Memorization and Maturation: An Experiment in Leadership Formation in Mozambique

by Alan Howell

Memorization may very well provide a significant tool for discipleship; one that missionaries have not utilized very well.

 Our small group settled into the shade of the acacia trees in front of my house. It was a day of celebration: the eleven of us had spent the last few months memorizing the book of Titus together and this was the final session. Going around the circle, some of the men were able to quote Titus almost flawlessly, while others struggled making it through even that day’s passage.  Members of the group had memorized Paul’s epistle in three different languages (Portuguese, Swahili, and Makua-Metto), using a total of five different translations.

After celebrating our accomplishment with heaping plates of goat meat curry, potatoes, and rice, each person took a turn sharing which verses were the most significant to him. Some felt challenged by Paul’s exhortation to teach, others saw strong similarities between their own local setting and the morally corrupt atmosphere of Crete, while another expressed admiration for the way Paul addressed his apprentice: unabashedly exhorting and instructing Titus while at the same time tenderly expressing his love for the young man.

Memorization and Discipleship
From the time of Moses, God has challenged his people to keep his commandments upon their hearts. This tradition carried on into the time of Christ.  From our knowledge of Jewish culture and in studying Jesus’ own teaching and preaching, it is clear that our Rabbi had large portions of scripture committed to memory.  He used scripture to rebuke Satan while being tested in the wilderness, and the Psalms were some of the last words he spoke before finishing his work on the cross.

While memorization of scripture has been an expectation of followers of Jesus for most of church history, the West has seen a serious decline in its use and appreciation in the last few decades. John Wilson notes that memorization is now routinely disparaged by:  

…the ubiquitous phrases “rote memory” and “rote learning.” Memorizing, we are told, discourages creativity, critical thinking, and conceptual understanding. This scorn is odd. It doesn’t seem to jibe with our everyday experience. After all, training to be a doctor or a lawyer entails memorization—a lot of it. We don’t foolishly assume that the creativity of actors or musicians is crushed by the formidable feats of memory their art demands. (2011, 41)

In order to follow Jesus well, we must equip ourselves, filling our heads and hearts with scripture and thereby sharing in the same material that also filled the mind of Christ. While memorization is certainly not an easy discipline, it is essential to spiritual formation. According to Joshua Kang, “Charles Swindoll states that he ‘knows of no other single practice in the Christian life more rewarding, practically speaking, than memorizing scripture…no other single exercise pays greater spiritual dividends’” (2010, 47).

Memorization, Spiritual Formation, and the Small-group Setting
The men who memorized Titus with me came from six different villages. I met with them in two different clusters based on geographic proximity. Our pattern was for each cluster to gather twice a month in one of their villages and use a modified form of the Discovery Bible Study method consisting of four parts to guide our time together:

1. Listened to the text. We would begin our study by quoting to each other what we had memorized from Titus up to that point, as well as the section for that day (usually five or six verses).

2. What did you hear in the passage? We spent time allowing each other to share what message he heard from the text in his own words. This usually led to a rich time of discussion about the day’s passage. The men had spent two weeks memorizing these verses and their time of reflection on its meaning helped draw out mature observations that frankly surprised me from this group of relatively new believers.

3. How will you obey it? After discerning the text meaning, we then discussed what God was calling each of us to do in response to this passage.

4. Who will you tell? We concluded the study by talking about who in our lives needed to hear something specific from this scripture. We committed to share what we had learned with family or friends outside the group.

Our Bible study usually took about an hour and a half to two hours. This time of communal reflection on the meaning and application of the text was essential. While memorization has immense value, we “must be careful that the urgency to memorize verses is not served at the expense of comprehension. Understanding can easily be checked by asking a learner to rephrase a verse using his or her own vocabulary” (Choun 2001, 458). Verbalizing personal insights on the meaning of the text in these small-group settings not only served to verify understanding, but also helped the participants reinforce what they learned.

Observations from the Titus Groups
Our experience of memorizing the book of Titus in small groups was a positive one for all who were involved, and after a break from memorization for a few months, many in the group were eager to decide what we would memorize next. Besides the deep benefit to hiding the word of God in our hearts, I noted five additional observations from this experience.

