One of the central claims of The Trellis and the Vine was that Christian ministry is founded not only on preaching and teaching, but also on training. In fact, the chapter in which that argument was advanced most forcefully has always been the most controversial part of the book (Ch 8: ‘Why Sunday Sermons are necessary but not sufficient’).
Col Marshall and I have often been asked about what we mean by ‘training’, and how it works out in practice. Does training essentially mean ‘running more training courses’ like Two ways to live? And if that’s too simplistic a picture (and of course it is), then what is ‘training’ exactly? How is ‘training’ different from ‘teaching’ anyway?
This week’s Payneful Truth presents a fresh take on this topic, in two parts: via a recent interview with Marty Sweeney (Marty is the ministry director of Matthias Media USA); and then with some additional thoughts to round off.
First, here’s an edited excerpt of my interview with Marty.
Marty and Tony talk about teaching and training
Marty: Today, I want to talk to you about what I’ve colloquially said is teaching versus training. Let me set this up for you.
Tony: Yep. What do you mean by that?
Marty: I’ve been reflecting on my now 15-plus years doing ministry, specifically teaching ministry, in front of a classroom or in a small group, and I realized that often, I just default to content dissemination and I shorthand that as ‘teaching’.
Marty: Now, I know that’s probably not fair to the word ‘teaching’, but what I mean by that is this—I’ve got all this content in my head, I’ve worked hard at developing a structure to deliver it, and I download it, so I’m teaching people. But what I realized is that I’m giving them content, but I’m not training them to be disciple-makers or to get that content out for others. That’s what I mean by ‘training’ them.
It’s one thing to just give people content. It’s another thing to teach them and train them in a certain way that they are applying that to themselves, but also thinking about their neighbours, their friends, their coworkers. I think I’ve been a content disseminator but not a trainer.
Marty: Do you see that difference or maybe do you have any better words to describe it?
Tony: Well, I’ll outline some of the things that I’ve been digging into over the last couple of years regarding the ‘one-another’ word ministry of Christians, because it’s the same issue. What’s the relationship between that kind of more practically oriented, everyday Christian speech, and the preaching or teaching that we receive in church or in a Sunday school class? (Hint: I think it’s much the same as the relationship between ‘training’ and ‘teaching’.)
First, I don't think we have to denigrate teaching by calling it ‘content dissemination’ as if it doesn't do anything powerful, because it does.
Marty: Right. Yeah.
Tony: If you teach well—and I’ve been in some of your classes, Marty, and you do teach well—you’re not just blurting out material that washes over people; you’re actually forming and changing their minds. You’re providing them week by week with a new way to think about the world and themselves and God and everything. You’re forming their mind and heart, as that content you’ve disseminated seeps in. It restructures the way that your hearers think about everything and understand everything. How does Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5? When I’m in Christ, it’s a new creation and I no longer regard anything from the standpoint of the flesh. I now regard everything from the standpoint of Christ. That’s the wonderful thing that preaching and teaching does. That’s why it’s so powerful, and that’s why we need to keep listening to it!
But nearly all knowledge has two dimensions or axes to it. There’s a kind of knowledge that changes your whole mind and way of thinking about the world—but there’s also a kind of practically immediate knowledge, the knowledge of how to actually do things.
If we can come to my second favourite topic after God-Jesus-and-the-Bible, which is golf—you can read as many golf magazines as you like, and I read plenty and watch interminable YouTube videos. But there comes a point where you need the practical immediacy of actually doing it, and having someone alongside you to help; someone to say, “No, no, don't do that!”
And I think that’s what we're talking about when we talk about ‘training’. It’s not just the mind of my hearer that is being changed; it’s their behaviour and action being changed. If it just stops with their mind and their understanding, and doesn’t lead to a new way of speaking and living, then something’s missing; it hasn’t gotten the whole way.
And this is where ‘training’ (as we’re calling it) comes in. Training is that kind of instruction and learning that takes place in the ‘practical immediacy’ zone—where you’re learning, for example, not to be angry, or not to let the sun go down on your anger, or what it means in practice to love others. You need someone alongside you at that point who is not so much trying to shape your whole understanding (like a teacher), but is bringing that understanding to your particular moment and helping you see what it means; someone who is advising and reminding and encouraging and urging you to do it, and admonishing you when you don’t do it.
That’s the zone that ‘training’ belongs in, in my mind. It’s helping people translate their understanding into life and action and speech. And it’s usually a different mode of education. It’s more a matter of being alongside you, helping you to learn what it means, sharing wisdom, and encouraging and exhorting and helping you to grow.
Now, I think it’s the same, Marty, whether you’re talking about training someone to share the gospel or training someone to pray, or to love their wives and children, or to learn not to be so envious. In all the different ways that our life is changed and sanctified as we come to know Christ and his Spirit works within us—in all those ways, there’s another mode of instruction and encouragement. Let’s call it training if you wish.
Marty: How can we make this shift—from just teaching, to also training? To ‘transformative learning’, to put it that way?
