Jan 15, 2018


The Bible: Discipleship’s Most Reproducible Tool

Conan Sherlin writes about how the Bible itself is the most reproducible tool for making disciples who will make disciples.

When I first gained a heartfelt desire of discipling younger believers years ago, I always debated what material to get out to these individuals. In my haste to provide great content I lost sight of one of the key attributes of the process. This attribute is found in the idea that whatever we teach students, fellow church members, family, and friends must be reproducible for it to succeed in having any long-term impact on the kingdom.

Paul understood this necessity when he wrote to his long-time disciple Timothy. In Chapter 2 of his second letter to Timothy, he writes, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also,” (v. 2). Paul makes it seem as though the idea of discipleship is completed not when we teach someone else but when we teach someone else who will also teach someone else after that.

I previously was guilty of losing sight of this admonition. Instead, I used to scramble for some wise teachings or in-depth theological discussions. I had the idea that my value as a disciplemaker was linked with how much head-scratching and pipe smoke-inducing insight I could induce. The easiest and most efficient way of accomplishing this was to utilize the myriad of fantastic books that have been devoted to the practice in the last 20 years. I plied the waters with Bill Hull’s fantastic books on discipleship, mined the depths of Leroy Eims, and bounded with joy through the passages written by Robert Coleman. However, when it was all said and done many of my efforts stalled in the next phase.

In truth, several reasons can be blamed for this lack of success, including the failure of intentionality when meeting with students to instill a desire to pass on this wisdom. Years later, I would remember a curious happening that has since helped cement in my mind a second fundamental reason for my lack of reproducibility.  

As a young passionate believer, I had the opportunity to disciple an international student who had come to Christ through our ministry. This student was new to faith and in my eagerness, I immediately moved towards printed material with my usual zealousness. The result was a fantastically informed new believer ready to step out and teach someone else. I remember asking him if he was ready to teach the next guy and he responded faithfully that he was. I was so proud and encouraged until he asked me where he could get a copy of the printed material we had just finished. No, I told him, he did not need it. His only need was God in his heart and the Word by his side. I remember in his innocence looking at me and curiously stating that he didn’t understand because together we had gone through the book. In my youth, I foolishly provided the material and as he went home to a place that did not even speak English with an English copy of how to follow God.  He was not successful in finding the next rung down to teach an American author’s understanding of discipleship.

This is not solely an international problem, as I have seen students stagger under the weight of a systematic theology book handed down as discipleship. I’ve seen a new believer sigh with indifference towards the latest well-intentioned book promising to teach the 50+ basics every church member should know.  If we develop a reliance on printed material then we risk giving our disciples that same reliance as a hinderance to their development as a multiplier.

Once, I was asked to think through this scenario. Suppose you teach someone from an awesome book – a real page turner of spiritual understanding. If you flashed forward 100 years, would you find a group of believers huddled around the scraps of this same book reciting the truth therein? What if instead, I created true dependency that would last 100 years, a dependency on the Word of God.

The truth is, I cannot state things as eloquently as the authors I have mentioned. I am not gifted with the knowledge or years of experience that those authors possess. However, if I can create in individuals a reliance on Scripture and a continual practice of searching for and finding passages that interact with our daily life, then I am positive that I am making a disciple who can go out and disciple others with nothing other than a copy of the Holy Scriptures.

That is not to say you must divorce yourself from wisdom accumulated from other disicplemakers. I love tools that are easy to memorize and point back to scripture. Dawson Trottman created one of the best tools when he came up with the Wheel of the Obedient Christian. This awesome illustration was taught to me by Max Barnett and because of its simplicity has stuck with me for years. This use of tools instead of printed materials is effective because the tool is scripturally-based and appeals to the visual learner in all of us.

I’ve taught the wheel to students for years. Recently, I saw a video of one of those students who had gone on to do mission work with the International Mission Board. He videoed one of his students teaching the Wheel to  a group of Hindi-speaking Indians. He used nothing but a blackboard and a copy of the Word in his language. I had taught my student, he had taught others, and then the chain continued.

There is one final tidbit of strategy that helps focus us on reproducibility in discipleship. We must prime disciples with the charge that they are expected to teach others exactly as you have been teaching them. On my first discipleship meetings with students, we go to to the university book store and purchase a notebook. That notebook will then be used throughout our meetings with the idea that the plan and implementation of direct scriptural discipleship will be recorded and then useful for any future encounters my disciple might have. As Max said, “The weakest ink is always better than the strongest memory.”

Prime your people with expectations, give them the means for remembering your lessons, and stick to scripture as you look at topics so that in the future a Bible and blank pages are all they will ever need. My prayer for all of you is that you will be able to find faithful pupils who will be able to teach others also, and that in designing your curriculum you will be able to find a path that allows you to teach from scripture in such a way that those future generations of believers will hold no dependency except on that which is breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16).

about the author

Conan Sherlin

Conan directs the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Nicholls State University in South Louisiana. He grew up in the mountains of East TN and previously directed the BCM at UVA-Wise before. He and his wife Christy have four children.