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Yesterday, I shared an article from The Wall Street Journal about the loss of apprenticeship in preparing a young person for adulthood. It’s interesting that the writer recognized the difference between being book smart and wise with regard to life. 

I wonder if there aren’t some parallels here with how we think of discipleship.

The culture of the first century put a high priority on learning through apprenticeship. You see hints in this direction as you read the New Testament, particularly in how Jesus spoke of His relationship to the Father. But it’s also likely that in the early Christians’ desire to “make disciples, teaching them to obey all that Christ had commanded them,” their vision of “teaching” was somewhat different than what we mean by the term today.

Teaching and the Delivery of Information: Two Camps

To be clear, teaching involves the transfer of important information. The New Testament authors were steeped in the Old Testament, having probably memorized entire books of the Bible. When I say that making disciples and teaching them involves more than conveying information, I’m not saying that it is ever less.

Camp 1

One of the problems plaguing contemporary evangelicalism today is that pastors and teachers have rightly diagnosed a problem: there is more to teaching than just giving information to people. But the proposed response is often worse than the problem.

Once they recognize the deficiencies of an information-only type of teaching, these leaders begin to downplay the need for verbally teaching people the fundamental doctrines of the faith. The result is a largely atheological ministry that inevitably leans toward a behavior-focused, moralistic message. The good news (powerful, life-transforming information) subtly shifts into good advice (“Just tell me how to live!”). And we wind up with a biblically illiterate mass of well-intentioned Christians being told each week what to do.

Camp 2

In response, other church leaders swing the pendulum back. We must teach people and teach them well. The problem, however, is that “teaching” in these churches is often reduced to conveying important biblical information. The assumption is that once we learn the right things, we will live the right way.

Francis Schaeffer, no lightweight when it came to doctrine, warned against this way of thinking:

Most of the Reformation then let the pendulum swing and thought if only the right doctrines were taught that all would be automatically well. Thus, to a large extent, the Reformation concentrated almost exclusively on the “teaching ministry of the Church.” In other words almost all the emphasis was placed on teaching the right doctrines. In this I feel the fatal error had already been made. It is not for a moment that we can begin to get anywhere until the right doctrines are taught. But the right doctrines mentally assented to are not an end in themselves, but should only be the vestibule to a personal and loving communion with God…

Teaching right doctrine matters. Discipleship without a strong emphasis on teaching will inevitably be stunted. But there is more than one way to stunt your growth. Just as the first approach reduces discipleship to behavioral modification, the second approach reduces discipleship to information dump.

Teaching and the Modeling of the Christian Life

The biblical vision of teaching, particularly with its emphasis on apprenticeship, opens up new windows as to how “teaching” needs to include both the delivery of Christian truth and the modeling of a Christian lifestyle. Belief and action go together. Schaeffer again:

It seems to me that the real question is what we really believe. It seems to me that we do tend to have two creeds—the one which we believe in our intellectual assent, and then the one which we believe to the extent of acting upon it in faith. More and more it seems to me that the true level of our orthodoxy is measured by this latter standard rather than the former. And more and more it seems to me that there is no such thing as an abstract Christian dogma—that each Christian dogma can be experienced on some level.

So dogma and experience go together. How does that shape our vision of “teaching”? In particular, what does “teaching them” in the Great Commission refer to? Sermons? Bible studies? Lectures? Maybe. But there’s a clue there in the text itself. Teaching them to obey all that Christ has commandedThis necessarily involves both modeling and verbal teaching.

Without verbal witness we are unable to teach what Christ taught. But teaching to obey, in this context, surely demands more than just telling people what to do. This is the language of apprenticeship – a teaching that takes place through doing life together, as a teacher models what this life is supposed to look like. It’s the kind of “teaching” that takes place implicitly when Christians welcome one another into their homes, when Christians do good works together for the community. It’s the kind of life that is caught, not taught. Or better said, it’s taught through doing life together, inviting people to follow us as we follow Christ.

That’s why in conversations about the mission of the church, making a sharp distinction between representing and proclaiming Christ introduces more problems than it solves. Making disciples is the mission of the church, yes, but the teaching aspect of this process is more than delivering the gospel verbally and teaching the Bible verbally to new Christians. It is certainly never less, which is what the pastors in Camp 2 instinctively and rightly realize. But neither can it be just this.

David Mathis asks:

Does “disciple all nations” not call to mind how Jesus himself “discipled” his men? They were, after all, his “disciples.” And when they heard him say, “disciple all nations,” would they not think this discipleship is what he did with them – investing prolonged, real-life, day-in, day-out, intentional time with younger believers in order to bring them to maturity as well as model for them how to disciple others in the same way?

