This is part one of a three-part series titled How Then Shall We Live? Check out the accompanying podcast episode!
I’ll never forget a meeting I attended, a couple of years ago, with a group of pastors. From across the table, a senior pastor looked at his youth pastor and said, “At our church, we value discipleship!” The youth pastor nodded his head vigorously in agreement and said, “But first we’re trying to figure out what discipleship is.”
It’s a scene I’ve watched play out repeatedly in ministry.
We want to be a disciple and do discipleship but we’re not exactly sure what it is. Here’s some clarity. First, it’s helpful to remember that Jesus was a Rabbi, meaning teacher. So, those who follow Jesus are His students. The Christian thinker, Dallas Willard (1935-2013) wrote:
A disciple is a learner, a student, an apprentice—a practitioner, even if only a beginner.
So, what exactly does Jesus want to teach us?
It’s important to understand that there are three forms of knowing. The two most common are through facts and experience. One of Jesus’ best students was the Apostle John, and he explained in 1 John that he is a student of God’s love. He learned from Jesus the facts of God’s love and experienced that love firsthand, writing,
This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. (1 John 4:10 NLT)
The third way people know something is what’s called tacit knowledge and this is key to Christian discipleship. This form of knowledge cannot be taught in the classroom or through a textbook.
It must be learned by doing.
Every parent that has taught his or her child to ride a bike understands this kind of knowing. I can still remember explaining the facts about bicycles to my kids, and even letting them experience it, as I pedaled them around the neighbourhood; but it wasn’t enough. The day came when I needed to put my son on a bike, give it a push, and coach him as he learned to ride.
Tacit knowledge usually includes some bumps and bruises, but there’s no other way to learn it. This is because it requires indwelling. By that I mean, in order to ride a bike it first needs to become an extension of yourself; and, given enough practice, you will master it. Isn’t this what inspires us to learn to ride a bike in the first place, watching it done well? John explains that discipleship is a lot like that; when you see the facts and experience God’s love, it will inspire you to learn it. John puts it like this,
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:11-12 ESV)
We can tacitly know God’s love because God indwells us through the Holy Spirit so that we become an extension of His loving hands. John explains that no one has seen God; but when God lives or abides in us, people see the love of God through us. Just like a child inspired to ride a bike from seeing it done well, so Christian discipleship inspires others to learn God’s love.
For this reason, a disciple is a practitioner of God’s love and as such we apprentice others into this knowledge through our relationships. This takes place in two ways: individually, we are in relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, learning how to love. Corporately, we are in relationship with one another practicing that love, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. There’s no other way to do it.
Those pastors were right; discipleship should be valued in the church because that’s what church is. Church is more than facts and experiences, as a pastor I need to put people on the “bike” and gently push and coach them as they learn to love. The Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote,
Follow after me as I follow after Christ. (1 Cor. 11:1 NIV)
Check out this week’s accompanying podcast episode as I elaborate on these points.