By John Whittaker
I was sitting in a coffee shop with a young man I had baptized several months earlier. “I’m lost during the sermon,” he admitted. “I don’t know whether the passage comes before Jesus or after. And it feels like the preacher just opens his Bible to wherever.”
Fact: Basic Bible or Christian understanding can’t be assumed anymore.
Fact 2: Folks have access to infinite amounts of nice-sounding memes and inspirational junk food on social media, and because they have such a limited and shallow understanding of the Christian faith, it all gets mixed together into a sort of spiritual mash-up.
It’s no wonder studies have shown that many practicing, “Bible-believing” Christians don’t have a biblical worldview.
So, here’s what’s always been true, but which is more apparent and urgent right now: You can’t make disciples without education. That should be obvious. In fact, the basic meaning of the word disciple is “student.” But teaching has fallen on hard times in the church. Fewer and fewer churches have any intentional plan of instruction, and fewer people attend what’s offered.
In a cultural climate where people no longer grow up knowing the Bible, and where churches for at least a generation haven’t done a great job of teaching the Bible, teaching must be reemphasized as vital for disciple-making. It’s certainly not the only component of disciple-making, but it’s an essential one.
Aiming for Transformation
In Ephesians 4:20, the apostle Paul portrayed discipleship as learning Christ (the word translated “learn” in the New American Standard Bible is the verb form of disciple). He said this because truth is in Jesus. In coming to Jesus, disciples have transferred from an outside-of-God culture that has led them into futile thinking and darkened their understanding. And as a friend of mine says, what occupies your mind controls your life. Therefore, some teaching is needed to straighten out their thinking. They must learn Christ.
The kind of teaching that’s needed, however, must not have information as its goal. Information will be part of it, to be sure, but it will be the means to a greater goal.
Ephesians 4 teaches how learning Christ’s truth leads to living Christ’s way—to putting on the new self (v. 24), which means ceasing to lie and instead speaking the truth (v. 25), replacing stealing with work and generosity (v. 28), and setting aside malice in favor of forgiveness (vv. 31, 32), among other things.
In disciple-making, the educational goal is transformation over information.
Learning Christ has both mental and behavioral aspects. Leave out either one and it’s being done wrong. If our preaching is full of life advice but fails to form people’s minds in the truth of Christ, we’re doing it wrong. If theological instruction, whether in Christian colleges or the church, doesn’t form people who are living and loving like Christ, we’re doing it wrong.
Jesus’ final instructions make this obvious to us. Make disciples, he said, baptizing them and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (Matthew 28:19, 20). Not teaching them to know but teaching them to obey. That kind of teaching sets the truth into the context of everyday life and coaches people how to practice it. It’s thus highly relational. We must connect people together in a “one-another culture” where specific, life-on-life teaching can happen.
Putting Resources Where People Live
That’s the kind of teaching that transforms people’s character. And we’ve got to find helpful and wise ways to make it happen. Just offering an adult Sunday school class and then bemoaning flagging attendance isn’t going to cut it (and neither is offering the class and then guilting people into attending). Small groups can help, but most are better at creating a relational environment (another key component of disciple-making) than forming a biblical foundation. And preaching, while crucial, is not sufficient by itself to help people understand the story of Scripture, acquire a biblical worldview, and learn how to walk as Jesus walked.
Furthermore, we all know attendance is declining at church events, and that’s not always because people don’t want to grow or are uncommitted. Sometimes it is because of work. Sometimes it’s because of other life commitments. Sometimes it’s because a special-needs child makes it hard to get there. Sometimes it’s because church events are poorly done and are boring.
So, if we’re going to help disciples learn Christ, we must use some ingenuity. How can we resource a disciple who’s just a little further down the path so that he or she can teach a less-mature disciple? How can we give families access to resources they can use to help their kids develop a Christian worldview? (That’s important, because we all know that a couple hours of children’s church each month isn’t getting it done.) How can we help small groups and small-group leaders acquire framework for understanding the Bible so they can grow together in the knowledge of God?
I believe we need to decentralize the teaching ministry of the church so people don’t have to come to another church event to learn Christ. I believe Christian education needs to happen where people already spend their time. I think just about any church can benefit from taking advantage of digital media that puts teaching and training resources in people’s hands (the current focus of my ministry). Pro Church Tools (https://prochurchtools.com) found that 72 percent of people prefer to learn by using video instead of text. Audio resources, mainly in the form of podcasts, are quickly gaining popularity. A study earlier this year found that 90 million people in the U.S. listened to a podcast in the last month. And what about the younger generation, many of whom didn’t grow up going to church and therefore don’t have a basic grasp of the Christian faith? The Pew Research Center found that 94 percent of people 18 to 24 years old use YouTube regularly. And just about everyone spends hours each week (each day?) scrolling through social media. All of these mediums can become vehicles for resourcing Christians to disciple the people in their lives and helping people learn Christ.
Imagine, for example, a new believer learning the faith through short videos and discussing it with a more mature believer over breakfast before work. Or a family acquiring a Christian worldview through something like a “video catechism” in their own home. Or a growing believer listening to spiritual growth training while commuting to work.
If we want to get serious about making disciples, we must put serious thought and energy into how we help people learn the way of Jesus. We must help the truth of Christ occupy the disciple’s mind in such a way that the character of Christ can be fleshed out in his or her life.
Then we will display to the world an alternative way of being human and doing life . . . and we’ll actually be a city set on hill, bringing glory to God.
John Whittaker has been a pastor in two churches and taught New Testament, theology, and preaching at Boise Bible College for 19 years. Currently he’s equipping people to follow Jesus by creating podcasts, YouTube Bible studies, and online courses to help people learn and live the Bible.