Discipling 101: Maybe Have a Beer Instead of Doing a Book Study

by John Ellis

This is going to be short (and not the totality of my thoughts about discipling). My objective doesn’t need a lot of words because it ain’t complicated. So, let’s get to it: Programs, action plans, and curriculum aren’t very conducive for discipling because everyone’s discipling needs are different. How can you plan/program that out in advance? That’s a trick question; you can’t.

Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t epistemological; it’s ontological. It’s not what we know; it’s Who we know and who we are (and are becoming). What we know derives from that, not the other way around. Many discipling books and approaches would have us believe otherwise. I have a different approach.

Look, here’s discipling in a nutshell: Listen. Ask some questions. Then listen some more. And then, and only then, by God’s grace and through the Spirit’s power, give the person you’re discipling what he or she needs. That’s it.

Maybe they’re struggling with understanding certain issues of systematic theology. Maybe they’re a brand-new Christian who loves Jesus but has a limited understanding of their new faith. Maybe it’s a believer who is constantly being tripped up by specific issues of holiness. Maybe your brother or sister in Christ is simply lonely and needs fellowship. Maybe they’re longing to continue to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ but are unsure how. Maybe they’re confused and hurting. Maybe they simply need to experience Jesus’ love and care for them. You won’t know unless you ask and, importantly, listen.

Discipling isn’t just for the head. It’s not even mainly for the head. As Kevin Vanhoozer astutely observes, “The Bible is more than divine data.”[1] If discipling (and our faith) is reduced to the mind-centeredness of propositionalism/foundationalism, we reveal that we lack a holistic anthropology and a poor overall theology. You know how I’d disciple that person – the Christian who reduces discipling to imparting propositional truths? The Christian who believes (at least through their actions if not words) that discipling is primarily for the head? I’d serve them a beer, turn on some music, and talk, getting them to laugh and mourn and become angry and tap into curiosity; I’d get them to feel things, not think things. Through the things we would do (not what I’d teach), I’d disciple them into a better understanding that emotions and feelings are as God-given and God honoring as our reason/intellect is and are just as fallen and also need care/discipling. Without formulating a plan, I’d refuse to go systematically through a book or even the Bible. If God is sovereign over all things (hint: He is), then our conversations about music, sports, history, politics, theology, etc. should be doxological. Sometimes, people need a hug, not a lecture. Sometimes, people need fellowship that exposes them to a holistic understanding of what it means to be a child of God, not a book study. In other words, I’d give this particular person what they need: a discipling hug.

I’m a fan of William Edgar’s Created & Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture but I do believe he makes a minor misstep (that can feed, and has fed, consequential categorical errors) when he writes, “[T]he Bible teaches that cultural engagement before the living God is, along with worship, the fundamental calling for the human race.”[2] I argue that cultural engagement is worship. God created us as embodied creatures. And through Christ, in our embodiment – holistically – we are in relationship with God. The whole of us. Every bit. Although the evangelical anthropology tries its darndest to do so, our being can’t be partitioned between spiritual and non-spiritual. So, why would discipling be any different?    

Because of bad (unbiblical) anthropological categories bowing before a quasi-Platonist hierarchy that elevates the reason/mind as prior, much of discipling starts with the premise that what is needed can be reduced and categorized into a plan developed beforehand. It states, even if it doesn’t state, “Give the individual being discipled the right propositional truths and everything else will fall into place.” Failing to acknowledge our full humanity, discipling is reduced to a disembodied theology class that strives to be a one-size-fits-many approach as well as being an approach that ignores most of our humanity. If that describes your view of discipling, come over to my house. I have beer in the fridge and great speakers to play music through. You’ll have fun, I promise, sanctifying fun, in fact. And more importantly, by God’s grace, we’ll both be edified and sanctified as we praise God through however we end up spending our time together.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2005), 5.

[2] William Edgar, Created & Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 87.

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