In the church, if we want to make disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s essential that we understand the relationship between a teacher and a disciple. What better way is there to accomplish this than to model our process after the original disciple maker, Jesus? Here are five ways:
1. A good teacher understands there’s a relationship between what we say and how we say it.
Most modern teaching is based on rhetoric and is built on propositions.
Though I doubt many people would claim that teaching is simply dissemination of information, this is often what we functionally attempt to do. Without meaning to, we employ an approach that sees the content of our lesson like the papers we put in a bank teller’s pneumatic tube. We put a lesson together and try to shoot it, intact, to the student. Most of us don’t question the process; our focus is on hitting send, and we assume a clear path to the other side once it’s gone.
But if we’re honest, we know it doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes the most meaningful, deeply researched and insightful research and planning scatters across the floor, never to reach its destination in the hearts and minds of the listener.
That the preacher has a message does not mean that the listeners will get the message.Fred Craddock
Aristotle’s understanding of rhetoric was a set of instruments or tools used to create a specific persuasive goal. It separated the idea and the tools we used to communicate the idea. But studies have revealed deeper connections between what we say and how we say it.
More recent conceptions of rhetoric treat art as intrinsic to human knowing itself. Since we employ language as a symbol-making system in order to communicate … dismissing rhetoric as nothing more than manipulative efforts to influence others, even when people use persuasion appropriately, is naive. Rhetoric, for good or ill, is intrinsic to all the convictional understanding of our lives–to all reasoning. – Robert Reid and Lucy Lind Hogan
Recent brain research confirms the relationship between our ideas and our experiences. As Iain McGilChrist points out, all language rises from metaphor and bodily experience.
Jesus understood that how you teach a disciple is an important as what you teach our disciple. This is where creativity comes in.
Takeaway: Consider your last five lessons, sermons, or teaching occasions. How well did you consider not just what you taught but the way in which you taught it?
2. A good teacher contextualizes lessons to fit each student’s unique learning needs.
If you want a student to hear your lesson, first you have to help put her or him in a position to hear it.
Jesus had distinct teaching styles, depending on his audience. Throughout the gospels, we read, “Jesus said to the disciples…” Sometimes this is followed by wide teaching, or teaching through metaphor and story, and sometime by deep teaching, or teaching with plain directives. He made clear distinctions when addressing crowds and when addressing disciples.
Wide teaching is about connection. It’s critical because it allows both pre-Christians and believers at various levels of discipleship needed “side doorways” to truth; it connects the big truth of God to little truths we already know in our lives, such as how a seed grows or how light behaves.
Deep teaching is about clarity. It’s critical because it challenges us to grow spiritually, which can be painful and counter-intuitive.
The paradox and the genius of Jesus’ interaction with crowds was to both engage them and challenge them. Crowds received wide teaching – exclusively, according to Mark 4:33. His use of parables as an exclusive public teaching style communicated to seekers and drew them to the gospel. The challenge is to not stop there. Jesus reserved his deep, discursive teaching – “secrets,” as he called them – for religious authorities and for his small group of disciples.
A healthy congregation both invites seekers to ask questions and makes clear the path of discipleship.
Jesus understood that the use of multiple teaching styles is necessary because each of us is at a unique point in our faith journey. He knew that he couldn’t just reveal the best part of the story at the beginning; his listeners lacked context and therefore the ability to comprehend. So Jesus altered his communication style to best reach the distinct nature of a specific audience. I call this strategic caring. The goal is to help move people from the shores of faith to deeper waters.
Takeaway: Again, considering your last five teaching occasions, how did they work as wide teaching, designed for connection, and how did they work as deep teaching, designed for clarity?
3. We spend a lifetime pursuing discipleship.
Perhaps Jesus’ refusal to offer deep teaching to crowds wore on the disciples. They might have begun to question his methods. Eventually, they asked him about it: why do you speak in such indecipherable stories? Thankfully, Jesus answered plainly:
“Because they haven’t received the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and you have … This is why I speak to the crowds in parables: although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand.” (Matthew 13:11, 13)
I love the word “secrets,” which Jesus uses for the truths of the kingdom of heaven. It can be difficult to understand. It seems to imply that he purposefully kept some people from the Gospel. Some people, in fact, claim this. Yet to do so is to fall prey to the Gnostic heresy. Jesus clearly extends the invitation to the kingdom of heaven to everyone, notably in the parable of the great banquet (Matthew 22:1-14) and in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).
