Rethinking Discipleship: Begin With the End in Mind

Many churches struggle to discipleship effectively. Here is a good method.
Many churches struggle to do discipleship effectively. Here is a good method. (Lightstock )

Disciple: one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another: as (a) one of the 12 in the inner circle of Christ's followers according to the Gospel accounts; (b) a convinced adherent of a school or individual

Rethinking Discipleship

If there is one thing that pretty much all evangelical churches agree on, it is the simple understanding that we have a mandate to make disciples. How we do that may differ, but the acknowledgement that this is our God-given mandate is not subject to much debate.

As I travel and speak with pastors, there is a struggle to know how to do this effectively. I liken it to the person who wants to study God's Word but simply doesn't know where to start. So he closes his eyes, opens the Bible and sticks his finger on a spot on the page and says, "This must be where God wants me to start."

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As a pastor who has been trained in the field of education, I see a great disconnect between what most are calling discipleship and an effective model that produces authentic, useful and relevant knowledge and skills in the saint that are both measurable and meaningful. I see many programs that focus on the first facet: knowledge, and most would fall heavily into this category, going from Bible study to Bible study, book to book, and DVD to DVD or great teachers of God's Word.

Very few evaluation processes of our programs have any focus on what has been retained (assessment) or what skills have been produced (application of knowledge) and instead focus solely on what we in education call "dispositions" or in more common terms: attitudes and impressions. "That course was life-changing! That course changed my life! I can't wait for the next study!" Without ever stopping to ask, "What specifically did you learn?" and, maybe even more importantly, "What did you learn how to do?"

I would like to challenge the reader to be open to re-thinking this process with an eye on three very specific goals: retention, skill acquisition and practice.  

Please allow me to first introduce a few things we have learned in the education world about how the mind retains information and how a person takes what is learned and applies it and makes it meaningful in their lives.

First, a few very simple facts about the human brain:

  • We remember roughly 40 percent of what we hear.
  • We remember roughly 60 percent of what we hear and see.
  • We remember roughly 70 percent of what we hear, see and discuss.
  • We remember roughly 85-90 percent of what we hear, see, discuss and experience.
  • But we remember between 95-100 percent of what we hear, see, discuss, experience and attach to in a meaningful or emotional way. This alone speaks volumes about how we should approach the discipleship process.

Most of our delivery systems never get past the teach-and-discuss level (60 percent) and if you add a video, you have possibly made it to the 70 percent level. And far too many never go much beyond the lecture listener level.

Second, it is commonly understood that there are three domains of learning, or ways that people are taught:

  • The Cognitive Domain: Information, facts, passages, details
  • The Psychomotor Domain: Actual doing, hands-on, tactile, experiential
  • Affective Domain: things that move us, feelings, emotions, relational, motivating, sad, happy, exciting, inspirational

Many of us learned in school many years ago that to only teach in the cognitive domain may produce a knowledge base and that students may learn things that they can reproduce on a test. But we also learned that so much of what they learned would not be retained over time and that many kids learn so much better by doing and experiencing (psychomotor). It is why a student can take three years of Spanish and not be able to speak any of it five years later.

But the greatest discovery was to learn that while children can and do learn in the cognitive and psycho-motor domains, the gatekeeper to retention over time is the affective domain. It is this domain and approach that gives knowledge meaning and value to a person's life.

Third, we have to make assessment a vital part of everything we do. Very few do. True teaching cares more about what was learned than what was said. True teaching says that until they have learned, I have not taught. True teaching continually checks for understanding. True teaching provides time for and feedback to reflection. True teaching says I have to know what they learned, specifically, so I can know what I need to re-teach or re-emphasize. True teaching cares not just about whether the group was with him or her, but cares deeply about the understanding if each student individually. It is very possible to do this in groups of 5, 50, 500, or 5,000.

What does all this have to do with discipleship? Simply this: We focus so heavily on knowledge (cognitive) in our discipleship programs that we fail to address the other two domains—doing (psycho-motor) and feeling (affective)—and as a result, we have a very incomplete and shallow discipleship process. There is very little fruit or growth as a community or a church body. Our church health and impact and usefulness in the kingdom suffer as a result, and many, many churches literally shut their doors each and every year.

