CALL WEEKEND FOR SENIOR PASTOR CANDIDATE DR. ROBERT STEPHENS - DECEMBER 10 & 11

Education & Relationship

By Pastor Reed Bernick

I’m an outspoken proponent of a good education. To have a healthy grasp of history, to be capable of critical thinking, and to be able to express yourself in clear, precise terms – those elements are essential in any field of study. It’s certainly how I’ve thought about my own vocation. I believe that to pastor well, you need a deep understanding of scripture and some grasp of the church’s history and doctrine. Sure, people can lead churches without those things – and the Holy Spirit compensates for any weaknesses (which He does in every case, regardless) – but the risks you assume in avoiding education are substantial.

I think for many of us, in fact, education is the primary way we think about our formation and maturity as people. It’s the main way we prepare ourselves for what’s to come – in work, in family, in anything really. There’s always a good book to read on the subject and there’s always information to be gleaned. Which has been the controlling idea behind the church’s approach to spiritual formation, too. We’ve often assumed that the best way to form disciples of Jesus is to educate them well – to equip them with skills and to teach them certain concepts. Sunday school, for example, is designed for those ends specifically.

In reality, however – and we know this intuitively I think – the work of spiritual formation transcends education. It might involve it, but it can’t be reduced to it. In other words: to be a disciple of Jesus – to embrace His ways as your own – is about much more than information or proficiency. It isn’t a credential you acquire in the same way you’d attain a degree. Because it’s not just about what you know or what you can do – it’s about who you know and who you trust.

True, following Jesus requires a kind of education – especially when it comes down to learning about what Jesus taught and did – but because the goal is not expertise, it’s relationship (with Him and with our neighbors and our enemies), we’d do well to value ‘relationship’ as an important method in our formation as His people. It’s not just books that change us – it’s the people we associate with and the impressions they make on us.

If you take a moment and think back across your own life, it’s not hard to find evidence of that. Our friends and family have had profound impacts on who we’ve become (and are becoming). We are shaped and influenced by those we spend time with, sometimes in unconscious ways that go unnoticed. And many of us have used that principle to garner our own influence in the world – whether that’s it parenting a child, in mentoring a coworker, in taking someone under your wing, or in simply trying to set a good example.

I confess, though, it's all too easy for me to know all of this and still choose to ignore it. As I said, I’ve prioritized education in my own life – both in ministry and in other things. In part because, in principle, education is easy. It’s a game I understand. It’s often able to be evaluated (in theory at least). Expectations are clear – goals are easily set and satisfied. It’s measurable. But for all these reasons, it can also be skin-deep. To gain knowledge can look like memorization. It can look like trivia. In fact, rarely does education on its own require us to change; to change our values, our outlooks, our habits, or our character.

But discipleship does. Following Jesus requires us not just to memorize, but to trust. It’s not enough for us to know about Jesus – we must actually know Him as He is. Which is harder to evaluate. Sanctification is not a scientific process – and goal setting in our spiritual development is difficult for that reason. But who could deny that it’s there in the spaces beyond our education that real formation in Jesus actually occurs? Who could deny that it’s on our close relationships with other Christians (which are not always didactic) that we are formed in the ways of Jesus?

So as we think about our collective work in the Great Commission – this strange and unique work of “making disciples” that Jesus has entrusted to us as His church – let’s commit ourselves to thinking carefully about how exactly that work ought to be done. Let’s examine the ways our current strategies in the church succeed and the ways God may inspire us to engage our commission more faithfully and effectively. Where and how are you influencing others on Jesus’ behalf? Who is God leading you to encourage, to build up, and to form? What would it look like for us, as a church, to see discipleship as not just an educational process, but a relational one?

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