Just because a person has read a flight manual doesn’t mean that person knows how to fly an airplane. When it comes to flying an airplane, the person who has only read the flight manual is a good deal more dangerous than the person who has never studied such materials—for no reason other than that the unlearned person is fully aware of how little he actually knows!
This is also true methods that are employed in discipling followers of Jesus. Almost all our methods are message-centered. By message-centered I mean lecture. In fact, our churches are designed for lecture—row after row of neatly arranged chairs all facing a stage where one or two people lecture so that "learning" can take place. This is precisely because our churches are genetically related to universities. This genetic relationship exists precisely because we value knowledge and safety. We want things that we can preach precisely in four, or perhaps six weeks, and we want the process to be safe—which is to say, free from risk.
Knowledge, doctrine, and theology are all important (I don’t know anyone arguing for a dumber gospel), but they are not nearly as important as the way in which they are learned. Safety is a good thing, too, but not at the expense of a risk-taking culture that allows disciples to have the sort of life experiences that can grow real learning and knowledge.
There are untold thousands of Christians who can take the "God test" and get all the answers right, but who remain unformed and unchanged. There are untold thousands of pastors who can accurately teach the theology of God’s omnipresence, but have never actually experienced the God who is everywhere all the time. Where else would we settle for this sort of knowledge?
There is a process for becoming a disciple of Jesus. You can’t simply read your way into a transformed life. You can’t study (read, listen to sermons, go to college, learn ancient languages) enough to see your life begin to conform to the image of Jesus. And on this point be thankful—otherwise the gospel would only be for the brilliant and studious! Yet the church in America has become message-centered. We meet together to listen to lectures. The center of the meeting for the evangelical church is when the pastor stands up and delivers the message.
There are at least three factors that have lead to this model:
1) Jesus did it! This means preaching and teaching is good. It’s something we should do.
2) We’re Protestants! The Reformation took a lot of debate about doctrine. Invisibly, the center of gathered worship moved, based upon our values, from the body and blood of Jesus to the message.
3) We’re enlightened! The cultural shift of the Enlightenment crashed upon us like a great wave from the sea. We are all products of the scientific method and scientific reason. The gospel was put under the microscope—examined, defined, labeled, and studied. In the absence of personal experience the miracles became myths, and an intellectual approach to faith in Jesus took root—an approach that exalts ideas over personal experience.
Jesus is, after all, called the logos—the word of God—but we have forgotten that he is the word of God even when he isn’t speaking. Jesus was the word of God even when he was asleep in a boat in the middle of a storm—and that was the message! In order to reproduce disciples who look like the master, we must recapture the master's message, the parts that he spoke, and parts that he demonstrated.
How we come to know something is perhaps more important than the bare facts that we accumulate. Just because a person can get all the answers right on a test doesn’t mean a person really knows anything (and by the way, it’s a test that will never be given, at least not in a direct question and answer form).
This is especially true in the church where most of our models for making disciples center around "educating" people with the gospel. It’s little wonder that we have a church culture full of people able to give right answers, but powerless to display right answers. There are countless people who "know" that God loves them, but precious few who feel it and, as a result, spend their entire lives trying to earn the affection of a Father who is already pleased with them.
Jesus was able to reproduce his life in the disciples—supernatural healing and deliverance, powerful preaching, and sacrificial leadership that caused nearly every one of the twelve to die violent deaths for the sake of the gospel. This was not superficial transformation, it was to the core.
The methods we employ when making disciples are radically important. If we make discipleship primarily a school, a lecture-based exercise, we’ll reproduce experts for sure, experts with all the right answers but devoid of life.