Training through Discipleship

This gospel-centered emphasis within a Christ-like approach to discipleship produces a methodology of training church planters/pastors that includes the academic facet of theology, but also places equal importance on the practical realm of ministry. In the traditional academic setting of theological education, namely a seminary, the emphasis has been on the content. For the most part, seminaries assume a posture toward the professor-student relationship similar to any other institution of higher learning. Although there are always exceptions, the main paradigm of instruction places the weight on the transference of information. Presumably this is a holdover from when universities were primarily religious institutions explicitly connected to the church. A biblically responsible seminary today then would rely on the local church to oversee a student’s growth and spiritual well-being. By contrast, an approach to theological education modeled after discipleship, as opposed to the modern educational school system, would seek to join this two-pronged emphasis (spiritual and academic growth) into one methodology.

More than just content, discipleship molds even the style for how things are taught. Within the last few decades of the modern missionary movement, a healthy focus has been directed toward avoiding dependency between missionaries (and their sending agents/countries) and national or indigenous leaders (and their churches/growth movements). The goal has shifted to creating self-sustaining projects that the recipients can take over and make their own. This should apply to how we disciple as well. The old adage aptly applies here, “Teach a man to fish and he eats for a day; teach a man how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” The way I train and disciple pastors and leaders should be a reproducible model which they can then apply to others. This is at the heart of a Christ-like model of discipleship. The way in which Christ trained his disciples became the starting point for his commission that they go and do the same.

In order to holistically train church planters as Christ did with the disciples, one would need to see them outside of the “classroom.” Observing how they interact with others, watching their family dynamic, witnessing how they relate with the culture, and seeing them in different situations and contexts to best know their strengths, weaknesses, and areas of growth. In other words, I must really get to know them. But what is of equal importance, they must get to know me. They need to be able to observe, watch, and witness me in all of these different situations. I believe this is what Paul meant when he told the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11: 1). Since the gospel applies to more than the initiation of one’s relationship with God, the trainer will need to spend time with those he or she is discipling (at least more than a classroom will allow) so that the disciple may see firsthand how to make these gospel applications in his everyday life.

For example, in ministry the best way to teach someone how to witness to others is by modeling that before them. By that I mean, there could still be a time beforehand where there is discussion and dialogue about certain strategies, concepts, and ideologies involved in a particular area of ministry. But the instruction should not stop there. After discussing a ministerial aspect conceptually, it is most effective to then demonstrate the aspect in real life. This would be followed up by more discussion and questions. Finally, an observation of them practicing that aspect would be followed up by discussion, feedback, coaching, input, instruction, and encouragement. The overarching theme of this methodology is more practical engagement with the disciple than is traditionally stressed within a seminary environment.

A common concern proposed by those who wish to produce a more seminary-like model on the mission field is that this will significantly reduce the number of people one may have in training. As mentioned previously, one must avoid any pragmatic tendencies dictated by cultural trends and look to the Word of God as the guide. If Christ saw as sufficient only twelve disciples, then where should one’s preoccupation with quantity influence the methodology? I believe we see several responses to this concern in Christ’s example. First, he created disciples who made disciples. Inherent in a Christ-modeled approach to discipleship is the idea of multiplication. Intentional encouragement of disciples to find people whom they could disciple would result in a holistic imitation. Second, Christ had three disciples with whom he was more intimate than the Twelve. He had seventy others with whom he was less intimate than the Twelve, and finally he still taught the multitudes/crowds. So I am not advocating a teaching ministry that intentionally denies a “public” aspect, especially in preaching. There is still room for a large group aspect within the discipleship model (sit and get), hopefully within the context of a local church.

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