One of the best things my parents ever did for me was to refuse to let me quit piano lessons in second grade. I had been taking lessons since kindergarten and was bored with it. I didn’t seem to be making much progress, didn’t like practicing, and despite appreciating music (or maybe because of it), I did not enjoy the sounds that came out of the piano when I sat down to play. Practicing piano for thirty minutes was on my list of daily chores, and it certainly felt like a chore.
I finally convinced my parents to let me quit, on the condition that I finish out the school year. But over the next few months, something profound happened: I crossed some threshold of development in my skill so that I was enjoying the sounds coming out of the piano when I played it. My proficiency developed to the point where I could delight in the music I played as I played it. I also began experimenting with writing my own songs, and my piano teacher would let me play them at recitals.
Playing piano went from a tedious chore to check off a list to a creative hobby I wanted to practice, and now deeply enjoyed. I even chose to practice and compose music outside my assigned daily thirty-minute practice time. Dreaded drudgery had become delightful enjoyment.
This love for piano became the foundation for a life that revolved around music for many years, including many more years of piano lessons and recitals, a punk rock band in high school, and leading musical worship as a pastoral calling.
I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if my parents had accepted my childhood frustration with practicing piano as a sign that I just wasn’t cut out for music. Instead, with their encouragement, I persisted at that piano bench, setting the timer for thirty minutes, slogging through my scales and exercises, trying to get my fingers to go where I wanted them to go. Eventually with enough imitation of and interaction with my piano teacher, along with regular practice and experience performing, I learned to play piano.
TACIT KNOWLEDGE VS. EXPLICIT KNOWLEDGE
The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has a saying: “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”
This is the kind of ‘knowledge’ involved in learning to play the piano, or how to dance, or ride a bike, or shoot a basketball: You can’t learn these things without doing them. You can read books about these topics, understand the history and culture surrounding them, and memorize trivia facts about them, but until you start practicing, you haven’t begun to grow in doing them.
Another way to talk about this kind of learning is that it involves the transfer of ‘tacit knowledge’ instead of ‘explicit knowledge.’ Explicit knowledge is information that can be easily codified, stored, and accessed; it can be transferred through encyclopedias, manuals, and how-to videos.
Tacit knowledge is a concept attributed to Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polanyi, and it refers to skills and experiences that people have that are difficult to codify, express, and pass on to others. It’s the stuff you can’t learn by reading a book or following a procedure.
Often the possessors of tacit knowledge are unaware that they have it, and transferring tacit knowledge to others generally cannot be done through traditional classroom educational contexts. Instead it requires extensive personal interaction and shared practice within a relationship of trust. It’s knowledge that is, as the saying goes, “more caught than taught.” Tacit knowledge is a concept referring to skills and experiences that people have that are difficult to codify, express, and pass on to others. It’s the stuff you can’t learn by reading a book or following a procedure. Click To Tweet
TACIT KNOWLEDGE IN OUR SPIRITUAL FORMATION
I bring this up because a lot of Christians make a fundamental categorical mistake when it comes to spiritual formation (A term I use synonymously with discipleship to refer to our growth in Christlikeness): We treat spiritual formation as an educational task involving the transfer of explicit knowledge, rather than an embodied task involving the transfer of tacit knowledge.
Most of our formational efforts focus on acquiring more theological and biblical knowledge through classes, Bible studies, and reading theological books. We assume we can become more like Jesus through the transfer of the explicit knowledge of biblical literacy and theological understanding.
But spiritual formation is about learning a new way of life, not just absorbing new information. It therefore mostly involves the transfer of a kind of tacit knowledge that requires extended practice with others, where we learn to put off the old self and put on the new (Ephesians 4:23-24). We treat spiritual formation as an education involving explicit knowledge, rather than an embodied transfer of tacit knowledge. We assume we become like Jesus through biblical literacy and theological understanding alone. Click To Tweet
The apostle Paul gives us a picture of this dynamic when he tells the church in Corinth that, in order to grow into maturity in their faith, what they need is not more tutors to teach them, but rather more “fathers” like himself to offer their very lives as an example to imitate (1 Corinthians 4:14-17).
