Men Need to be Competent in Spiritual Disciplines


Competence is not a word used often in church. The preferred work is ‘equipped’. There are equipping ministries, midweek gatherings called ‘Equip’, and regular conferences organized around the call in Ephesians 4:12 ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry.’ All of this is good. Nonetheless, I sometimes wonder if the focus of a lot of these activities is slightly skewed. Think for a moment about the word ‘equipped’. What does it mean to be equipped? A man who is equipped for a long journey is a man who has all of the necessary supplies. His cloths are packed. He has sufficient food and water. He has a compass, a map, and adequate camping supplies. Materially, nothing is lacking that would be needed for the venture. But here is the problem: a man could be equipped without being competent. He might have a compass, but he might not know how to use one. He might have camping supplies, but he might not know how to start a fire in the wild, how to cook outdoors, or how to store his food so that wild animals cannot reach it.

Learning versus Teaching

My interpretation of the word ‘equipped’ might not be entirely correct; however, I believe the underlying point is important to grasp. There are a lot of Christians who are equipped for the Christian life, but who are not competent. They have Bibles and other Bible study resources at home, but they do not know how to handle rightly the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). They attend church with spotless regularity. But they do not know how to participate meaningfully in corporate worship, how to listen well to a sermon, or how to stir up other Christians to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25). The list could go on and on. The problem is not that Christians materially lack the stuff in their life that would promote growth. The problem is that they are unskilled in using, applying, or participating in the resources that are within arm’s reach.

I think the cause of the problem is highlighted by a provocative question that Peter Drucker, the doyen of management theory in the 20th century, once asked while conversing with Albert Shanker, who at the time was a leader in the field of education. In the midst of the exchange Drucker interrupted Shanker with a eureka insight: ‘For hundreds of years, then, our emphasis has been on how well the teachers teach rather than on how well the students learn?’ This was the precise point that Shanker had been trying to make. He had been trying to communicate the degree to which modern schools were built around the needs of teachers, not around the needs of student. The goal had been effective teaching, not effective learning.

The same problem is evident in the equipping ministries of a lot of churches. The evidence for this is that almost all of formal ‘discipleship’ takes place in either a lecture hall (sanctuary) or classroom. The reason for this is obvious: lecture halls and classrooms are convenient spaces to teach. The challenge is that what is useful for teaching is not always adequate for learning. Learning, after all, requires more than teaching.  Ordinary experience gives plenty of evidence of this. In most cases, becoming proficient in any skill requires at least four stages of learning: directing, showing, supporting, and delegating. If I want to learn how to frame a house, attending lectures, at most, can only be a part of the process. Along with verbal instruction I need someone to show me how to perform the basic actions; I need someone to watch me as I try to put a wall together myself; and I need someone who will delegate sufficient responsibility to me so that, as I continue to practice the skill, I can achieve proficiency.

The point is this: men need more than teaching. They need more than equipping. They need competence. The test of competence is not how well I was taught, but how well I have learned. I can attend an ‘equipping church’, but still be an incompetent disciple. The question raised by competence is this, ‘Do I have the basic knowledge and skills required for discipleship?’ If the answer is ‘no’, my freedom to mature will be restricted.  

Questions for Small Groups/Self-Reflection

  1. Do you agree that a Christian can be equipped without being competent? In your mind, what is the shade of difference between the two?

  2. What kind of training do men need in order to become competent in activities such as prayer, Bible study, evangelism, practicing the presence of God, discipling children, being a Christian spouse, living ordinary life as a spiritual calling, mortification of sin, participating in the shared life of a Christian community, and so on?

  3. Consider the model of how Jesus trained his disciples. What lessons can we learn from the discipleship methods of Jesus?

  4. In 2 Tim. 2:15 Paul says the following to Timothy: ‘Be careful to present yourself to God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’ What skills does a man need in order to be able to ‘rightly handle’ the word of God? What skills do you hope to learn this month as we practice the discipline of Bible study?