Building People of Substance for Works of Power
 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.Jesus Christ. (Matthew 28:19-20 NKJV)
And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.Paul, an apostle. (2 Timothy 2:2 NKJV)
Technology is rapidly altering the way we live. Some for the better, some not. It seems like yesterday my phone was wired to the wall and had a rotary dial. I now find my phone talking back to me from my pocket at random moments. It’s quite frightening, actually. But, like everybody else, I’ve become dependent on the technology. When traveling, I never look at a physical map or do research on the best routes. I simply tell the phone where I want to go, then follow instructions from the machine.
One of the effects of the pandemic has been the increased “tech-ing” of the local church. Nearly everyone has made some attempt to stream or record their services for online consumption. That has some upsides. Prospective visitors can check us out before they visit. Folks in our congregations can remain connected when they’re unable to physically attend. We can instantly communicate prayer needs or information on upcoming events with the touch of a button. All good! There are, however, some things that simply can’t be done well without physical presence.
Making disciples is a primary function of the local church. Unfortunately, many Christians (and some pastors) have fallen under the “digital delusion.” They think that watching online is just as effective as being present. Here’s the truth: listening to lots of dynamic teaching from famous and inspiring preachers is not the same as discipleship. Information is not impartation or transformation. The question is never “How much Word am I hearing?” Or even, “How much Word do I know?” It’s always “How much of what I know am I actually applying?” When Jesus said to “observe” His commands, He didn’t mean watch them on YouTube; He meant do them!
No doubt about it, doing stuff online is very convenient: I can learn without getting dressed. I can do it on my schedule. If I miss something, I can replay what was said. On the other hand, online learners are easily distracted by environmental issues (kids, dogs, tv shows, doorbells, …) and digital intrusions (texts, notifications, calls…). The in-person learner has the distinct advantage of having a gifted teacher personally present to respond to questions, or even facial expressions that communicate lack of understanding.
Online instruction falls especially short for want of timely feedback and personal accountability. The old saying, “Practice makes perfect,” can be rightly amended to read, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Repetition is only useful if it repeats the desired behavior. We need feedback to let us know if we’re on the right track. Retention and performance improve when I have someone to watch, evaluate, and hold me to my commitments. It’s just the human condition.
Jesus gave instructions for making disciples in Matthew 28. We want all believers to make a commitment to the covenant marked by water baptism, then we want to teach these new commits to do the things Jesus told us to do: Continue in the Word (John 8:31, love one another (John 13:34), and represent Him to the community (John 17:18). As part of the ongoing process, we are instructed to train disciples to make disciples. Paul told Timothy that he should look for “faithful men” to teach others. How do I determine who is faithful if all I know of them is what I can see online? The answer is, “I can’t!” Every leadership or service position has requirements that can only be observed in person (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
That points us to that mysterious and ominous term, “Accountability.” The word is thrown around a lot. Politicians use it all the time, but rarely do it. Good sports teams do it, players hold each other accountable. Successful businesses do it. Performance precedes promotion. In church, we say it but rarely define it, much less take steps to do it. Webster’s Dictionary says accountability is “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”
If you’ve read this far, you may want to know how real accountability works. Effective accountability in any endeavor requires:
- Clear expectations. What is the desired outcome? You can’t measure success without a clear objective. How should the objective be met? What options are available? What methods are unacceptable? A written summary is a good idea, especially for future reference, but nothing can replace personal, verbal instruction and verification of understanding.
- Clear capability. What skills does the person need to meet the expectations? What resources will they need? Who is responsible for providing training and resources? Is this a realistic expectation for this individual?
- Clear measurement. How will success be measured? This needs to be specific, whether it’s behaviors or numbers. How will I know if we’re done?
- Clear feedback. Honest, open, ongoing feedback is critical. This means identifying specific times and places for this to happen. Who provides feedback? Is it a team responsibility, or is one person responsible to give feedback? What are the consequences for dishonesty?
- Clear consequences. What’s the payoff for success? For failure? Are there time limits? Can any of these be adjusted or negotiated? How and on what basis?
Somebody Said: “Christian formation,” then, to be the genuine article, cannot remain content with the teaching of abstract dogmatics, the ethics of personal conduct, the challenge of a political witness, or the practice of a warmhearted piety. All these are vital as part of the larger whole, but the larger whole is what “formation” must aim at. Human maturity, and with that Christian maturity, is a whole-person, whole-being, whole-society thing”. N. T. Wright (Galatians (p. 53). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.)
Here’s the Point: The human condition is such that most of us need some kind of accountability to motivate us to act. We need human feedback and encouragement to keep us focused. In fact, when the goal of learning is change in behavior or attitude, there is no real way to measure success online. All I can do is give the student tests of some kind, which may or may not reflect actual behavior, much less the attitude reflected in that behavior. You can tell me you get it, but I can’t know you got it until I see you behaving as if you got it and doing it with zeal and excellence.
Technology can be used to assist in any of these processes, but it cannot effectively substitute for a personal relationship. Finding creative uses of digital media to encourage, reinforce, and remind is a great thing. Trying to use it to form real connections, correct unacceptable behaviors, and accurately assess progress will prove wanting. Discipleship and equipping for service require difficult conversations based on covenant expectations. This is an area where a local church of any size has a huge advantage over a YouTube video or a FaceTime chat. It’s our wheelhouse. Let’s be good at it.
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