Making trainees of all people

We all know that training is a good thing—that it’s vital to the health of the church. At least, that’s what we’re constantly told. So why is it so important? And what is training anyway?

Training is vital for two reasons. Firstly, it’s important because the gospel is important. In the gospel, God’s righteousness is revealed and salvation is given to all who believe (Rom 1:16-17). It is not a message invented by men; it was revealed directly by Christ (Gal 1:11-12). Therefore, there can be no tampering with it. Not even the angels will escape eternal damnation if they alter it (Gal 1:8-9). So the gospel is not a loose collection of ideas, but a self-contained package of doctrine1 to be passed on faithfully from generation to generation. It is a tradition2 that must be handed on pure and intact (1 Cor 15:1-3f, 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2:1-2), otherwise salvation will be lost (Col 1:21-23). This is, perhaps, the most obvious reason why we need to think about training: the gospel is too precious just to be tossed around. People need to learn to deal with it appropriately so that God’s treasures will not be lost. For this, they need training.

Secondly, training is important because Christ and his church are important. Since the gospel is Christ’s, gospel ministry is ultimately about serving Christ and his church (1 Cor 15:58, Eph 4:12). While we should serve Christ in everything we do (including working and even eating—1 Cor 10:31,3 Col 3:18-4:1), the gospel puts forward certain activities as being especially worthy of the church’s attention (1 Tim 5:17, Eph 4:11-16, 1 Cor 14:1-4ff, Heb 13:7). These activities directly promote our relationship with Christ and with one another by God’s word. So while we try to serve Christ as well as we can in everything, there are certain things that the church as a whole will want to excel in (i.e. be trained in): faith, hope and love (Col 1:3-5, 1 Thess 5:8); understanding the Scriptures (Col 1:5-8, 2 Tim 2:15, 3:14-17, Titus 1:9); and witnessing (Phil 2:14-16, Rev 10:10-11, 12:10-11). These are the things Christian leaders should particularly focus on when training those under their care (1 Tim 4:7).

What do we mean by ‘training’?

But what do we mean by training? What does it involve? If you think about it, all I’ve said so far is this: the specific concern of the church is to train Christians to be good Christians. So how does that help us? It helps us by clarifying what training in a specifically Christian context is all about.

You see, there is a fundamental difference between Christian training and ‘secular’ training. In its normal sense, to train someone means to give them the skills to perform a particular task. But in a Christian sense, we want to give people the resources to enable them not to be better able to do something, but to become better people. When I said earlier that there are certain ‘activities’ worthy of the church’s attention, I was purposely being imprecise. Faith, hope, love and knowledge of the Scriptures aren’t really activities;4 they are personal qualities. Of course, they may express themselves in certain activities in certain contexts, but they must be differentiated from those activities. The fundamental concern of the Christian life is not to develop a skill set, but godly character through fellowship with Christ and one another.

A scary word for a straightforward task

This means that the concept of Christian training is not nearly as scary as it may seem. ‘Training’ is just another word for ‘discipling’, and the task of training is essentially to encourage fellow believers to press on in the faith. As more mature believers, they will be better servants of Christ and the church, and will bring greater honour to God’s gospel.

But if Christian training is just another word for discipling, doesn’t it make the whole concept of training useless? I think not. Seeing training as discipling liberates us to train people better and more purposefully. It helps us practically in three fundamental ways.

Firstly, it helps us clarify who we want to train. The short answer is everybody! Training isn’t something we should reserve for the spiritually mature or even for the most extroverted members in our churches; it is something we need to seek for all Christians, both young and old in the faith.

Secondly, seeing training as discipleship guards us from falling into the ‘one size fits all’ trap. The fact that we want to train everyone means that we can’t possibly devise one way of discipling (e.g. set training courses) and apply it to all. The way we disciple people is as varied as the variety of disciples we have. So we mustn’t fixate on training just by formal instruction or just by following a set programme. Meeting one-to-one for prayer and Bible study is training just as much as running a Two Ways to Live course.5 What we decide to do is dependent on the person we’re discipling.

