What the world knows about discipleship (and the churches don’t): Part 2

Why do evangelical and fundamentalist churches do things the way they do? If you just started with the guidelines we see in the New Testament, you wouldn’t wind up where you are now. In the Great Commission, the Lord directs His disciples to make new converts and then teach them to “observe all things” that He taught the twelve. In Paul’s admonitions in the book of Hebrews he tells believers to assemble together regularly in order to exhort and encourage one another. Paul would have been horrified to visit our so-called ‘Bible-based’ churches dominated by a salaried clergy lording it over a passive laity.

The epistles of Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude were written to the saints scattered abroad, instructing them to teach, to learn, to grow, to preach the Gospel, to love one another, to accomplish the entire Great Commission embodied in both evangelism and discipleship. These Spirit-breathed letters were not written to a clergy class to help them develop seeker-sensitive programs and a pulpit-centric lecture series. Just read those letters again – they’re addressed to the people at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc.

What the Lord designed for His New Testament churches has been despised by them, but slowly and empirically discovered by the educational world. In this blog I’ll review some of the ideas that have found success in collegiate education, specifically from the 3/16/2014 “Tomorrow’s Professor Newsletter.”

“Learning is enhanced when the material to be learned is thought about deeply . . . particularly when applying that material to a new challenge . . . Students indicate that they learn when they reflect, dialogue, question, write, summarize, and create their own knowledge.”

Over the last few decades, universities have grappled more and more with the reality that lecture-based teaching does not produce effective learning. You’ve got to get students involved in a variety of ways. The more they speak, write, and do, the more they learn. The more opportunities they have to interact within a small work group, the more they learn from each other and the more they retain.

Students that have a weak educational background enjoy enhanced benefits from doing team work. “One study incorporating structured peer group / team work resulted in a reduction of D or F grades for African American students from 60% to 4% . . . students from ethnic groups who had previously struggled also had exam scores similar to other students.”

A fellow faculty member (many years ago) once pointed out that university faculty are odd ducks. In their youth they tend to be the nerds who love to read, love to study, and love to excel academically. So when they teach, their natural inclination is to assume that all their students are just like them. They’re not. Students come with a wide diversity of preparation, motivation, and raw abilities. The challenge is to grow both the strongest and the weakest students. And so there has been a quiet revolution over the last few decades in collegiate education.

As an engineering professor earlier in my career, I reveled in the opportunities to develop our department’s year-long Senior Design program, plus a multi-year ‘Enterprise’ program which fostered strong, independent, student-led teams working on very challenging research initiatives. With prior experience in both government and industrial research, it was no surprise to me when some of the ‘least talented’ students – academically – excelled when thrust into teamwork and, especially, leadership roles.

Why not apply such principles to New Testament churches? Which were originally designed to grow disciples (students) in every area of life . . . and to be salt and light, a shining Gospel light to all the world, a vision far more challenging than that of training the next generation of scientists and engineers!

We’ve been members of, or have visited scores of churches over the years, in both the evangelical and fundamentalist camps. It seems clear the Senior Teaching Pastors are often odd ducks, like faculty members, who clearly enjoy the pulpit role, even when there is no evidence that the students are learning much . . . which is invariably the case. In ‘secular’ education, I read of a case of a calculus instructor who organized sessions for students to discuss their homework-solving strategies with fellow classmates. Grades improved dramatically, the teacher’s own enthusiasm skyrocketed, and he reported passing every single student for the first time in 30 years.

But this is just New Testament discipleship, small vibrant groups, believers with different gifts exhorting and edifying one another, not depending on one super-teacher to make magic happen from a pulpit . . . or a stage.

The college classroom now experiments with a wide variety of methods to engage the student’s brain, with such monikers as think-pair-share, team-learning, problem-based learning, jigsaw method, simulations, gaming, and service learning. In New Testament discipleship, opportunities abound to engage every believer to develop skills to strengthen marriages, to raise children, to reach out to the lost, and to create ways to shake salt into an increasingly wicked world. Hey, isn’t there lots to do and lots to learn? It’s just not getting done via the performer’s act on stage.

The mere existence of a small group doesn’t guarantee success. I recently attended a monthly meeting of an ‘apologetics club.’ The premise for the meeting was sound. People had submitted ‘tough questions’ that they run into from unbelievers. These questions formed the topics of discussion.

Unfortunately, execution faltered. There were about 25 people in the room, much too large for a single discussion group. The questions weren’t prioritized effectively, and the discussion meandered, unfocused. The leader was reticent to correct comments that went woefully astray, and there was no effort to lock down anything like an ‘optimal solution’ for any of the questions . . . which clearly would have been useful, since when these questions come up, it’s really good to have a cogent and coherent answer!

Also, this group apparently meets just 9 times per year; it’s just not important enough to fit more often into the programmed life of a modern megachurch. And there was no apparent plan to do anything next . . . so just what were they training for?

In the collegiate scenario, professors are admonished to monitor the progress of group projects. In Senior Design and Enterprise, I required teams to report weekly progress in both presentations and written reports . . . just like professional life in industry and government . . . where people actually care whether something gets accomplished!

“Be willing to adjust.” Organizing and facilitating teamwork is much more challenging than preparing a lecture, or a sermon. “Make the groups accountable for their results.” Only the odd ducks that become faculty and clergy actually enjoy speaking in public. But everyone can learn and what a joy it is to see a shy duckling grow into a confidently quacking communicator. Why shouldn’t the Lord’s disciples enjoy such accountability AND discover just what gifts that God has given them?

Educators talk about “creating a community of inquiry” as “a fundamental aspect of building trust and open sharing among students.” Isn’t this just what a local NT church is supposed to be about?!!? A vibrant team can create solutions far superior to what a lone wolf can dream up. Team members learn to build each other up, they learn to criticize constructively and to accept criticism . . . in short, they learn to grow up and get the job done.

If Christians – via the local church – were to develop skills in speaking, writing, teamwork, problem solving, research, etc., they would increase their opportunities for success in the secular workplace, in addition to growing spiritually. Employers love people who have such skills, which are typically not well-developed in the elementary and high school classrooms, and only partially in college, depending on how well a given university embraces the principles we’ve been talking about.

I fear that pulpiteers must like their people to be dumb and unskilled. They’re certainly succeeding at it, if that is the goal. It’s safer, after all, if nobody knows as much as the leader, no one can articulate as well as he can, and everyone knows his place. No room for confusion at all in a dictatorship. And no chance for spiritual growth, either.

Aren’t you tired of the same-old, same-old, passive experience in your church? Have you even noticed that the modern system is broken beyond repair? Oh, think you can change it? Please, give it a try. Create a small group that aspires to professional quality, which is simply what 1st century believers experienced in the house church networks of Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, etc. See what happens. If you actually enjoy some success – spiritual fruit – my guess is that you’ll get busted out of that church. Let me know how it goes.

– drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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