Tony: It starts with listening. Helping someone to shift from where they are starts with seeing where they are. It starts with listening, with having a sufficiently close level of interaction with them, so that you can see where this person is at and where they’re up to, and what encouragement and help they need to change.
One of the differences between the teaching-preaching mode of mind formation and the more practically immediate mode of training is simply in size and level of interaction. You can teach and form the minds of 500 people at a time if you’re a gifted teacher and preacher. But, if I’m going to help each one of those people actually implement something in their lives—to learn how to share or learn how to speak—well, they’re all at different points and different places. They all will need different sorts of help. It requires a more micro level of interaction.
And, sometimes the problem is simply that we haven’t set up structures or contexts for this to happen. We’ve set up structures to teach, which are larger contexts where one person is teaching 50 people at a time in a 40 minute timeframe or something. But in those structures, you’re fairly limited with what you can do at the practically immediate level. You need time and a smaller context—where you can listen, where you can interact, where you can find out where people are up to, where they can try something and then report back.
We need opportunities for digging into the particular issues that people have, whether it’s in their prayer life or in their sharing the gospel, or whatever it is in their lives that they’re seeking to change. At a practical level, it can be that we don’t create the contexts within our ministries where that kind of ‘training’ can take place. And (tragically) when we do form some of those structures, which are classically what we call ‘small groups’, we tend to use them as another teaching time …
Tony: … rather than as an opportunity to do that other necessary thing that has to happen in order for the teaching to become lived and practised—which is more interaction, more personal encouragement and exhortation, more wisdom and confession and discussion. More ‘training’.
Marty: Yeah. That's a good point. I remember when you and I worked on a course (The Small Group and the Vine) for training small group leaders, and it was very much a course to get new leaders trained—something you said stuck with me. You said, “As small group leaders, we’re not just leading people to the Word, we’re helping them lead each other to the Word”.
We’re trying to train them to help each other, so that on their discussions on the way out, and their text exchange throughout the week, as they see each other at a picnic, they’re still doing that work when you’re not around. You’re not the necessary mediator for that. I found that a really helpful mind shift. It’s not just me leading them to the Word; it’s all of us coming together under the Word, moving towards maturity in Christ.
Well, I think there’s a lot more to be said, but I think there’s some helpful ways to start and we’ll keep thinking about this as we work in our own small groups. Thanks for your time, Tony.
Tony: Lovely to talk, Marty.
Why we need both
Reflecting further on ‘training’, I think I’d add the following to that conversation:
We need a way of talking about the ongoing process of learning how our convictions are lived out in daily Christ-like action—whether that is in learning to pray, to love our families, to share the gospel with our neighbours, to encourage a new believer, to be patient, or any other aspect of the renewed life. One good English word that encapsulates this is ‘training’—a word that has a more practical edge; that connotes practice, discipline and correction; that contains a mix of instruction, repetition, character-building, practical advice, encouragement and time.
When I think of this kind of ‘training’ in the New Testament, the classic vignette that comes to mind is of the older women teaching and training the younger women in Titus 2. In accordance with the healthy doctrine of the gospel (Titus 2:1), the older women are to “teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3b-5). It’s one complete package: true gospel doctrine, resulting in a godly character, along with practical instruction and outworkings in daily life. Training is that aspect of ‘learning Christ’ that brings the sound doctrine of the gospel to the lived experiences of everyday discipleship.
In this sense, Christian ‘training’ is a bit like medical training. At the end of it, the student has not only gained medical skills, but has ‘become a doctor’. They have mastered an array of knowledge, and a set of mental models and frameworks to use in whatever situation presents itself. They have imbibed the culture of what it means to ‘be a doctor’—a set of values and practices and traditions that is more than textbook knowledge, and also more than a set of practical skills. And they have practised and refined and improved their ability to put this knowledge into practice day by day, with colleagues and superiors watching and encouraging and instructing, with hard-won lessons from failure and blessed encouragements from success. I think Christian training is like this.
Training in this sense is for every Christian, not just for leaders, or prospective leaders. It’s not just a skill-acquisition phase for people who are about to undertake a particular ministry. It’s training in the Christian life, one aspect of which is ministry to others. Many churches are already doing at least some of this every-Christian ‘training’ if their small groups are running well—but that is by no means always the case (see my earlier post about this).
Here’s a final sharp point for many of us: Is learning to minister the word of God to others—to speak the truth in love to others in various ways—a basic aspect of the Christian life? If so, then it too needs to be the subject of training, just like all facets of Christian living. Are we doing this? Are we training people to be speakers and sharers and conversationalists of the Word: in their homes, in their small groups, at work, in their one-to-one relationships with others, in their conversations after church on Sunday, at their children's bedside? My sense is that we are doing considerably less of this sort of training than we were 20 years ago.
Do you agree?
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PPPS. This week's tenuously connected image is a snap of my copy of Bob Dylan's classic Slow Train Coming album.