The Lives of the Desert Fathers by Norman Russell opens with this little story expressing why people would seek out holy men and women in the deserts of Egypt in order to learn from them:
We have come from Jerusalem for the good of our souls, so that what we have heard with our ears we may perceive with our eyes – for the ears are naturally less reliable than the eyes – and because very often forgetfulness follows what we hear, whereas the memory of what we have seen is not easily erased but remains imprinted on our minds like a picture.
Russell adds, that these pilgrims desired to learn from conversation with these desert sages, but more so pilgrims desired to learn from observation.
It is not deeply profound to be reminded that actions speak louder than words. It is not new that we best learn from doing rather than listening. And yet we continue in the Church to lean very heavily on the spoken word to teach others.
Preachers are important, but not in the ways that preachers think we are. Preachers are important not just for the words they say (the conversation) but through the lives we live. People listen to preachers who live lives that are compelling, interesting, different and authentic. For all the sermon classes and preaching tips I have taken, I have yet to be in such a training that elevates the life of the preacher over the words of the preacher.
That is, we preachers still elevate conversation over observation.
The truth is that conversation is easier than observation. Teaching by conversation does not require one to be open to the Spirit of resurrection. Teaching by observation does.
So take a look at the Church we serve. Many people are learning from us not by what we say in sermons or doctrine, but by observing our lives. Maybe God was onto something when it was proclaimed that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6, also echoed by Jesus in Matthew a few times). God desires mercy and compassion over the dogmatic and orthodox sacrifices that our religion demands.
Oddly enough, one does not have to know anything about religious practices to be merciful but you need to know a lot of religion to practice the proper sacrifices.
Learning through conversation is good. Observation is better.