Instead, consider the secrets of the kingdom as oceanic wonders of the deep. When we pursue these secrets we are like a diver that rounds an undersea outcropping to discover a beautiful coral reef.
In the middle of the Gospel of John, the writer devotes several chapters to the final training session Jesus conducted with his disciples. After they broke bread and he washed their feet, Jesus taught them many more things, but also told them that he could only give them so much wisdom: “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.”
We spend a lifetime pursuing what it means to follow Jesus. And, as we keep discovering new secrets, we never stop needing creative means of understanding them.
Takeaway: Consider the audience for your last five teaching occasions. How would you characterize their breakdown between crowds and disciples?
4. Creativity help us to explore the secrets of the kingdom of God.
Our need to experience a lesson multiple ways and times is the reason why creativity is essential. It is the means to enter into truth, yet not be overwhelmed by truth. Story offers the hint of something greater and invites the hearer to explore the meaning within the mystery.
Creativity sparks the imagination of the receiver. As my co-author Jason Moore and I noted in Digital Storytellers, art is the discovery of discipleship. The work of creative imagination, communicated through story and metaphor, presents a known quantity in a new way, inviting connection and comparison. It unsettles our expectations and causes us to re-evaluate things we may have thought we understood. It seeds growth by raising questions. Jesus was more interested in raising questions then answering them.
Generally, what is more important than getting water-tight answers is asking the right questions.Madeleine L’Engle
Although it may be rewarding for us to break apart scriptural text and plumb its depths for mysteries, we have to be careful that those to whom we communicate are ready to receive our word. Sometimes the best learning occurs when we allow those hearing the message to discover on their own. Creativity leads to intrigue, which in turn creates a response. Even though the disciples often didn’t get it, such as with the parable of the sower in Mark 4, they came back.
Intrigue can be more important than understanding for creating a compelling response and a desire to go deeper.
This is why Jesus taught with story and image to everyone, including the disciples, such as the “the salt of the world,” “the eye is the lamp of the body” and “go through the narrow gate.” His metaphors created intrigue and invited further exploration, to each according to his ability to hear.
Crowds and disciples alike were captivated by his creative teaching.
Takeaway: In you last five messages, what images and stories did you use? How might you have made them a more prominent part of your teaching?
5. We never quit needing creative approaches to understanding truth.
There’s a sequence of stories in Matthew’s gospel that illustrate the “side doors” through which Jesus invited his disciples to understand truth.
First, the disciples asked Jesus to explain the parable of the weeds in the field. He freely did so. (Mt 13:36-43).
Later, the disciples tried to warn Jesus about the Pharisees’ offense to his teaching. Jesus replied to the warning with a cryptic word about plants. Peter is confused, and says, “explain the parable to us.” Jesus responds, “Are you still so dull?” He offers another parable, using the body, then, finally, offers them a set of clear directives. (Matthew 15:12-20)
Comically, the same exchange happens a third time. The disciples forget to bring bread on a trip, so Jesus uses the occasion to warns them: “Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadduces.” The disciples say to one another: “Yeast? What is he talking about? Maybe it’s because we forgot to bring bread.” The wise teacher was aware of their ignorance.
Jesus knew what they were discussing and said, “You people of weak faith! Why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you don’t have any bread? Don’t you understand yet? Don’t you remember the five loaves that fed the five thousand and how many baskets of leftovers you gathered? And the seven loaves that fed the four thousand and how many large baskets of leftovers you gathered? Don’t you know that I wasn’t talking about bread? But be on your guard for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he wasn’t telling them to be on their guard for yeast used in making bread. No, he was telling them to watch out for the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:8-12)
It’s easy to shake our heads at the disciples’ lack of understanding. We know the end of the story. In the course of the drama, though, the disciples were frustrated. They just wanted the plain truth, and couldn’t get it. Jesus wouldn’t speak to them directly.
As we grow as disciples, we become eager to receive plain teaching. But are we ready for the full truth? Can we handle it In every stage of our discipleship journey, we need creativity to draw us deeper.
Takeaway: Think of a long-time group in your church, composed of mostly disciples. Instead of clarity, what sort of intrigue raised through creative images and stories might help this group take the next step in their discipleship journey?
Now it’s your turn! Get started with this free eBook download and learn 7 creative methods for better disciple-making.