Dec 10, 2018


Whole Students for the Whole Mission of God

Chase Abner shares about a key shift that drastically altered the way in which he views discipling college students. Read about discipling whole students for the whole mission of God.

“I think you should see a doctor.”

At the time, those were never words I expected to say in a discipleship meeting, but there they were. Though I had invested weeks, all of my best counsel and prayers hadn’t seemed to help this student. He was at the end of his rope and I was scared for him. He was scared for himself.

Honestly, I felt like a failure. My pastoral care wasn’t good enough to help him see that there is eternal joy in Christ. Referring him to a doctor felt like I was saying the gospel wasn’t enough to heal him.

It was in that season, that God’s kindness led me to an article by Russell Moore that set out very plainly to answer the question, “Is It Right for a Christian to Take Anti-Depressants?” Therein, I read a paragraph that gave me courage and propelled me into a new understanding of discipleship. Moore wrote:

“God created us as whole persons, with body and psyche together. The body affects the psyche. Going without food, for example, or sleep will change the way one thinks or feels dramatically. And the psyche affects the body. We don’t ‘have’ bodies or ‘have’ psyches. We are psychosomatic whole persons, made in the image of God.”

I began to see that even though my student’s troubles may have begun in his psyche, they also had affected his body. What happened to his body happened to his soul and what happened to his soul happened to his body.

And just like that it clicked for me.

I realized that for years I had been discipling students merely as souls and not as whole people. I served them spiritually and neglected them physically. Essentially, all that mattered to me was whether or not students could recite the right things about God and show up to our ministry’s events. I focused on what they could learn about God and ignored how that should play out in their lives, their education, and their career paths.

Here are a few ways that played out for me:

  • I only took interest in students’ classes as a platform where they should be sharing Christ, not as a venue to learn more about God’s world. Being a good student wasn’t about learning, it was only about giving credibility to their witness.
  • Likewise, careers were what you had so that you could make money and give to God. Being a good worker was about making it hard for them to fire you when you talked about Jesus.
  • I never, ever talked with students about diet and exercise.
  • I prided myself on how many graduates went off to seminary or applied to be international missionaries. I was often disappointed in those who didn’t.

Long story short, I had a very narrow view of who we are as humans and little imagination for kingdom service beyond evangelism.

I’ve certainly not arrived, but I think I’ve grown a lot as a discipler. Over the past few years, I’ve begun using this definition:

Discipleship is helping people become who Jesus wants them to be.

To be truly faithful, we must disciple students as whole people for the whole mission of God. Discipling students as whole people means helping people become who Jesus wants them to be spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, professionally, and so on. It’s about getting beyond teaching students what to believe and how to behave. It’s about helping them to see themselves as bodies and souls and to reject the sacred/secular divide that they’ve been fed. It’s about helping them to see their calling in life beyond the neat categories of ministry and work.

My growth in this area has been predicated largely on two shifts. 1) Seeing humans as bodies AND souls. 2) Understanding what it means for God to reconcile all things to himself. (Colossians 1:20) Through this developing lens, I am better able to understand who Jesus wants students to be and what their part might be in that work of reconciliation.

Let me conclude with a quick list of practical ways that I seek to disciples whole students for the whole mission of God:

  • I leverage personality tests like Meyers-Briggs to profile students so that I can better understand potential sin struggles and also to help them find a career path and service in church that best suits them.
  • I talk with students about how they are eating, sleeping, and exercising… particularly when they are spiritual depressed or falling into regular patterns of sin.
  • I inquire about their coursework and internships and celebrate their interests and achievements.
  • I introduce them to people who are faithful Christians working in all sorts of industries. (In fact, most of us “professional Christians” should disciple fewer students. Fight me.)

My thinking on these matters has been significantly helped by the writings of Erica Young Reitz, Matt LaPine, Jeff Christopherson, and Brad Brisco. I commend them to your edification.

about the author

Chase Abner

Chase is a church planting leader for Send Network in Iowa.