Thirdly and finally, when thinking about the practicalities of what we train people for, seeing training as discipling helps guard against the danger of divorcing the person from the task. It’s easy to fall into the trap of running specific training courses in order to get enough skilled people to do what we want done. But our primary focus isn’t on skill building, it’s on character building. Our aim is not to create X number of preachers and Y number of Bible study leaders, but to encourage everyone to greater maturity in Christ. So if, for example, we want to give someone training in preaching, we don’t do it because we need preachers, but because our trainee is the right person to serve the church this way. He is probably already serving the church in a very similar way (e.g. by actively participating in Bible study). Ministry is about people, not programmes. This applies just as much to training: where we impart specific skills, we do so to augment the service the individual already has in the church—to help them do better what they are already doing. We must think first of the person, and only then of what kind of training will most benefit them and the church.

Practicalities

So are there any more practical tips on training that we can glean from these general principles? In no particular order, I offer the following suggestions.

1. Being patient in the face of disappointment

Growth in godliness can’t be timetabled, and therefore, in many cases, neither can Christian training. This is, perhaps, the greatest frustration of trying to train people: we know where they’re at and where they need to go, but they’re so slow on the uptake! If only they’d listen to us and do what we say!

This is where a mechanical, skills-focused view of training creeps in. But it’s not about skills; it’s about maturity. You can’t just tell someone to become more mature; maturity is a function of time in relationships—and for that, there are no shortcuts. If we have a problem with how slow someone seems to be, the problem is ours. They don’t need to mature more quickly; we need to be more patient.

This means being prepared to be disappointed. Because ministry is a function of maturity, we must expect people to not do things the way we’ve instructed them, to give up halfway and to be insensitive to other issues as they blunder through. A principle I hold to is that as long as I’m training someone, what they do is ultimately my responsibility. This means I must be prepared to pick up the ball if they drop it. For example, if I’ve asked someone to have a go at preaching but something suddenly comes up that means they can’t do it, it’s my responsibility. Training someone can be very inefficient: had I just done it all myself, it would have been far quicker and the sermon far better. But if we recognize that training is discipling, it helps us bear these kinds of disappointments with patience. I don’t ask someone to preach because I need another preacher, but because it’s good for him and the church. If he doesn’t manage it first time, well, that’s to be expected. There’s always next time.

This also means that I won’t try to achieve too much at once. I’ll say more about a general pattern of training in a moment, but for now, it’s worth stressing that a person’s context and background often has a much stronger influence on the ‘speed’ at which someone matures (or is trained) than we realize. This is particularly important for foreign missionaries to note. Our background and context in, say, Sydney is vastly different from that of Christians in other countries—particularly when it comes to good models of ministry. When we ask a Sydney Christian to do something, nine times out of 10, they can visualize what we’re talking about. In a missionary context, that percentage could drop to somewhere around one out of 10!6

But apart from the cross-cultural issues, people are complex creatures, and we need to consider them as a whole before we decide how to disciple them. For various reasons, someone might seem ripe for training in Bible study leadership, but there may be other issues that make it wiser to wait (e.g. home life, emotional stability, work pressures, etc.). They might just be the right person at the wrong time. We need to be patient.

2. Using discipling relationships

Where possible, train people in the context of their already existing discipling relationships, or create new discipling relationships through which they will be trained. This is something that becomes more important the more a church grows. If training is discipling, the skill set of a trainer is not as important as their godliness and the relationship they have with their trainee.

In small churches, it is possible for one person to have a significant enough relationship with everyone to be able to train them all in some way. But it doesn’t take much growth before this becomes impossible, and the pastor will have to rely on others to develop the pastoral relationships necessary for good discipling. In a large church, the senior pastor becomes the pastor of other pastors.7

This is why Bible study groups are so important to the long-term health of the church. They are the primary training ground for all Christian ministry because they contain the strongest relationships. This is also why it’s important to have good Bible study leaders—leaders who not only have the skills to put together and run a good Bible discussion, but who are also aware of their even greater responsibilities in discipling group members.8

This also means that we need to give a lot of thought to the way we use our Bible study groups for training. The Bible study is only one part of the reason we meet together; the more fundamental reason is to encourage each other to greater godliness.

3. Breaking new ground

If training is discipling and disciple-specific, we should be prepared to be creative in how we train. The person and the context will determine the best way. This means that, as often as not, the situation will demand that we do something new. We may want to start up some new ministry with our disciple, drawing on the particular connections and abilities they have to encourage them to more faithful service.