The 'Bible-study-only' approach to discipleship is not a process we see in Scripture. Jesus taught the Twelve, absolutely, but then He would send them out and they would take what they learned cognitively and put it into practice experientially, which, of course, had a tremendous effect on their attitudes and understanding for what it meant to serve or lead or to act as a disciple of Christ and their faith and their boldness grew exponentially.

Then, after they went out and experientially put their faith to the test, they would come back and discuss what they learned (assessment and reflection) and debrief which allowed for deeper levels of teaching and understanding.

Allow me to introduce an alternative and walk you through a simple four-step process we have been introducing to churches as they learn to rethink their discipleship plan:

1. Begin with the end in mind. Far too often we launch into a new series or plan of study absent an overall sense of where we are going over a one-year, two-year or five-year span of time.

I would like to challenge pastors and leadership teams to ask and answer this simple question: If you had a person commit to a two-year process of discipleship at your church, describe what that person would be able to do.

You must answer that question while everything in you is begging to instead ask what they will know. Sit down with your leadership team and ask that question knowing you have two years to accomplish this task. Show me the answer to that question and I will tell you exactly what your church values—and so will you.

2. Answer four questions. Based on the answer to the big question: "What will they be able to do at the end of two years?" You can now fill in the rest of the plan. To accomplish what you want them to be able to do, you need to answer these three questions:

Knowledge: What will they need to know? What Bible knowledge would they need to help prepare them to do what they are going to learn how to do?

Skills: What specific skills will they need be able to have to accomplish what you want them to be able to do?

Experiences: What set of experiences will they need to be placed in so that they can practice and develop these skills and gain the experience they need to be effective? Where would they have gone, what would they have done, who would they have encountered and/or served in that two-year period?

Dispositions: How would they have grown in the understanding of who God is, the purpose of the church, their relationship with Christ, and their role in the life of the church?

3. Sequence and plan your two years. Take all of the information from the questions above spread it out over a two-year period and sequence it into the bite sized sequential parts of the whole.

4. Make assessment the most important thing you do. This will seem the hardest to implement, but there are some very real and tangible ways you can do this with a group of any size. A simple pencil and piece of paper in the hands of everyone there allows you to simply ask things like, "What were the four main points of today's teaching?" "What parts of what was taught had the most meaning for you?" "Restate what you heard me say about point number two."

I told you that we up the retention level for students when we simply have them discuss what they have learned. So do that—simply tell them to turn to their neighbor and discuss what was taught in that last point or in today's class. Turns out God was right. There is great power in the spoken word, and in this case, the spoken word helps take information from short-term memory to long-term memory. It is a significant accomplishment.

Of course, you can have quizzes and other more formal approaches, but this can create anxiety in a lot of learners, be they 12 or 62. If you think it through, there are many ways to find out what was retained and what had meaning for those you are teaching.

Some of my best memories are going to lunch after I speak and reading those reflections or comment cards from the class or speaking engagement. Conversely, how many times have we poured out our heart and left having no idea what kind of impact you had or if they really understood what you were trying to convey? It doesn't have to be that way and, with a little effort, you too can make assessment a priority.

The Body of Christ

We have church, but in far too many places, we have stopped "being" the church. We are called in 2 Corinthians to be His ambassadors; and then it goes on to say that it is as if He were making His appeal to others through us.

Later in that same book, he says we are jars of clay that possess this light and that we are reconcilers. All action and going kinds of charges are given to us. We have a mandate to equip the saints, and we have a great commission that says to make disciples.

I have come to believe that the greatest disciple-making we accomplish will take place outside the walls of our churches—experientially, serving, going and doing—then coming back and debriefing, sharing, asking our questions. Then, we go back out with a higher level or readiness and preparation and enthusiasm.

Begin with the end in mind. Answer those four basic questions and then sequence what will need to be taught and in what order over a two-year period. Challenge your people to make a commitment to go deeper and get all the way in. Take steps to make assessment a priority. Do not simply seek to be understood, but seek to understand as well.

"Tell me and I will forget

Show me and I will remember

Involve me and I will understand."

Simple and profound truth as you begin to re-think discipleship where you minister and lead.

Dr. Rich Rogers is the pastor of Jentezen Franklin's Connection and Discipleship Free Chapel OC in Gainesville, Georgia.

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