The key difference between a tutor and a father is that a tutor’s job is to transfer explicit knowledge to a child (reading, writing, mathamatics, etc.) during set times of instruction, while a father invites the child to learn the tacit knowledge he possesses through an apprenticeship (i.e. extended personal contact and shared practice in a relationship of trust). This is why Paul tells the Corinthian church he is sending Timothy to them: he was a “father” to Timothy and now Timothy can be a “father” among them to remind them of his way of life, and to teach them in the same way that Paul teaches. Spiritual formation is about learning a new way of life, not just absorbing new information. It therefore mostly involves the transfer of a kind of tacit knowledge that requires extended practice with others. Click To Tweet
CREATING COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
Tacit knowledge of any kind is most effectively transferred when someone joins a “community of practice” where people are engaged in the actual craft or skill they are learning together (not simply speaking about it). In such an environment, the less experienced can learn from the more seasoned veterans, ask questions, and practice together in an environment of trust and safety.
I think these are the kinds of environments we need to create in our churches for spiritual formation and discipleship to flourish in maturity. Instead of only offering Bible studies, classes, or sermon discussion groups, what if we created “communities of practice” where disciples engaged in actually putting Jesus’ teaching into practice together, learning from one another the tacit knowledge of how to “live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16)? Tacit knowledge of any kind is most effectively transferred when someone joins a “community of practice” where people are engaged in the actual craft or skill they are learning together (not simply speaking about it). Click To Tweet
What if we thought of the church itself as a community of practice?
Here are three necessities that our faith community has found critical in growing our church into a robust community of practice that emphasizes ongoing spiritual formation:
- Our communities of practice need to be more practice-oriented than teaching-oriented. This doesn’t mean that we never teach in these groups; rather, it means that the teaching needed will spring from the catalyst of what we’re doing together and how it’s going. This kind of “along the way” spiritual formation is something we see Jesus model over and over again with the twelve in the Gospels. For example, Jesus teaches on leadership in God’s kingdom in direct response to the disciples arguing about who got to sit in the places of highest honor at the table with Jesus (Luke 22:24-30).
- Our communities of practice need to be safe places to experiment, fail, and learn from one another in real time, trying things out in the actual group itself, instead of “applying it to our lives” later. In those moments, we can come alongside each other, discovering the lies that are still at work under the surface of our lives, proclaiming the good news to each other, and supporting one another in small experiments of trust. These moments of embodied practice of our spiritual formation are the soil that cultivates the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.
- Finally, as mentioned above, our communities of practice need to facilitate extended personal contact and shared practice within a relationship of trust and safety.
SPIRITUAL FORMATION AS THE TRANSFER OF TACIT KNOWLEDGE
Spiritual formation is about growing in the tacit knowledge of living in God’s kingdom. Spiritual formation, then, is much more like learning piano than studying for a multiple-choice math test. Learning to live in love with God and others is more like learning to dance than writing a research paper.
As we submit our bodies to the rhythm of Jesus’ teachings, we grow in our capacity to receive and live in God’s love, which begins to permeate our heart, soul, mind, and body, drawing us further and further in, creating a virtuous cycle that changes the trajectory of our lives and transforms us into a new kind of people. Our communities of practice need to be more practice-oriented than teaching-oriented; safe places to experiment, fail, and learn from one another in real time; and facilitate shared practices within relationships of trust and safety. Click To Tweet
Parts of this article were adapted from Having the Mind of Christ: Eight Axioms to Cultivate a Robust Faith by Ben Sternke and Matt Tebbe. ©2022 by Benjamin Sternke and Matthew Tebbe. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.
Ben Sternke has over two decades of Christian ministry experience, and has been coaching, consulting, and training leaders since 2010. He co-founded Gravity Leadership, where he coaches and consults pastors and ministry leaders from all around the world in transformational leadership and discipleship. He is also co-pastor of The Table, a church he planted in Indianapolis. He and his wife Deb have four adult children and a little dog named Edith.