Teaching “Along the Road”
Life context and word content for discipleship reflects the setting of the great summary of Israelite faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5). Israel’s identity as a people was tied up with the “word” spoken to them by the Lord. It was God’s word that constituted them as his people at Sinai (Deuteronomy 5:4; Hebrews 12:19). Peter Adam says, “The basic structure of the theology of Deuteronomy is that God has spoken. . . . The command ‘Hear O Israel’ is characteristic of Deuteronomy . . . followed by instructions to remember, teach, discuss, meditate on and practice the words of God.”5 This creates a “verbal spirituality” in which the only appropriate response is to “love the Lord your God with total commitment, with your total self, to total excess!”6 What is significant for the practice of discipleship is the way the book of Deuteronomy then brings both this lofty theology and all-encompassing commitment down to earth: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6–7). This truth and its response are for everyone, and the way to teach them is in the routine of life. Chris Wright says, “The law was to be the topic of ordinary conversation in ordinary homes in ordinary life, from breakfast to bedtime.”7
This is not to denigrate the importance of formal teaching times at church but rather to emphasize the need also to bring teaching out of the pulpit and embed it in life. Just as the Law defined Israel’s identity and shaped her life, so the word of God is to define what we are as the church. And that process of definition occurs in the mundane setting of everyday life and relationships. The gospel word should be central to a formal meeting, but it also has to be the heart of all we do as the people of God and how we relate to the world.
The teaching along the road in Deuteronomy 6 is seen in the ministry of Jesus. He taught as he met the sick, as he answered questions, as he ate with people, as he walked along the road. Chapters 9–10 of Mark’s Gospel are an extended explanation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And all this teaching takes place along the road. And it is not any old road. It is the road to Jerusalem. It is the way to the cross. And that mirrors the teaching.
To be a disciple, as Jesus keeps reminding the twelve, is to follow the way of the cross.
We should be teaching one another the Bible as we are out walking, driving in the car, or washing the dishes. People should learn the truth of justification not only in an exposition of Romans 5 but as they see us resting on Christ’s finished work instead of anxiously trying to justify ourselves. They should understand the nature of Christian hope not only as they listen to a talk on Romans 8 but as they see us groaning in response to suffering as we wait for glory. They should understand the sovereignty of God not only from a sermon series on Isaiah but as they see us respond to trials with “pure joy” (James 1:2). We have found in our context that most learning and training takes place not through programmed teaching or training courses but in unplanned conversations—talking about life, talking about ministry, talking about problems.
Let us make a bold statement: truth cannot be taught effectively outside of close relationships. The reason is that truth is not primarily formal; it is dynamic. The truth of the gospel becomes compelling as we see it transforming lives in the rub of daily, messy relationships. Jay Adams says, “A whole person will affect whole persons on all levels; that is the goal of discipleship training. . . . It all involves commitment to God. Therefore, truth incarnated in life is the goal. For reaching this goal, only one method is possible—the biblical one—discipleship. Whole persons must teach whole per- sons; the Word must be made flesh.”8
You could start simply by telling someone today about your relationship with God or your struggles with sin. Tell him or her about how God has encouraged you, answered your prayer, spoken to you through the Bible, and given you opportunities to share the gospel or serve other Christians. And then ask that person about his or her walk with God. Make it a habit to talk about these things together “along the road.”
Training “Along the Road”
The same principles apply to training people for leadership roles. Alongside teaching “along the road,” we need training “along the road.” We are not against theological colleges, but we need a big switch of focus from the isolation of residential theological colleges to apprenticeships in the context of ministry. This is how Jesus trained people. This is how Paul trained people. In residential colleges the academy sets the agenda. With on-the-job training, ministry and mission set the agenda.
Colleges also suit a certain type of person, and this then shapes a view of what it means to be a church leader. Most church leaders today are middle-class graduates who were trained in a college and whose qualification for ministry is a degree. The first apostles were from very mixed social backgrounds, most with no education. They trained by accompanying Jesus, and their qualification for minis- try was that they knew Jesus. When the Jewish leaders “saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). One of the reasons we have middle-class churches that are failing to reach working-class people is that we have middle-class leaders. And we have middle-class leaders because our expectations of what constitutes leadership and our training methods are middle-class. Indeed working-class people only really get into leadership by effectively becoming middle-class.
Paul had the highest education possible (Acts 22:3). It is not bad to be highly educated. But the qualities he outlines for Christian leaders are not skills-based but character-based. The focus in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is on the character of leaders—their godliness, their maturity, their example. The only skill needed is the ability to teach—and that does not necessarily mean giving forty-five-minute sermons. It is the ability to apply God’s word to the life of the church and the lives of its members.
Having caught a glimpse of the benefits of mentoring when I was much younger, I made the decision early in my ministry to provide a number of young people with the opportunity to work alongside me. The aim was to see lives changed by the gospel and people equipped for gospel ministry. Integral to the process has always been relationship. These young people not only worked for me, they worked alongside me. They witnessed firsthand both how I conducted myself in public and how I related to my family. It was a life-to-life thing—close, intimate, and demanding. But how can anyone really learn what it means to be a disciple unless he or she sees someone living out his or her discipleship? How can some one learn the need of grace without witnessing the power of grace using a flawed individual? I have to confess to being skeptical of any approach to leadership training that stops short of this level of exposure and this depth of relationship. Certainly much information can be imparted, techniques can be learned, skills acquired, but without the relational dimension, it will always fall short of true discipleship.
This is an excerpt from Tim Chester and Steve Timmis’s book, Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community.
Tim Chester (PhD, University of Wales) is pastor of the Crowded House in Sheffield, United Kingdom, and director of the Porterbrook Institute. Chester also coauthored the forthcoming Everyday Church (Re:Lit) and has written more than a dozen books. Steve Timmis is cofounder of the Crowded House, a church-planting initiative in Sheffield, UK, and codirector of the Porterbrook Network. He is also director of Acts 29 in Western Europe and the coauthor of Everyday Church (September 2012, Crossway).