College football season is once again upon us. This week, I am traveling to do some missionary training and last night, I found myself laying in a hotel bed, listening to my team play their opening game on the radio. The Tennessee Volunteers, a top ten ranked team, were getting man-handled by Appalachian State, a nowhere near top ten team. Fortunately, the Vols snagged a “W” in overtime, but the whole time I was talking to the radio, telling the team what they should be doing.
This is how football works: a small handful of folk on the field, trying to win the game, while millions of us sit in an armchair and tell them what they are doing wrong. Truth is, I have never played football, but you would think I knew something about it by listening to me. After all the sports shows, commentators, and games I have watched, I think I know something about it. However, if you put me into that game, it would not take long to realize I do not.
Church is not a spectator sport, but too often, I believe we are preparing our believers to be armchair quarterbacks instead of team players. A tweet by a friend yesterday prompted my consideration of this type of discipleship. Micah Fries posted the following:
A Theoretical Ministry Versus a Real One
When our method of instruction in the church (or seminary) is imbalanced, we produce imbalanced disciples. This is so easy to do. We are a product of our educational system, and our system is a product of the Enlightenment. For the longest time, education has relied heavily on cognitive, or as Micah calls it, intellectual training. It is simply assumed that education is the dissemination of facts and theories and learning is the acquiring of facts and theories.
Pastors come by it honestly too. After all, those who go to seminary are taught theological education through class lectures, research, and the writing of papers. These are not bad things, but they are not enough to create a real disciple. When this is the primary mode of your instruction, and your task is to instruct others, you will likely reproduce the methods that you experienced. Everyone knows that we preachers like to talk, and often that is precisely how we want to teach. We think of our sermon as the primary discipling time in our church. We plan weekly classes for instruction. The more culturally savvy of us will even do classes in a small group setting, but they may still be cognitive, intellectual exercises.
If we are not careful, the manner in which we instruct our congregations only prepares them for a theoretical ministry and not a real one. We equip people with all kinds of talk about how things “should” happen. Churches “should” take membership seriously. The Lord’s Supper “should” be done this way. Church discipline “should” be a part of every congregation. Every member “should” be sharing the gospel. People in your small groups “should” seek the counsel of others when making major life decisions. These are all true, but they are theories if they are not anchored in some form of reality.
Discipleship is Not Filling the Head with Facts
Obedience-based discipleship is a necessary part of any believer’s spiritual formation. If you want the people in your congregation (or the people in your seminary classroom) to actually engage in the mission, then it takes more than the accumulation of facts. It takes instructing them in the manner of doing.
Lately, I have noticed a common theme when people talk about the Great Commission in relation to discipleship. We talk about making disciples of all nations; we talk about baptizing; and we talk about teaching all of the Scriptures. That sounds right to most of us, but that is not what the text says. The text says that we are to teach them to obey all that he has commanded. There is a subtle but very significant difference made when we leave out the obedience part.
Discipleship is not simply the filling of young heads with facts, it is being on mission and taking others with you. Our disciples, your disciples, need more than a list of things that “should” happen. They need help with the difficult process of working facts and theories out of the realm of “should” into the realm of practice. If your members should be sharing the gospel with lost people, have you ever shown them how? If your small group should be seeking counsel from each other, have you ever modeled that in a real way? Do your methods of discipleship involve more than intellectual instruction?
Of course, in order to pursue obedience-based discipleship, we also have to be obeying all that has been commanded. Perhaps we have so many theoretical disciples because those of us teaching them have theoretical ministries ourselves.