God up to in our world? And how are we called to be a part of God’s work? A discerning church is Spirit-led and situationally aware. When encountering a new situation or challenge, the discerning church delves into its practices to interpret how to be the hands and feet of God in the world. A discerning church is thus concerned with habit and practice: equipping members with a versatile toolkit, but not necessarily a blueprint or instructional manual. 

Prescribing and discerning churches exist in all denominations and across the ideological spectrum. It’s just as likely to be a discerning conservative evangelical church as it is to be a prescribing liberal mainline congregation. And both approaches to Christian community are faithful responses to the Great Commission. It is possible to make disciples with playbooks just as it is possible to be the hands and feet of Christ with tool kits. 

The problem of the prescribing church is that it is easily supplanted by digital resources that can make more compelling directives about how to live a meaningful spiritual life. From social media to chat bots, digital content threatens to replace the preacher if the preacher’s primary task is to prescribe and direct. 

The advantage of the discerning church, then, is that it is less easily replaced by digital media. The teachings of the prescribing church are easily outsourced to savvy media developers. But there’s no “3 Steps to Faithful Living” blog post that can substitute for a discerning spiritual community. There’s no online course that can provide the sense of communal grounding in which practices are explored. 

The advantage of the discerning church is that it provides a space for grappling with questions that defy easy answers. It provides practices in which we can hear God speaking a word of grace into our world. And in an age of Instagram Influencers and self-aggrandizing social media, the discerning church provides a community through which we can differentiate God’s call from our own ego and self-interest. This bedrock of curiosity enhances the ministry, leading to more effective collaboration in service to the mission. 

So how does one become a discerning church, a ministry dedicated to curiosity? A church leader might begin simply by modeling what it looks like to ask meaningful questions, to ask questions that prompt us to go one step further in our discussion and discernment. Here I am drawn to the approachable and insightful work of Michael Bungay Stanier, a coaching expert whose book The Coaching Habit has become an international bestseller. 

In his book, Michael Bungay Stanier invites leaders of any organization to develop a fluency in seven questions that kickstart discussion, focus the conversation, and motivate us towards the best course of action. “MBS” writes that coaching does not need to be a professional, formal, or therapeutic practice. Rather, coaching is a highly portable practice that anyone can learn, that applies to any organization. Among the author’s great insights is the simple question “And what else?” trains those involved in a conversation to be more curious, going beyond superficial observation and addressing issues at their roots.  

What is church even for anymore? It’s not a place to learn exactly how to live in highly specific situations. It’s not a place we go to get the Biblical answer or the Christian perspective. Your podcast feed can provide that for you, without taking away your Sunday morning. 

Rather, church is a place to discern what your Christian identity means in an ever-changing world. It is a place to hear the voice of God – a voice that comes to us not as an answer, but as a question, not as a lecture, but as an invitation. It’s a place to be curious about what that voice is speaking to us. In a world of ceaseless change, it is time for church leaders to stop prescribing. It is time instead to initiate a shared journey of curiosity.

Interested in hearing more from Ryan? Register here for the upcoming workshop, Christian Leadership for a Tech-Shaped Culture: Coaching and Leading in the Digital Age, happening on Thursday, April 25.

  • Ryan Panzer

    Ryan Panzer is the author of Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture (Fortress Press, December 2020). Having worked for technology companies like Google and Zendesk while attending seminary and serving in ministry contexts, Ryan researches and writes about ministry in a digital age. As a coach and consultant, Ryan equips communities of faith to live into their mission by integrating digital technology in their ministry. He lives in Madison, WI. For more writings and resources, visit www.ryanpanzer.com.

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