What the world knows about discipleship (and the churches don’t): Part 1

Discipleship is conceptually simple: Figure out where a believer is in knowledge and maturity and help him to grow. Practically speaking, it’s also simple, if both teacher and pupil work at it, which is rarely done. Hey, if the church is growing and money is coming in, the pastoral salaries are getting paid, the worship team is rocking, and a good time is had by all . . . then who cares whether Christians are actually growing in grace, wisdom, and zeal?

I have visited a lot of evangelical churches in the last few years and continue to marvel at the elementary level of instruction from the ‘teaching pastors’ and the lack of substance in small group meetings. When I taught engineering and physics in one phase of my career, I found some satisfaction in helping first year students to develop skills in basic circuit analysis. But it was much more fun to challenge seniors to embrace the nuances of microwave circuit design or solid state laser physics. A step above that was to teach a graduate course on a topic of current research interest, in which both teacher and students stretch the cognitive muscles. There is real satisfaction in watching students “get it” and, even more so, “get it” with creativity and skill sufficient to compete in the ‘real world.’ The next generation of smart skyscrapers, jet aircraft, supercomputers, and fiber optic networks will not be built by people who stopped learning after the course on basic circuit theory.

So how is it possible for seminary-trained, professional teaching pastors to be content lecturing at Kindergarten level week after week, year after year? At a level that is not the equivalent of basic circuit theory, but rather akin to basic arithmetic. Is every believer, young and old, doomed to repeat Kindergarten ad nauseam? Don’t they want their people to grow up a bit? Given the moral and philosophical and heretical chaos in America, shouldn’t we be training some spiritual warriors? Anyone notice the ongoing worldview wars in the realms of gay marriage, evolution, militant Islam, and socialism? How about the pervasiveness of pornography, accessible to any child on the cute little iphone he got for his tenth birthday? Anyone notice the accelerating trends to oppress free (Christian) speech in the schools, in the media, in politics, in the military, and in the workplace?

Is there not a cause?

For many years now I have subscribed (free) to Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter. It would be profitable for leaders or elders in any house church or facility / salary – based church to do so, too. It regularly posts essays on trends in collegiate education, especially on studies that analyze different methods for helping students actually learn stuff while they’re in school!

For example, in the blog “Why are you teaching that?” (3/23/2015), an NC State professor of chemical engineering discusses how various topics need to be culled out of the curricula because of obsolescence or simply because a topic doesn’t contribute to skills useful to an engineer once she gets out into the field.

He points out that “we know a lot” about how to equip students with useful skills. In Concept Tests the prof describes an experiment and gives a quick multiple choice question to determine if students understand the relevant physical principle. Using a ‘clicker’ system the prof can immediately see whether most of the students “got it.”

In Troubleshooting Exercises the cognitive level is stretched a bit. Students calculate a system variable for some scenario, but are then informed that an experiment measured a result 40% lower than what they calculated. Students are tasked with brainstorming and prioritizing the likely reasons, and then coming up with an experimental plan to figure out what’s going on.

Ill-defined problems are scenarios that are over- or underspecified or ambiguous, which is the way life presents itself to both engineers and ‘normal’ kinds of people! Students are tasked with figuring out what’s wrong and reformulating the problem, or creating a plan that determines just what the ‘real’ scenario is.

In Creative and critical thinking exercises students are challenged to make judgments and choices based on logic and evidence. They try to make sense of realistic scenarios or analyze some case study in which somebody screwed up. What should they have done, how expensive is your solution, how does your solution compete with that of other students or groups of students in the class . . . let’s have some team competition!

It’s easy to figure out how to apply these teaching tactics to Biblical discipleship, even easier than in the realm of engineering. But when was the last time you got a quiz in church? When was the last time you were called on to solve a problem, perhaps as a team exercise, and then report your solution for critical review? When was the last time you got a writing assignment or had to give an oral presentation? When was the last time you got some homework?!!?

If 21st century American believers are going to be ready always to give an answer (1 Peter 3:15) in proclaiming the Gospel and crying out against unrighteousness (Isaiah 58:1), don’t you think some training . . . some accountable training . . . is called for?

What would happen if ‘church’ became more like training, namely, if discipleship actually occurred so that believers could be obedient to the Lord in the Great Commission? So that parents could teach their children how to contend for the faith? So that you might give your neighbor, whether atheist or Muslim or Mormon or whatever, a reasoned chance to consider his certain judgment to come and the alternative of an assured hope of eternal life?

Rick Warren's Saddleback Church

Well, what would happen is that hardly anyone would show up, the offerings would plummet, and the professional clergy would have to go get real jobs. Could a given ‘life group’ implement genuine discipleship? Sure. But it’s so much easier to drift along using the canned weekly fill-in-the-blank notebook. If the leadership isn’t driving God-honoring discipleship, the followership won’t stick with it. Can you even conceive of an effective Army that is led by competent NCOs at the small unit level, while suffering under an entirely clueless officer corps? No, I can’t either.

All this contrasts starkly with God’s brilliant design of the New Testament city-wide house church network, with distributed leadership, a vibrantly active membership, and week-by-week accountability, wherein believers know each other, are eager to exhort and encourage one another, and are anxious to meet frequently to see how the battle goes, always learning, always designing and sharing ‘best practices.’ The first century believers at Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, etc., would be horrified to view the dull, passive experience of today’s American churchgoers, members of separate clergy-led megachurches which compete(!!) with each other in the same community!

Are you a teacher or pastor or life group facilitator? Try giving a quiz this week and see how people react. You could simply pick one of the questions I offer in the “Practicum” section of my essay, Would you pass a basic Bible quiz? . . .

Q1: You are with an elderly, life-long committed Roman Catholic man who is on his deathbed . . . He has about 10 minutes to live. He insists that he believes in Jesus as his Savior. Show him from the Bible what his fatal errors are and what he must do.

Q2: You share lunch with a young, college-educated Muslim. Start on common ground – the law of Moses – and explain to him the differences between God and Allah, the Gospel and the Muslim’s hope for Paradise, and what he must do to be saved.

Q3: Use your Bible to refute the false Calvinist doctrines of Total Depravity and Unconditional Election. Explain how these doctrines, when embraced in youth, can prevent someone from understanding the Biblical Gospel and becoming a born again believer.

Q4: An atheist insists that he will not listen to your Bible quotes, since he doesn’t believe the Bible to be true. You must first convince him that God might exist. Give him at least 3 affirmative arguments for God being real, and then at least 3 arguments from your general knowledge of basic science to show that evolution is obviously false.

Q5: Give 3 examples where Jesus tried to reach an individual lost soul in the Gospel accounts. Explain His methodology in each case.

Q6: Explain briefly the major differences between Peter’s open-air argument in Acts 2 and Paul’s corresponding message on Mars Hill. How can you apply these principles to your own personal evangelism?

Or come up with your own questions or exercises or team competitions. Try to change the culture at least a smidgen. Is there not a cause?

– drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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