The answer, of course, is yes! Discipleship and teaching must mean more than conveying true information.

Bottom Line

Apprenticeship is serious business. Never downplay the importance of sermons, theological education, and deep Bible study. Just make sure you match all of these with doing life together, modeling a new way of being human, inviting people to come alongside of us and learn what it means to follow Jesus – not merely by what we tell them but also by how we live.

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10 thoughts on “Discipleship Is More Than Conveying Information”

  1. Taylor says:

    We talked about this on Sunday. Minimizing doctrine flattens Jesus into a bad caricature, and not acting on knowledge means we don’t actually ‘know’ it in the New Testament sense.

  2. Discipleship is a growing-up-process. It takes time. It’s the one thing the church does very badly. If discipleship is done correctly, it would probably take about 8 years for the believer to mature. But for most of us, it takes much longer because we do not have “grown-up” believers guiding us. Time-frame wise….about 13-18 years for those who have to rely on information in the growing-up-process.

    The “investing prolonged, real-life, day-in, day-out, intentional time with younger believers in order to bring them to maturity as well as model for them how to disciple others in the same way” is not known, time consuming and not a priority in the church. Discipleship is the slow way and we struggle with the slowness. Apprenticeship is a good term, but it will remain just that….a good way of describing what we ought to do, but do not know how.

  3. Bruce H. says:

    Great post. Anything I could say in addition is:

    …and the home is the laboratory for discipleship.

    Eph. 5:25-28
    Prov. 22:6

  4. RazorsKiss says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but how can you teach what is other-than information? You can’t understand or learn something that is not information – and as far as I can tell, even behavioral teaching or experiential teaching is still the conveyal of information.

    I guess I don’t get what you’re trying to say.

  5. Jeremy says:

    Trevin, I see what you mean. I long for what you are describing. But how can we do this? Frankly, I’m too busy to be consistent in meeting with others. 45-50 hr/wk job + 2 small children + extended family + preparing for bible study + etc. I don’t have a clue how to actually live out what you have described.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Part of the answer is in your question. You are discipling kids and family. Don’t underestimate the discipleship opportunities you have with your own family.

      The other thing I would recommend would be to seek out one or two guys who are growing in the faith. Invest time with them, even if it’s only a Skype call every few days, getting together once a week for breakfast or lunch.

      I’ve found meals to be great opportunities to do discipleship. Getting together for a meal with a younger couple is also helpful. You don’t have to plan a Bible study. It’s showing how the Bible intersects with life that is helpful in these settings. You let the Bible flow into the conversation and topics at hand without turning the event into another Bible study time.

      It’s not about adding another program that takes up more of your time, but about viewing the things you already do with more disciple-making intentionality. That’s my two cents. I welcome other thoughts as to how to apply this truth.

      1. Jeremy says:

        Thanks for the follow up, my brother. Those are good suggestions. I will look for those kinds of opportunities. Peace to you.

  6. Graham says:

    Excellent post, thanks Trevin. It’s an issue that lies (I believe) at the root of the decline we see in our Western churches, and ineffectual cross-cultural missionary efforts. I lead a cross-cultural mission and we are seeing much fruit through the kind of discipleship you advocate.
    I want to point people to your article through my blog. Thanks for articulating this issue so well.

  7. Paul Spink says:

    A good article as far as it goes, at least from my perspective. As I view it there are two types of discipleship; one is with a more mature believer and a less mature believer, and the second is with a mature believer with another mature believer. Even in the old apprenticeship system of past years the journeymen and masters would often share with each other tricks of the trade that they had learned so that things could be passed on to the ones coming up in the trade. This was because there was a pride in the trades in great workmanship and in the passing on to younger less experienced ones all the “tricks of the trade” so they would produce a great reputation for that trade. This is seen in the Bible I believe where the older are commanded to teach the younger. Also there is the problem especially in America, that the Christian life is every man/woman for themselves, which is contrary to the Bible’s teaching that we are all of one body. In addition many churches view ones “maturity” by a behavior/performance criteria which tends to make one “put on a good face” at church to meet the approval of the leadership and thus be accepted as a “true” member of the body. Christianity is a relationship, both vertical with God and horizontal with each other. The horizontal is so often ignored, but that is I believe where our “faith” is to be most visible to those around us, and if it is then our “witness” will be loud and clear to all. The relationship issue is the key I believe to our discipleship “problem.” And is commanded and prayed for by our Lord in John 17, “that we (future believers)might be one even as He and the Father are one.” If we make that the central core of our discipleship process, I believe we will see great things happen as a result. Radical Transformation takes place best in the fertile soil of intimate relationships.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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