Participants showed increased confidence. Following our memorization of Titus, I noticed a significant rise in the level of confidence these men showed in sharing personally what they were learning with others. These men were more comfortable sharing God’s word in the larger church setting and in a sense had taken ownership of the texts. This was true not only of the book of Titus, but their comfort level in going to the well of scripture was greater. Kang explains, “Learning scripture by heart… builds up the mind with discipline and spiritual knowledge, and that will affect our attitude toward life. Inevitably, people who have been trained this way discover their potential, grow in confidence and develop a healthy self-image” (2010, 68).

Participants became better interpreters. One surprise was seeing the participants mature in their ability to interpret even more difficult texts, especially taking into account the context of the passage. This started manifesting itself even during the beginning of the memorization of Titus. For both groups, Titus 1:10-15 was a challenging section as Paul addressed the issue of circumcision. In each group, there were men who started off the discussion by assuming that the type of circumcision Paul was addressing was equal to the circumcision that men experience during initiation rites in our area of Mozambique. I refrained from giving much background information, hoping to see how the groups would handle this exegetical challenge.

Having memorized the previous text, they had an appreciation for the context and other group members pulled it in without my prompting and allowed it to shape their understanding of the passage. We had a great discussion about the differences between the type of circumcision Paul was addressing and the way circumcision functions in their own context. Their growth in terms of exegesis and hermeneutics in the Titus study has spilled over into other texts I have seen them engage. As Kang notes, “Learning Scripture by heart expands our imagination while at the same time sharpening our capacity to think” (2010, 33).

Celebration helped solidify key concepts. Before moving to Mozambique, I had two experiences of memorizing sections of scripture in small groups. Both times, we concluded with a celebratory dinner. The dinner was a nice end to the group experience and I wanted to continue that tradition.

For my Mozambican friends, this celebratory dinner was even more important; having the chance to share what they learned in a joyful setting had a bigger impact on the participants than I imagined. A number have made references to this event and what we shared in that setting. Robert Choun notes that,

Although memory is generally thought of as an intellectual function, research bears out the Bible’s assertion that meaningful memories have an emotional connection. We will remember a fact or concept if it is indeed “upon our hearts.” A lesson with personal relevance will be retained long after algebraic formulas and the capitals of foreign nations have been forgotten. (2001, 457) 

Lack of education was not a significant barrier. The highest level of education in these groups was seventh grade and I wondered if the members of the group would even be able to memorize the text. Some had to work harder than others, but their strengths as oral learners helped them overcome the educational barriers. They would often read it out loud as practice for memorization. Our sessions were two weeks apart, which gave ample time for memorization and helped overcome the potential educational barriers. For someone working in areas of low education, I would encourage this slow pace with lots of encouragement from the leader, as well as the other participants.

Participants developed a theological shorthand for ministry. My biggest surprise was witnessing the ways they used passages from Titus with each other. Occasionally, when discussing how to handle difficult situations in their churches, these leaders have quoted short, relevant sections of Titus.
By using key phrases from a text they memorized together, group members were able to evoke the authority of the whole passage. A few key phrases have made their way into the local vocabulary of one of the clusters. Since these men are involved in ministry together, having a common text that they have memorized as a group provided them with a common vocabulary to help guide decision making. To me, this development was the benefit that had the largest impact, especially within the six months after the conclusion of the study.

Overall, this experience was extremely positive. The participants showed growth in their own spirituality, improved skills for ministry, and enhanced their ability to minister as a team. For our ministry to develop, as leaders we need to encourage a church culture that values hiding God’s word in the heart. As Kang notes, “When we store them up in our heart, we deepen our reservoir of wisdom. When we meditate, we lower our ladle into the clear, cool water and refresh our spirit to hitherto unknown heights” (2010, 34). My prayer is that memorizing Titus equipped these church leaders to draw together from the same deep well of God’s word and lead others to be refreshed from it as well.

Choun, Robert J. 2001. “Memorization.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Christian Education. Ed. Michael J. Anthony. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Kang, Joshua Choonmin. 2010. Scripture by Heart. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books.

Wilson, John. 2011. “Changing Forever How You Think: Recovering the Lost Art of Scripture Memorization.” Christianity Today January: 41-42.

Alan Howell (MDiv) and his family have been in Mozambique since 2003. The Howells are part of a team in Montepuez, Cabo Delgado, serving the Makua-Metto people

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 12-16. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from the editors at EMQ.


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