There I was, sitting in a coffee shop with a young man who had virtually no church background. His wife had caught him looking at porn and he didn’t want to lose his family. I had performed their wedding ceremony so I was the one pastor he knew.
He and his wife had started going to church consistently but he was lost. “I go to church and I’m lost during the sermon,” he admitted. “I don’t know whether the passage comes before Jesus or after. And it feels like the preacher just opens his Bible to wherever.”
Fact: basic Bible or Christian understanding can’t be assumed anymore.
Fact #2: folks have access to so many nice-sounding memes and inspirational junk food on social media, and because they have a such a limited and shallow understanding of the Christian faith, it all gets mixed together into sort of spiritual mash-up.
It’s no wonder studies have shown that many practicing “Bible-believing” Christians don’t have a biblical worldview.
So here’s what’s always been true, but is more apparent and urgent right now: you can’t make disciples without education. That should be obvious. In fact, the basic meaning of the word “disciple” is student. But teaching has fallen on hard times in the church. Fewer and fewer churches have any intentional plan of instruction, and fewer people attend what’s offered.
In a cultural climate where people no longer grow up knowing the Bible, and where churches for at least a generation haven’t done a great job of teaching the Bible, teaching must be re-emphasized as vital for disciple-making. It’s certainly not the only component of disciple-making, but it’s an essential one.
AIMING FOR TRANSFORMATION
In Ephesians 4:20, the apostle Paul portrays discipleship as learning Christ (the word translated “learn” in the NASB is the verb form of “disciple”). The reason for this, he says, is because truth is in Jesus. In coming to Jesus, disciples have transferred from an outside-of-God culture that has led them into futile thinking and darkened their understanding. And as a friend of mine says, what occupies your mind controls your life. Therefore, there’s going to have to be some teaching to straighten out their thinking. They must learn Christ.
The kind of teaching that’s needed, however, must not have information as its goal. Information will be part of it, to be sure, but it will be the means to a greater goal.
Keep reading Ephesians 4, and you’ll see that learning Christ’s truth leads to living Christ’s way — to putting on the new self (v. 24), which means ceasing to lie and instead speaking the truth (v. 25), replacing stealing with work and generosity (v. 28), and setting aside malice in favor of forgiveness (vv. 31-32), among other things.
When it comes to disciple-making, the goal of education is transformation over information.
Learning Christ includes the mental and the behavioral. Leave out one or the other, and we’re doing it wrong. If our preaching is full of life advice but fails to form people’s minds in the truth of Christ, we’re doing it wrong. If theological instruction, whether in Christian colleges or the church, doesn’t form people who are living and loving like Christ, we’re doing it wrong.
Jesus made this obvious in his final instructions to us. Make disciples, He said, baptizing them and “teaching them to obey all I have commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20). Not teaching them to know but teaching them to obey. That kind of teaching sets the truth into the context of everyday life, and coaches people how to practice it. It’s thus highly relational. We must connect people together in a “one-another culture,” where specific, life-on-life teaching can happen.
PUTTING RESOURCES WHERE PEOPLE LIVE
That’s the kind of teaching which transforms people’s character. And we’ve got to find helpful and wise ways to make it happen. Just offering an adult Sunday school class and then bemoaning flagging attendance isn’t going to cut it (offering the class and then guilting people into coming isn’t a good idea either). Small groups can help, but usually they are better at creating a relational environment (another key component of disciple-making) than forming a biblical foundation. And preaching, while crucial, is not sufficient by itself to help people understand the story of Scripture, acquire a biblical worldview, and learn how to walk as Jesus walked.
Furthermore, we all know attendance at various church events is declining, and that’s not always because people don’t want to grow or are uncommitted. Sometimes it is because of work. Sometimes it’s because of other life commitments. Sometimes it’s because a special needs child makes it hard to get there. Sometimes it’s because church events are poorly done and are boring.
So if we’re going to help disciples learn Christ, we’re going to have to use some ingenuity. How can we resource a disciple who’s just a little further down the path so that he or she can teach a less mature disciple? How can we give families access to resources they can use to help their kids develop a Christian worldview? — because we all know that a couple hours of children’s church a month isn’t going to get it done. How can we help small groups and small group leaders acquire framework for understanding the Bible so they can grow together in the knowledge of God?
I believe we need to decentralize the teaching ministry of the church so that people don’t have to come to another church event at the church building to learn Christ, but that Christian education can happen where they already spend their time. I think just about any church can benefit from taking advantage of digital media which puts teaching and training resources in the palm of people’s hands (the current focus of my ministry). Pro Church Tools found that 72% of people would rather use video over text to learn. Audio resources, mainly in the form of podcasts, are quickly gaining popularity — according to a March 2019 study, 90 million people in the U.S. listened to a podcast in the last month. And what about the younger generation, many of whom didn’t grow up going to church and therefore don’t have a basic grasp of the Christian faith. Pew research found that 94% of people 18-24 years old use YouTube regularly. And just about all of us spend hours each week (each day?) scrolling through social media. All of these mediums can become vehicles for resourcing Christians to disciple the people in their life and helping people learn Christ.
Imagine, for example, a new believer learning the faith through short videos and discussing it with a more mature believer over breakfast before work. Or a family acquiring a Christian worldview through something like a “video catechism” in their own home. Or a growing believer listening to spiritual growth training while commuting to work.
If we want to get serious about making disciples, we must put serious thought and energy into how we can help people learn the way of Jesus. We must help the truth of Christ occupy the disciple’s mind in such a way that the character of Christ can be fleshed out in his or her life.
Then, we will display to the world an alternative way of being human and doing life … and we’ll actually be a city set on hill, bringing glory to God.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Christian Standard magazine, but is being re-posted with the author’s permission.