The “what” and “how” of discipleship
“Syllabus week,” can be one of the most overwhelming times for students. Assignments, reading requirements, course outlines: “information overload” describes this first week of college. At times, the church’s approach to discipleship for young adults mirrors syllabus week. We outline the information related to discipleship (the “what”), but neglect the lived experience of discipleship (the “how”).
Now, to be clear, the “what” of discipleship is critical for faith formation, whether at Bible college or in a local congregation. This development of foundational beliefs and practices sustains us in the life-long commitment of following Jesus that is discipleship. Biblical literacy, theological training and intentional spiritual practices are all areas where young adults need the “what” of discipleship.
As they enter Columbia Bible College, many students have doubts about their faith or feel inadequate to address questions from their peers. “What if I don’t know the answer?” is a question I hear repeatedly.
One exercise I’ve found helpful is collecting difficult questions about Christianity and having students put each other on the spot to experiment with thinking on their feet without preparation. This exercise connects our foundational beliefs with everyday experiences. The “what” comes alive in conversation.
As a result, I’ve seen students leave Columbia with a passion for knowledge and with a renewed confidence to relate the “what” of discipleship to the world around them.
Yet, like that first week of class in college, the “what” by itself can lead to information overload and inadvertently communicate that discipleship is all about knowledge – it becomes our heavy burden rather than the light burden of Jesus (Matthew 11:28–30).
Beyond the content of discipleship, then, the church needs to value the process of discipleship, the “how.” This means understanding today’s young adults and finding holistic ways of discipling them that resonate with their experience of the world.
In particular, I’m realizing the value of the journey.
I’ve come to appreciate the gift young adults bring to the church with their insistence on relationality and authenticity. This generation is calling the church to pay equal attention to the “how.” To say discipleship is a journey to be walked with others does not compromise it to culture, but defines it within the context of a lifelong commitment to Jesus in the times and places we find ourselves.
For leaders, this may require adopting a new posture. Expertise alone does not inspire faithful discipleship; no matter how much correct knowledge we have to impart, we need to value relationships as we disciple others.
How I present my syllabus is equally important to its content.
How I preach on God’s love or judgment is equally important to my definition of these key theological truths.
If our posture as leaders is relational rather than only propositional, young adults can see how the ideas of discipleship can be embodied into a life together.
For example, I take a group of students on an experiential learning trip to New York each February. It’s a full trip, with a variety of activities and service components as we explore the intersection of faith and culture in one of the world’s most dynamic cities.
But I learned early on not to undervalue the times between our scheduled activities. Where I was prone to rush ahead, students lingered to connect with one another or simply observe the wonder that is New York City. The experience of getting from point A to point B itself was worth investing in.
Once I shifted my focus to allow more time in our schedule to just be together, student engagement and learning increased. Their passion to integrate faith with culture grew. Adopting a relational posture in my leadership enhanced not only the trip, but also the experience of discipleship.
The church needs to find creative ways to make space for relationships to flourish and to practically explore faith formation.
A key benefit of Bible college is the relational experience of college life. From the accessibility of professors, to the community of students in dorms, to the active engagement with local churches, young adults get to participate in a community of disciples on a daily basis.
In churches, we can develop this sense of discipleship alongside others through intentional practices of sharing in daily life – potlucks, volunteer projects, prayer groups and more – activities that allow young adults to rub shoulders together and support one another in the course of living.
As in school, so in life
Every year, I see how the stress of syllabus week works itself out in a semester.
Some students succumb to the pressure of an overwhelming experience, often not as a fault of their own.
Others plod along, completing their assignments adequately, but with little retention of what they’ve learned
However, many students flourish. They enter into a collaborative experience of learning with others that values the big picture of the whole semester. It’s difficult, but it’s also rewarding. For these students, the “what” and the “how” combine for an experience of profound transformation.
Like students collaborating with others to succeed at college, all members of the church journey together as disciples who follow Jesus. Limited to information, our faith struggles in a sort of perpetual syllabus week for discipleship. But when discipleship embodies the way of Jesus relationally, we can connect the “how” and “what” in a way that inspires and equips for faith in our world today.
—David Warkentin is director of Columbia One and general studies at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C.