For example, at one church, the philosophy of the Sunday school children’s ministry changed, which meant that several mature 14 to 16-year-olds who had traditionally been Sunday school helpers were suddenly at a loose end. So a special group was formed that met on Sunday mornings during Sunday school time to talk about ministry, and it used the teenagers’ connections in school Christian groups to give them opportunities for practical experience.

4. Using the three-step principle

This is a well-known training pattern, so I don’t need to say much about it. Simply expressed, it says:

 I do, you watch.

You do, I watch.

You do.

It gives the trainee a model of ministry to observe so that they can understand what you tell them, and it provides them with a safety net whereby they can make mistakes without the world coming to an end! It is also a pattern that can easily be repeated down the ‘generations’.

5. Trusting God’s sovereignty

I started talking about our difficulties with patience. Here, perhaps, is the other great difficulty that faces disciplers: trusting God’s sovereignty. There aren’t many guarantees when we disciple others. Some, however, we can state confidently: our trainees will experience failure (although, hopefully not forever!); our trainees will do things differently from us; and our trainees will graduate into their own ministries without being fully prepared for everything they will face. But besides these, there is a greater guarantee, and that is God’s faithfulness to his purposes for his church.

Remember that we were once bumbling trainees. (Maybe we still are!) But God managed to do something through us. Why shouldn’t he do the same through those we train? The success or otherwise of ministry is ultimately God’s concern anyway; it’s not our ministry, nor our gospel.

As we train people, we need to continually trust that God will bring fruit—fruit from our work in the lives of our trainees, and fruit in the life of the church generally through our trainees. Like parents of grown children, it can be hard to let go. But it is only when we do let go and entrust them and their ministries to our heavenly Father’s sovereign care that they will bring the most blessing to God’s people and the greatest honour to his gospel.

  1. Paul often calls this “the faith” (e.g. 1 Cor 16:13, Gal 1:23, Eph 4:13, Phil 1:25-27, Col 2:7, 1 Tim 1:2, 3:9, 4:1-6, etc.).
  2. Paradosis (e.g. Rom 6:17, 1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15, 3:6)
  3. In context, of course, Paul isn’t talking about just any old eating and drinking (as if there is such a thing as a godly and an ungodly way to drink a glass of milk!), but about the specific issue of sharing in fellowship meals with unbelievers (which is what eating meat sacrificed to idols communicated in Paul’s day). So he is saying that we should give priority to our fellowship with Christ and his church over every other kind of fellowship we might share, and therefore we shouldn’t do things that call this first fellowship into question, even if we may have a neat theological justification for it. We can, however, infer a general principle from this: our call to serve Christ and the church governs the way we should conduct ourselves in everything we do, even in everyday activities like sharing a meal with friends.
  4. Even evangelism, properly understood, is not a particular activity or skill set, but just one aspect of what it means to live for Christ.
  5. Courses are basically an efficient way of doing something for many people at one time, but they are not the only way. This kind of thinking can be extended to theological education: theological colleges are a great blessing and, in a sense, they are the guardians of the purity of the gospel since they are responsible for shaping pastors. But there are contexts where sending someone off to theological college may not be the best thing for them (e.g. where cultural and linguistic difficulties may negate any benefit they might otherwise have from their training). In such cases, there is no reason why we can’t do our own informal theological training by supplementing our normal discipleship of them with further reading and discussion on theological topics, and by doing Greek and Hebrew with them, as well as other subjects like church history, philosophy, principles of pastoral care, and so on.
  6. This is, of course a two-way street: it isn’t just that they don’t have our background; it’s also that we don’t have theirs. Sometimes we can ask them to do something (e.g. lead church), but in their Christian culture, this may mean something entirely different from what we had in mind. So in these cases, we need to take a step back and work together with our disciples on understanding the cultural meaning of an activity before we agree on the training.
  7. However, the senior pastor mustn’t lose touch with the ‘coalface’, or else his own discipling will be harmed. A large part of discipling is, of course, modelling, and we can’t model something we never do ourselves. So it’s a good principle for the pastor of a large church to maintain a discipling relationship with at least a couple of average pew sitters.
  8. It is a huge step from helping the Bible study leader by preparing the study once every couple of months to taking responsibility for a group of your own.