“Dad, that Bible class felt a lot like school,” says my daughter after visiting a local church’s pre-teen Bible class. She described to me how they sat in a classroom in the large church, listened to some instruction about the book of the Bible they were reading, and then did some craft activities related to the story. She’s right—this is exactly the sort of thing she would have done in school.
In the last hundred years, churches in the west have adopted this same pattern—that the way to make disciples is to put them through school: teach concepts, read books, discuss ideas, and when students are asked, they are to repeat back the right formulations of what has been taught.
This falls far short of the goal of discipleship—to learn from Jesus how to live in God’s good kingdom. We are certainly to teach; we see that word right there in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). But our concept of teaching is deeply flawed. As we discussed in my last post, we are not primarily thinking things—that is, our thoughts do not fully govern our bodies. We are creatures driven by forces deeper than our thoughts. Being in full possession of the facts does not much affect our behavior. If that were the case, then the Surgeon General’s warning on the pack of cigarettes would be enough to dissuade us from smoking.
No, there is more to us than our minds. Deeper than what we think are our foundational beliefs—ideas and facts that we trust as true and upon which we make our decisions. Deeper than our beliefs are our loves—those things in the deepest part of ourselves that drive us toward what we ultimately want. We have the order all wrong. Put the right way around, we believe because God loved us first. Then we respond to that love with our own affection, desire, and love. It is love that produces belief (faith, faithfulness—trust), and we believe in order to understand, using reason to order, arrange, and deepen the actions that accompany and flow from our love.
What we love is core to who we are and orders everything else in our lives. Jesus’ call in his gospel (“The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:15) was to repent—for all within earshot to reorder their lives to get in touch with this new way of life that was now open to all. Discipleship and spiritual formation must take into account what we love.
Because Jesus made it quite clear that the human heart is the source of everything that comes out of us, the soil out of which all the fruit of our lives grow. Good trees bear good fruit, bad trees bear bad fruit. We ultimately get what we ultimately want. Desire drives us. It is not just the animal passions but the ones that draw us to one another, toward virtue, toward beauty, and toward God. Discipleship that fails to take our loves seriously falls short of the Great Commission to teach everyone to obey everything Jesus commanded. Loving our enemies takes more than just information. Explaining facts and ideas is not what Jesus had in mind.
Spiritual formation is learning to live the good life of God’s kingdom. This is not something we can learn in a classroom, no matter how clever, engaging, or passionate the teacher. This is something we learn by doing. This is a way of life we learn by being a part of a people who are living that life. This is something we learn by taking on a Master who knows his trade and doing the things he does in the ways he does them.
And Jesus is a Master who can teach us how to love. Are we ready to learn?