KANSAS CITY, Mo. (Outlook) “What does teaching look like in the next church?”
With this question, Rodger Nishioka opened the final plenary session of NEXT Church’s national conference in Kansas City on March 15. Nishioka, director of adult ministry at Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City and former professor of Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia (where he served for 15 years), drew from the promise of God’s new covenant in Jeremiah 31 to lift up ideas about episodic and semantic knowing.
Episodic knowledge is “knowing that comes from the particular individual’s experience,” Nishioka explained. “Semantic knowledge has two components: content and process. The content is one’s episodic knowledge. The process is how one uses that episodic knowledge to create meaning.”
His claim: The church needs to move from episodic to semantic knowledge.
“Episodic knowledge nests between a truth claim and a belief,” said Nishioka. The more emotional the experience, the greater the episodic knowledge is. Right now, the experience of an individual is prized, but not everything constitutes an experience, he warned. In the sense of “experience” Nishioka described, more than one of the five senses must be engaged simultaneously.
Much of Presbyterian traditional worship engages one sense: hearing. Nishioka joked: “You hear and after an hour, you get God. This is so cool!”
As an example, Nishioka described a ride in a Disney theme park that engages four senses: viewing a movie of a flyover of the world; feeling hot air when the scenes are of the desert and cool air when the artic is shown; a corresponding soundtrack with music and natural sound effects; and smells that are piped into the theater. “Disney, as usual, has picked up on this,” he said – Disney is offering an experience.
“In the North American context, both episodic and semantic knowledge are viewed as largely personal. Yet the new ways of knowing spoken by Jeremiah are transcendent, relational and incarnational,” Nishioka explained.
“We’ve got to talk about what it means” – to help people understand meaning in their faith, Nishioka said, listing three key categories and corresponding questions to change the way of knowing:
- Transcendent: “Beyond us, greater than us, holy”; How did you experience God? What is God revealing to you through your experience?
- Relational: Interpretation of experiences can’t be left to the individual because experience can be distorted. “The community of truth acts as both affirmative and corrective”; “How does your experience shape how you relate to others?”
- Incarnational: Knowing is embodied. “God puts God’s law in our bodies and writes this new covenant on our hearts”; “How does your experience shape how you act?”
A new way of knowing has to engage these kinds of questions, Nishioka said, and will facilitate the shift “from the primacy of the individual into the community where the Holy Spirit has placed us.”
Nishioka also showed clips of commercials as effective examples of transcendent, relational, incarnational messages. The church should be preaching the unity of the body of Christ, he said, but TV commercials seem to do that better.
He left participants with this: “We are called to this. We believe we are not alone. We relate to one another. And by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we are hoping against all hope … that our whole selves are revealing the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.”