When you look at how disciples were trained in the New Testament versus how they are trained today, you’ll see we’ve come a long way. There’s an abundance of Christian educational opportunities available to us, at least for those of us blessed to live in countries where we can worship freely.
Depending on your denomination, you can choose from (take a deep breath) Sunday School, classes for teenagers, young adults, older adults, married couples, and new believers, catechism classes, beginner and advanced discipleship classes, Bible studies, Vacation Bible School, Christian camps, retreats and conferences, seminaries, correspondence courses, and more!
If you go to any of these classes, you probably take it for granted they are more or less formally organized. Teaching happens in a controlled environment (usually a church building) at fixed times on certain days of the week. There are lesson plans that allow us to know what we’re going to teach or learn, in some cases a year ahead of time. These things are not bad – some organization is good, but there seems to be something missing when we compare today’s programs with the New Testament model.
While many or most of today’s programs are good, the early disciples had none of them, and yet they flourished. Many times Jesus taught informally in public settings. Not only did Jesus teach in the temple and synagogues (Matthew 4:23, 13:54, 26:55, John 8:2), He also taught in homes (Luke 10:38-39), on an open mountain side (Matthew 5:1), from a boat at a lake (Matthew 13:2), while walking on a road (Luke 24:13-28), and at a common meal (John 13-14). Many of His parables were illustrated with things that were physically visible to those He was teaching (such as when He spoke of the faith that was able to move “this” mountain in Matthew 17:20).
But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”
– Luke 23:5 (ESV)
Jesus’ teaching environment was definitely not “controlled” by our definition of the word. Jesus remained very accessible: He was constantly interrupted by people coming to be healed (Matthew 12:9-13), have demons cast out (Mark 1:23-27), or to discredit Him (John 8:3). Today we would be shocked if someone interrupted the pastor’s sermon, but not Jesus. To Him people’s needs were more important, more than seeing “The Ministry” succeed. (We tend to forget that ministry is about serving people, not the other way around.) And Jesus used those very interruptions as the basis of His teachings. They weren’t edited out of the gospel accounts as detracting from His teachings, but were retained as necessary for our edification.
The result was that much of what Jesus taught was relevant to what the people were going through or experiencing at that moment (Luke 13:1-5). The line between discipling and ministry (service) was fuzzy. Jesus’ methodology was discipleship in the “real” world. I don’t see that happening very much today. Discipleship, for the most part, seems to happen behind the doors of the church.
So, should we move formal learning off the church campus and into the wilderness (or at least the city park)? No, that is not what I’m advocating. We shouldn’t throw out formal learning environments, but we must remember that discipleship is done primarily out in the nitty and gritty of public life, throughout the week. We’re fooling ourselves if we think it can be accomplished in a purely classroom environment.
We need to live for Jesus out in the world – be salt and light to those around us. We need to be living for Jesus both before and as we talk about Him. People aren’t going to listen to hypocrites. There needs to be times of informal yet focused discussion with those around us about the things of Christ, wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. This shouldn’t be forced. Just look at how Jesus naturally directed conversations towards the spiritual and Himself, as He did with the woman at the well (John 4).
But among believers we need to spend time discussing practical issues of following Jesus, not just theological issues: I’m having difficulty controlling my temper – what should I do? How do I die to self when I’m continually bombarded with lustful thought? How can I encourage my spouse/friend/coworker toward a deeper walk with Jesus? etc.
Discipleship is about believers daily building each other up in Christ, encouraging each other, warning each other, praying for each other, showing love to each other, and humbly serving each other during the week, not just on Sundays and Wednesdays. Discipleship is about our following and becoming like Christ.