A while back, I recommended Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom here. Let me repeat that recommendation. If you’re involved in education or Christian formation in any serious way, you probably ought to read it, or at least listen to the associated lectures (which are available free online). In a nutshell, Smith’s big point is that human beings aren’t simply “thinking things” — and so downloading propositional content into our heads, while important enough, is not the whole shebang. Rather, human beings are desiring, imagining creatures, and forming us into the image of Christ involves engaging the whole person in ways that go well beyond simply explaining some propositions.
Today I want to talk about an application of that important truth.
A while back, I was talking with a friend about bridging the gap between hearing a sermon in church and applying it in real life. We often seem to have an awful lot of trouble with that. I noticed this problem a long time ago — I grew up in the church. But the question is, what to do about it?
In the tribe I come from, the accepted solution was good, solid Bible preaching. A series on Ephesians, a series on Joshua, a sermon or three on a Psalm here and there. You could do a series on marriage or finding God’s will or whatever, but you always came back to straight expository preaching. Preach the Word, and all will be well.
And you know what? It worked. Well…it kinda worked. I know a number of the success stories. In some ways, I am one. We learned a large amount of Bible, and we heard someone explain how it could be applied in our lives. In a number of cases, we put the stuff to work, and it became part of the way we lived — which is to say, it worked.
Except when it didn’t. Except when we found ourselves unable to effectively fight a temptation even though we knew perfectly well what we were supposed to be doing. Or when we couldn’t quite see how to fit the propositional wisdom of Scripture into the warped situation we were facing. Or whatever. There were a lot of cases where it didn’t work well enough. If a problem went untended long enough, it got untenable, and then we ended up in need of pastoral counseling.
The lucky ones actually got good pastoral counseling. I was one of those, praise God. In some corners of the tribe, they didn’t believe in counseling. They believed in preaching doctrine, and the rest was up to the Holy Spirit. The people who needed counseling in those churches were in a really bad way, and those churches are some of the most toxic in my experience.
Even in our better churches, though, the problem remained. There was a gap between the good stuff we heard on Sunday morning and our ability to put it to work in our own lives. Something was missing. When I became an assistant pastor, I pointed this out to my boss and asked him if I could tackle the problem in our congregation. He turned me loose on it. So what did I do?
I realized (correctly) that Matthew is a manual of Christian discipleship. So I invited the people who were interested in closing the gap between their intellectual knowledge and their day-to-day practice, and I taught a Bible study on Matthew.
Did you catch that? The problem was that teaching the Bible wasn’t getting the whole job done, and I tried to solve the problem by…teaching the Bible some more. Now Bible teaching isn’t bad, just like water isn’t bad. But offering a glass of water to a downing man is maybe not the best idea ever, and if he objects, lecturing him on how water is necessary to life is simply not an appropriate response.
Which is to say, Bible teaching meets a need, but it is not the only need we have.
3DM — an acronym for 3-Dimensional Ministries, or some such — produces some of the most outstanding materials for discipleship that I’ve ever seen. There are some curricular materials, and the truth is, they’re kinda hokey. The hokiness, such as it is, makes the material memorable, but the curriculum is only part of the recipe. The key is a social vehicle called a Huddle — a small group of leaders and leaders-in-training that are being mentored through the process of life-on-life discipleship. The 3DM guys are adamant that you can’t just read a couple of their books and then start a Huddle on your own. You need to experience being in one first before you try to replicate it.
Now the books are kinda expensive, but being huddled by a 3DM coach or joining one of their learning communities (a 2-year process) costs a small fortune. A cynic would be inclined to observe that the 3DM guys are effectively saying, “Sure, you could blow $120 on books, read them, and try to apply what you learned, but it’s not going to work unless you give us a couple thousand more to guide you through it.”
Thing is…they might be right. That’s the way it worked for me.
I knew about the discipleship gap early in my career. I tried to address it, but even though I knew the problem was not lack of teaching, I fell right back into trying to teach my way out of it. It would be far too easy to do the same thing with any other material — from 3DM, or Navigators, or anybody else. If I make that mistake, I reduce whatever material I’m using to just another nifty currriculum with some good memory aids — and let’s face it, I can get 3 of those for $5 on the bargain shelf of my local Christian bookstore.
It me a year or so of being led in a huddle by an older, more experienced disciple-maker to bring me to the point where I could replicate the experience, where I was ready to disciple rather than simply teach. Which is to say that person-to-person transmission, in a high-contact personal context, really matters. God made us to learn, not only from the Book, but from the Body.