Telling, Teaching, Training: What the Church Needs to Get Right

There is a splendid three-minute scene in the movie Glory, the Oscar-winning film about the all-black, volunteer 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment led by white officers during the Civil War. In the scene, Colonel Shaw walks up on target practice being led by Major Forbes and observes Private Sharts very deliberately and methodically hitting bottles with his rifle shots.

Shaw compliments him to which Sharts ascribes his proficiency to squirrel hunting. Shaw then tells Sharts to reload and as he does Shaw keeps telling him, in ever-increasing volume, to go faster. Finally, a fumbling Sharts gets the shot off, but we see no bottle broken. Again, the Colonel tells him to reload and then asks the Major for his Colt 45. This time, as the Colonel yells faster, he begins firing the pistol just behind the private’s head. The flummoxed Sharts never gets his round off. Colonel Shaw then turns to Major Forbes and dramatically says, “Teach them properly, Major!” The church would do well to heed Colonel Shaw’s instruction.

A cursory look at mission statements of many leading church denominations in America indicates that making disciples of Jesus Christ is their priority. Statements like the following examples abound.

  • The people of The United Methodist Church are putting our faith in action by making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, which is our church’s mission. – The United Methodist Church
  • The Wesleyan Church is a Spirit-led, praying movement called to evangelize and make disciples of all people by equipping believers, developing leaders, multiplying churches, and transforming communities. – The Wesleyan Church
  • To make Christ-like disciples in the nations. – Church of the Nazarene
  • As a convention of churches, our missional vision is to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations. – Southern Baptist Convention

Yet, all indications from researchers such as Pew, Barna, and the like, show the church is not doing well in its mission to make disciples. Denominations continue to shrink and the percentage of the US population identifying as non-religious continues to increase. The reasons for this are varied, but let’s focus on one that is significant.

It is estimated there are some 340,000 Protestant churches in the United States. Every week, tens of millions of people gather in church-initiated activities for some type of religious instruction.

Whether in small groups, Sunday schools, catechism classes, formal preaching, or other means, this amounts to an incredible number of hours in which learning is purported to be taking place. Given the aforementioned mission statements, one would expect that this instruction leads in some tangible way to making disciples of Jesus Christ and that should be reflected by seeing an increase in those identifying as such. It should also be reflected in the growth, life, and vitality of the church. So is there something wrong with our instruction?

As I have observed churches closely over the past 16 years, I have concluded there are two primary things wrong with our local church instructional approach to making disciples.  First, most instruction is not geared to make disciples who become disciple-makers. The church must be intentional, unequivocal, and relentless about this task. No one in any congregation should doubt that their role in the church and in the kingdom is primarily about being a disciple and making disciples. This means that instruction must be provided to that end because it obviously is not going to happen naturally.

Secondly, the instructional modes we typically use are not optimal for making disciples who become disciple-makers. Our instruction must give congregants the competence and confidence to engage in being and making disciples. So our mode of instruction needs to meet those two goals. A closer look at three modes of instruction at a very basic level will help explain.

  • Telling is a mode of informing or instructing that is unidirectional. In the church, preaching and lecture are examples of this mode. The message goes out, theoretically is received by the listener, and hopefully, the listener takes the message to heart and in some way applies it in their life. However, there is rarely the time when the speaker knows the message was received and put into use. In fact, in the case of a sermon, few listeners would be able to identify the point of a particular message two weeks after it was delivered.
  • Teaching is a bidirectional mode whereby information is presented and some form of feedback occurs that, at a minimum, provides a check for understanding and opportunity for clarifying. The feedback may be in the form of Q&A, discussion, quizzes, etc. and has the potential of cementing the information into the longer-term memory of the student. However, this information most often remains within the confines of the group and never finds an outlet for expansion or multiplication.
  • Training is a mode that takes the students beyond gaining knowledge to giving them the skills to practice what they have learned. It incorporates telling and teaching but adds practice and performance. An example of this is the method Jesus demonstrated. This type of instruction is critical in developing disciple-makers. After all, the church does not need people who can talk about disciple-making or pass a test on disciple-making. The church needs people who actually engage in making disciples.

It seems to me that the church does a lot of telling, a little bit of teaching, and virtually no training. Think about it this way. Suppose you were having problems with a tooth. Would you prefer to be the patient of a dentist that thus far has only heard stories of or lectures by great dentists? Or, would you prefer a dentist that only has scored 100% on a multiple-choice test on dentistry? Or, would you prefer to be the patient of a dentist that not only can explain, score well on tests, but has also practiced and then demonstrated proficiency in performing dentistry on real patients and has the confidence to successfully treat your problem? If we flipped that scenario and you were the dentist, which dentist would you rather be? I think the answer is obvious.

Likewise, when it comes to being and making disciples in the church, training should be utilized. Telling and teaching only will never produce the competent, confident disciple-makers your church needs to grow the kingdom of God.

This begs the question, “Where do I go to get help in this area?” The following are some resources you will find helpful.

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