Scribe members were recently offered a wonderful opportunity to receive and review a DVD-based small group curriculum published by Threads/LifeWay called The Tough Sayings of Jesus II (Leader Kit). Part of this opportunity included a series of interviews, hosted by individual Scribe members, with Michael Kelley, the creator/author of the curriculum. I personally love The Tough Sayings of Jesus I and II, and could not wait to ask Michael Kelley a few questions about it! You can read the interview with Kelley after the jump …
Tribe: Hi, Michael! I have a bunch of questions concerning the Touch Sayings of Jesus curriculum, but before we dive into those will you share a bit of your personal story/testimony? What church do you attend? I’d love to hear a bit of your own back story.
Michael: I grew up in Texas before moving to Birmingham to do my graduate work at Beeson Divinity School. After finishing my MDIV there, I moved onto Nashville to pursue teaching and writing and masonry. Still working on the masonry. Church has been an interesting experience for us, trying to find a place where we fit and are challenged, but we’ve landed at a great place called Grace Community Church (gccnashville.org). I think one of the things we like most about Grace is that it’s simple. Not a ton of technology, not much flash, but great people, simple worship, and excellent teaching.
Tribe: When did you realize that you could best use your gifts in curriculum development and teaching? Has what you have accomplished thus far been personally edifying?
Michael: I preached my first (awful) sermon when I was 16. It was built on a really clever illustration of Gilligan’s Island. I also threw a few Bible verses in there too. Hopefully I do a better job now. For me, the teaching and writing role is where I feel really at home. I think God really enjoys watching us serve when we are doing so in the ways He has gifted and engineered for us to do so. I think He smiles when that happens, and I know I enjoy it too.
Tribe: You are a gifted teacher, obviously. How do you balance theory and practice in your teaching of the Scriptures? Most societies rely on a “banking” model of education by default. In other words, they see students as empty bank accounts that should be open to direct deposits made by the teacher. How do you challenge students to become teachers rather than deposit accounts?
Michael: I like the way you described the “banking” model of education, and I think you’re right on. Obviously, the problem is that the banking model is really just information transfer. And it seems that any life change that results from that is little more than behaviorism. So I’m really committed to confessional teaching and writing. Not that I dump my dirty laundry out in front of the world necessarily, but that I want people to know that what I present to them is something I am also journeying through and exploring. I’m a fellow learner. So if I’m a fellow learner, maybe it’s not such a stretch for them to consider themselves as potential teachers, too.
Tribe: When you look closely at Jesus method of teaching the twelve disciples, what lessons do you take from his style? What lessons can we as teachers of Christ’s way take from his method of teaching?
Michael: One of the things I love about Jesus’ teaching style is how natural and relational it seems. For example, I don’t think Jesus woke up one morning and thought, “Where is a fig tree? I’ve got a great fig tree illustration if I can just get close enough to one.” Instead, I think he was walking and talking with His disciples and happened upon a tree, a cup, a graveyard, pretty much anything, and He used those as teaching moments. It feels intentional, but somewhat unscripted. And it happens in the context of real life.
Tribe: What is your vision of Christian Education? What changes would you like to see in this ministry? What mark would you like to leave on it?
Michael: This is a good question. If I can be critical of some aspects of Christian education for a moment, my fear is that many systems teach little more than behaviorism. While telling people how to behave is certainly easier and more quantifiable, it’s really not effective in the long run. At some point we’re all bound to wonder, “Why am I not supposed to use sex, drugs, and rock and roll?” The result can be a behave / believe / become kind of model, and though it’s subtle, we raise up people who base their relationship with God on their ability to behave rather than His grace.
I think the better, and more biblical, model is believe / become / behave. I notice in Paul’s writings that he doesn’t really get to the behavior part until after he’s spent ample time telling his readers who they are. To Paul it seems that behavior is simple: Understand who you are, then live out your identity. Christian education, I hope, then would first of all educate us as to who we are long before we are educated as to what we do. The “do” flows out of the “are”; or to put it another way, you behave like who you’ve become.
Tribe: I really liked The Tough Sayings of Jesus I. What spurred you to put together The Tough Sayings of Jesus II?
Michael: There’s just so much that Jesus said that makes us pause and wonder if He was really serious. It’s really incomplete to limit it to 4 sessions, or even 8 (Tough Sayings III anyone?)
Tribe: Your introduction for The Tough Sayings of Jesus II is build upon the theological idea of “limping along” as honest disciples of Jesus. I think it’s a fantastic metaphor for discipleship! We limp along, as you say, when we take hold of the idea that Jesus’ life, way, and calling was not meant to merely make us more comfortable, but to challenge us with the truth that this thing is much bigger than us and to give God complete control over our lives and living. That’s a huge statement, and only emanates from one who is living in very close proximity to the Kingdom of God. How did you personally learn this lesson?
Michael: Let’s not put it in past tense just yet - maybe how am I learning this lesson. I think I’m learning that walking with Jesus does have aspects of peace and comfort. But it also has aspects of deeply uncomfortable moments when we must square what we believe with what we experience. For example - my 3-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia about 18 months ago. And through the course of that time, we have had to struggle with the idea of a loving, sovereign God and childhood cancer. We still walk with the Lord, but we’re not skipping down the pathway. We limp along with Him. I think those moments affect us so deeply that they scar and wound us, and that can be a good thing, a redemptive thing, in the end.
Tribe: You also, in your introduction, refer to Jesus as the “unsafe, unconventional, controversial Son of God.” I’d agree, 100%. Do you think this characterization of Jesus of Nazareth plays well in the church here in America? Why or why not?
Michael: Yes and no. For some of us, who have a little bit of rebellion in their nature, we like the idea of following a rebel and going against the flow. But the problem in our church culture here is figuring out exactly what, in 21st century America, Jesus would rebel against. Hmmm… That might be uncomfortable if we consider how much of our Christian subculture Jesus would really like.
Tribe: The individual “Sessions” that compose the curriculum that is The Tough Sayings of Jesus II are so well done. They are very intuitive in structure. The Sessions begin with smart and relevant introductions to the texts, scripture reading, probing questions re: the text, exposition, supporting scripture readings, even more questions designed to make the reader think for his or herself, and practical challenges for practice. What is your goal for these “Sessions?” What do you hope these “Sessions” accomplish in the lives of participants?
Michael: The goal is a sort of explorative learning, to help people process as they wrestle with the text. The book is hopefully a guide to that struggle, to put some boundaries on it and occasionally give it a nudge in the right direction. My hope at the end is that a person would come away an experience that’s personal to them, but is informed and hedged by the text.
Tribe: The Tough Sayings of Jesus I and II are multimedia rich. The curriculum includes DVD clips for each “Session” and a bunch of supplemental multimedia tools (e.g. e-mail resources, promotional PDFs, and MP3 files). What advice to you have for churches and small groups who have yet to incorporate multimedia in their pedagogy?
Michael: That’s a tough one, but a good and fair question. All of those tools are supplementary to the study, and using them I think will give you the most full experience possible. But if the technology isn’t there, you can still get the meat and potatoes of what the book is all about. And without the e-mails and video, you can still lead a very effective and engaging small group. I continue to believe that while those elements are good to have, the real effectiveness of a small group experience is measured by the trust a leader can develop between the members. That trust will lead to authenticity, and you can’t beat that with any number of cool videos.
Tribe: Thank you Michael for taking the time to answer a few questions. And thank you for The Tough Sayings of Jesus! God bless you as you continue to faithfully fulfill the call the lord has given you!