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4 kinds of discipleship content and how to deliver them

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (1601)

Discipleship means learning. (The Greek word for "disciple," mathétes, means "learner.") Making disciples means teaching. But there's more than one way to teach, in part because there's more than one kind of thing to learn.

Everything cannot be learned effectively the same way. For example, it would be difficult to learn how the United States Constitution was framed and how to drive a car by the same method. In fact, it's difficult even to conceive how one would attempt such a thing.

One place where Christian discipleship sometimes founders is a failure to consider the diverse sorts of content that a disciple of Jesus needs to learn and—even more importantly—the diverse delivery methods necessary to convey it.

One popular model for discipleship (and learning in general) looks at the formation of the head, the heart, and the hands. I subscribe to that model as well . . . and add a fourth part. Each is developed in a Christian disciple in a peculiar way.

Doctrine: the head

What might be the easiest area of Christian formation to picture is belief formation. Doctrine is the substance of what Christians believe about stuff—God, the world, humanity, the fate of the universe, and so forth. Yet I also include moral doctrine under this heading—that is, teaching about what is right and what is wrong and how to live accordingly. What Scripture provides to this area of discipleship is the content to be learned.

Doctrine is the area most amenable to formally structured learning—that is, to have an orderly sequence of subjects that the learner systematically works their way through, whether we're talking topics of theology or the Ten Commandments or books of the Bible. In fact, without formally structured learning in these subjects somewhere along the way, it is rather difficult to pick it all up and make sense of it.

Doctrine is also the least labor-intensive or most work-efficient area of discipleship. I say that not because it is easy to teach it, but because one teacher may convey the content to many learners at once; through books, downloadable sermons, or online courses it may reach thousands or millions. Likewise, teaching doctrine does not require a personal relationship between teacher and learner (though when there is one, it often enhances learning power).

Character: the heart

Though moral principles are a matter of doctrine, moral action is a matter of character. It is not merely about understanding what is right in general: it is about the wisdom to know what is right in this situation and how to perform it, and even more importantly it is about the will to do so.

Woven together in the will are a host of hopes, fears, dreams, cravings, jealousies, and loves. This area of discipleship involves uncovering our tangled mass of yeses and nos and reordering it to love the good that God loves and to hate the evil that he hates at the wellspring of our behavior.

If doctrine allows one teacher to teach many learners, character involves one learner learning from many teachers—most of them unintentional! The people all around us are shaping our character: our mentors, pastors, confidants, colleagues, bosses, buddies, heroes, authors, and entertainment personalities in addition to our parents, our spouses, and even our children. They may teach us by the counsel they give; they always teach us by the examples they set and by the gravitational pull of what pleases and displeases them. Just as powerfully, maybe more so, they teach us by causing us emotional pain.

See, while moral principles can be taught formally and systematically, moral character is taught situationally. There is no typical, linear path. Your pain right now indicates the next lesson on your syllabus. As with physical pain, your emotional pain indicates the thing in you that needs to be diagnosed and fixed. It is the nexus at which virtue is to be developed and the gospel is to be applied and believed more deeply and fully.

The most important teacher—in all four areas, but perhaps most manifestly here—is the Holy Spirit. After all, it is only by being born anew through him that we have any hope for character formation adequate for eternity. The Holy Spirit's favorite teaching tool is the Bible he inspired. What the Bible provides to this area of discipleship is insight: the Holy Spirit takes the words of Scripture to awaken us to something missing in our lives and what can fill it. He also uses biblical truths coming through other people in whom he dwells that we are in genuine relationships with. Small groups can be the shallow end of the pool for developing Scripture-and-Spirit-infused relationships of that sort.

Skills: the hands

There are certain things that disciples of Jesus do. Disciples pray—alone, with others, at regular times, at irregular times, silently, out loud, before meals, for healing of the sick, for God's kingdom to come. Disciples worship God every week in a group with other disciples. Disciples pitch in to help out each other, their neighbors, and their church. Disciples read the Bible daily for content and for insight. Disciples listen to hurting people and express compassion. Disciples give their material wealth for the relief of those who don't have it and for the spread of the gospel. The list could go on.

Nobody is born knowing how to do these things practically. These are skills that must be learned. The way they are learned falls between how we learn doctrine and how we learn character.

In college I took a tennis course from an excellent physical education professor. At the beginning of each class he would explain and demonstrate to all of us together the stroke he wanted us to learn that day, which followed in an orderly sequence from what we had already learned up to that point. Then he distributed us around the courts to practice what we heard and saw. Then he walked among us, giving direction to each person, one at a time, with precisely the instruction he or she needed for exactly where he or she needed the help. It was the perfect balance between formal and situational teaching, and it operated through a known-by-name relationship that was not terribly deep.

Similarly, the skills of a disciple of Jesus are both "caught" by hanging out with others who are doing them and "taught" by direct instruction. The best learning environment is a one-teacher-to-few-learners setting with material that supports this approach:

  1. Here's why we do this.

  2. Here are the basics of how to do this.

  3. Watch me do this.

  4. Now you try to do this.

  5. Let's talk about how you did this.

The great value of Scripture for skills acquisition is to provide inspiration. Unlike many (all other?) religions, biblical Christianity has almost nothing in the way of formulas. Take prayer for instance: you don't find in the Bible a recipe for prayer ("move your body like this; say that"). Even the Lord's Prayer is simply the supreme example of prayer, and there are countless more rich examples from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible provides these examples to inspire us to pray in similar but personalized and enculturated fashion. The same could be said for all sorts of skills that we might not initially think of as discipleship—such as the example of Moses for delegating responsibility and the example of the Jerusalem Council for running a meeting on a critical topic—but which are critical for serving our Lord effectively.

Reproduction: the genitals

I know—ew. And it doesn't start with the letter "H." But don't blame me: I didn't design the human body.

Of course I'm not talking about the function of physical genitals any more than I was talking about the physical heart (or to a lesser extent the physical head and hands). I'm talking about how disciples of Jesus must learn to reproduce—to beget and raise new disciples, just as Jesus taught his disciples to make disciples, which has continued in succession through the centuries down to the disciples who begot and raised you as a disciple.

What does Scripture provide for us to learn in this area? Patterns to emulate. For example, how did Jesus teach his disciples how to make disciples? Their own experiences with Jesus were part of their training, yet for a good while when people are learning to be disciples they aren't paying any attention to how they should convey the same to others; they're just soaking it in. But a bit later on, after Jesus' disciples had been with him for a while, they began to pay attention to how he talked to people. (Do you realize that almost every conversation Jesus has in the Gospels was witnessed by someone else?) Jesus' followers learned how to reproduce themselves in others by watching Jesus call people, challenge them, teach them, rebuke them, encourage them—in general, apply the gospel to them—on their paths of discipleship.

That means that Jesus was intentional about calling a few men to stick close to him so that over and over again they could watch the conversations he had. That's how we teach others to reproduce—in highly relational one-to-few contexts that mix disciples and not-yet-disciples. There may be a certain orderliness to our instruction—the lessons we want to teach a disciple who is new are different from lessons for one with a mature kingdom-mindset. But as we walk with our learners into settings with unbelievers, anything can happen! So what we model to our learners as we engage with unbelievers is situationally responsive.

Complete discipleship

Complete discipleship includes formation in doctrine, character, skills, and reproduction, each in its own manner, mode, method, and relational setting. Maturity in all four areas is necessary to grow into being "perfect in Christ" (Col. 1:28 NIV).

Summary table

Four Kinds of Discipleship Content

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