Once upon a time, on a small planet in a small solar system, on the rim of a large galaxy, a child was born who grew to become the founder of a new way of life. His message was that the spirit of the creator was upon him, inspiring him to serve the poor and proclaim good news of liberation to the oppressed and the enslaved.
Over the following centuries, this new way of life began to evolve into – of all things – a religion. Indeed, eventually it grew into the most prosperous religion in the world, with many of its adherents becoming rich and powerful through the oppression and enslavement of the very kind of people their founder had come to liberate.
It was during this time that many of the members of this religion developed a complex ‘bubble’ of subculture in which they lived, studied and celebrated their beliefs and blessings without having to remember the poor, the oppressed and the enslaved outside their bubble.
So it was that as the generations passed, many adherents of the religion gradually lost sight of the meaning of its founder’s message altogether because, after all, that message had become irrelevant to their new and more sophisticated reality.
René Descartes, who coined the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am,” summed up the intellectual priorities of the West when he emphasised that it was “intuition and deduction, on which alone … we must rely in the acquisition of knowledge.”
This championing of reason above all else has played a huge role in shaping our current western philosophical ideas. One of the results of this is that we tend to have turned spiritual maturity and understanding into a matter of ‘what you know’ rather than ‘what you do about what you know’.
The majority of Christians today are taught about what it means to follow Christ via a concept of learning based around sermons, Bible studies, books, conferences and seminars. We ‘study the word’ alone and with friends, and on Sundays we listen to preachers who have ‘studied’ it in more depth than we have. In reality, however, the terms ‘disciple’, ‘follower’ and ‘apprentice’ all imply something more – a multidimensional, life-long and risky learning journey with Christ which our practice of ‘study’ fails to deliver.
Jesus’ original apprentices benefited from a learning style of breadth and depth, variety and diversity. As Charles F Melchert, the educationalist, explains: “If a disciple is an apprentice, then the teacher is the master not just of texts and sayings but of the practices that are learned, not so much by reading about them, but by engaging in them … Apprentice learning requires observation, imitation, trial and error, learning from mistakes, formation of habits and skills, reflection on why things happened as they did and what could be done differently next time.”
The Gospels provide a fascinating account of how Jesus enabled his apprentices to experience exactly this kind of learning. We see how they learn as much from their mistakes as from their successes. We get a picture of how, in their enthusiasm, at one moment they seem to get it – and the next they don’t. We wake up to the way in which Jesus gives his apprentices the room to experiment, to fail and learn from their experiences.
So, for instance, in Luke 9, Jesus gathers his closest apprentices and sends the 12 of them out, in groups of two – without him – into the towns and villages around Galilee to introduce people to his new ideas about the kingdom of God.
On their return, they reflect with Jesus on what they have experienced, while he takes the opportunity to probe them a little deeper about their understanding of his true identity (Luke 9:18). Even after their preaching trip they struggle to give an answer – which, of course, raises the question, if they don’t know who Jesus is, what exactly was it that they were teaching on their recent tour? Only Peter – perhaps Jesus’ most outspoken follower – can come up with, what seems, on the face of it, to be the right answer: ‘The Messiah’ (9:20). But, having done so, he goes on – in spectacular fashion – to demonstrate his complete misunderstanding of what his answer means, as Matthew’s Gospel explains (see Matthew 16:21–23).
However, despite the disciples’ failure to ‘get it’ (which is reinforced in Luke 9:46-48 by the tale of a subsequent squabble, driven by their oversized egos, over which one of them was worthy of the most honour), Luke astonishes us with the opening sentence of his next chapter: “After this the Lord appointed 72 others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go” (10:1). Not only does Jesus continue to entrust his apprentices with great responsibility – but he decides to significantly expand the project!
If our learning experiences only involve listening and reading, then we will never fulfil our learning potential. Passive learning fails to stimulate our senses to the point where we actually integrate what we know into our lives, combining what we are learning with what we have already learned so that it sinks in and becomes a part of our life. We must do something with knowledge for it to become part of who we are.
Though active learning is challenging, if learners do not actually engage with the mission of Christ in a multifaceted, people serving way, their education will always be hollow and shallow. Trying to protect apprentices from the hard work of service, and the pain of failure and mistakes, only stunts their growth and keeps them from deep and profound understanding of their faith.
No one learns how to ride a bike or build a relationship without taking risks – and sometimes these are painful. We develop such skills not simply, or even primarily, by reading a manual or attending a lecture. We learn through the consequences of our actions – both our successes and failures. Experience, accompanied by reflection, teaches us more than formal ‘study’ ever could.
Apprenticeship, then, doesn’t necessarily require great academic ability – but it always demands the willingness to follow the master, engage in life, serve others, reflect on your actions, draw conclusions and then put them into further action. Genuine learning always requires that we keep pushing forward, leaving behind our comfort zones and ‘bubble’ subculture.
The apprentices listened as their teacher welcomed a young novice to their group.
The teacher offered a prayer of blessing over the new member, and then in a voice loud enough to be heard by all, he said:
“By this act of blessing, we welcome you to a journey.
A journey that will take the rest of your life.
This isn’t the end. It is the beginning.
As you walk with Christ, what God will make of you, we know not.
Who he will introduce you to, or call you to serve, we have no idea.
Where he will lead you, take you, surprise you, we cannot say.
But, this we do know and this we say – as you follow him, God is with you.”