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  • Writer's pictureKirk Bagby

How to Disciple Bible College Students

A few years ago, Kentucky Mountain Bible College (KMBC) saw the need to disciple its students. Thus, KMBC started a discipleship program with two facets: group discipleship and individual mentoring. This paper primarily provides instructions to aid those who lead discipleship groups at a Bible college; however, much information in this paper may be beneficial for those who facilitate individual mentoring. First, I will explain my rationale behind discipleship at a Bible college. Then, I will mention numerous suggestions on how to disciple Bible college students, explaining what not to do and what to do. Lastly, I will conclude with some cautionary advice regarding the discipleship of Bible college students.


Why Disciple Bible College Students?

First, why should Bible colleges have discipleship programs? Why do Bible college students need to participate in Christian discipleship? Students are coming to Bible colleges more frequently with less knowledge about the Bible and Christian theology as well as less and less spiritual maturity. Biblical illiteracy seems to be rising along with a lack of a Christian worldview. Barna research indicates that many professing Christians lack a biblical worldview.[1] Books such as James Smith’s, You Are What You Love,[2] John Westerhoff and William Willimon’s, Liturgy and Learning through the Life Cycle,[3] and J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett’s, Grounded in the Gospel[4] indicate that the modern church is performing poorly in discipleship (a.k.a., “catechesis”). Thus, we should not be surprised that Christians, including those who were raised in the church, are spiritually immature and biblically illiterate when they begin Bible college.


The purpose of this paper is not to explain why the church is performing poorly in discipleship or how the church can improve discipleship. Rather, I propose that Bible colleges must pick up the slack that the church has created. Because the church has slackened its responsibility of discipleship, Bible colleges must rise to the task of discipling their students for the sake of the future church. Bible colleges like KMBC specialize in training future church leaders. If Bible college students are not spiritually disciplined when they graduate and enter Christian ministry, then the future church will continue to decline in biblical literacy and godly character.[5] Furthermore, Bible colleges can use discipleship programs to teach their students by example and experience how to disciple those whom they will minister to in the future. Consequently, the future church may be strengthened in its ability to disciple its current members and future converts. This paper seeks to provide guidelines and suggestions on how Bible colleges can disciple their students. What should Bible colleges do or not do in their discipleship programs?


What Not To Do

I will first explain what Bible colleges should not do in their discipleship programs. First, Bible colleges should not allow students to lead discipleship groups. While student-led groups may work for seminaries (e.g., Asbury Theological Seminary), I do not believe that college students are mature enough to lead themselves in discipleship. Students must be led by faculty and/or staff of the college (or, perhaps, local church leaders) who have impeccable character and a sincere interest in leading discipleship groups. Second, while churches may have some discipleship or catechetical programs which include mixed groups, I believe that Bible colleges should not disciple mixed groups. Bible college discipleship groups should delve deep into personal issues that are not appropriate to discuss in mixed groups. Third, Bible colleges should not allow students to come and go in a discipleship group(s) as they please. Rather, students should be required to commit to attending one group for a whole semester. Fourth, groups should not be any larger than about five to seven students. Larger groups may stifle interpersonal interactions and group discussions. Lastly, group leaders do not need to spend much time teaching students information about the Bible and theology. The purpose of Bible colleges is to train students in biblical and theological studies. For example, all students at KMBC are required to take the whole-Bible survey class BI 111: English Bible Survey, along with multiple other Bible classes, and the basic theology class TH 111: Foundations of Faith. I do believe that biblical and theological studies are paramount for Christian discipleship.[6] However, students may know the Bible and systematic theology very well without applying such truths to their lives. Students may graduate with straight “A’s” and still live spiritually anemic. While new converts in churches must be taught biblical and theological truths, Bible college students need more training in forming spiritual habits and desires.


What To Do

Therefore, what should Bible colleges do? Smith says that “discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.”[7] Jesus is more concerned about what we want than what we know (cf. John 1:38; 21:16).[8] Thus, discipleship at Bible colleges should focus on forming spiritual disciplines in their students: habits and desires which shape one’s lifestyle. Smith says that the question, “What do you want?” is “the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship.”[9] The following are suggestions regarding how to guide Bible college students into forming spiritual habits and desires. In general, a discipleship leader should teach his/her students how to identify and diminish, or possibly eliminate, habits and desires that can hurt spiritual formation. Also, discipleship leaders should teach his/her students how to foster habits and desires which benefit spiritual formation.


Diminish Bad Habits

Before one can develop good spiritual habits and desires, one must identify and diminish or eliminate habits which may negatively affect one’s spiritual formation. These habits may be subtle and seemingly harmless. However, seemingly small issues can dampen one’s spirituality. Discipleship leaders should teach their students to look for “secular liturgies.”[10] Christians usually think about liturgies as being sacred; however, liturgies can also be secular. Smith defines liturgies as “those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”[11] Secular liturgies are practices or behaviors which can subtly draw Christians away from a Christian worldview and spiritual growth. Secular liturgies are not necessarily sinful practices. They are not always overtly wrong, but they can draw one’s desires away from spiritual matters.


To give an example of a secular liturgy, Smith describes shopping malls as being “temples” of consumerism.[12] Although shopping malls do not have a well-defined belief system, they do have a liturgical agenda. They do not appeal to one’s intellect, but they do appeal to one’s wants or desires.[13] Smith writes, “The mall is a religious site, not because it is theological but because it is liturgical. Its spiritual significance (and threat) isn’t found in its ‘ideas’ or its ‘messages’ but in its rituals. The mall doesn’t care what you think, but it is very much interested in what you love.”[14] While shopping malls are not inherently sinful, malls can influence their shoppers to covet and to lust. The stores at shopping malls want customers to be discontent with their current possessions and to desire more material possessions, which leads to greed and consumerism. Furthermore, some stores in shopping malls tempt shoppers to sexual lust. In the words of Smith, “Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.”[15]

Similarly, Scot McKnight teaches his readers to identify hidden stories or “hidden worldviews” that our culture subtly teaches such as “Individualism – the story that ‘I’ am the center of the universe,” “Consumerism – the story that I am what I own,” “Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation,” “Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good,” “Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter,” “New Age – the story that we are god,” “Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks,” and “Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration.”[16] Also, I believe that hedonism, the story that what feels good is right or the story that life is all about gaining pleasure, is another hidden worldview that college students must identify and avoid.


Smith says that no one becomes a consumerist through formal education. No one thinks his/her way into consumerism.[17] Instead, one’s desires are formed by secular liturgies. Discipleship leaders should teach their students to look for secular influences in seemingly harmless places and activities. Besides shopping malls, other examples include online shopping platforms (e.g., Amazon and eBay), computer games, sports, recreation, entertainment, TV and/or streaming services (e.g., YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+), social media, electronic devices in general, hobbies, and more. Again, none of these activities or practices are inherently immoral. Indeed, some of them can be used for ministry purposes. However, they can also subtly dampen or hinder one’s spiritual formation, and they can tempt one towards sin.


How can discipleship leaders teach their students to identify and avoid the influences of secular liturgies? First, teach your students what a “secular liturgy” or a “hidden story” is and give them an example or two, such as the shopping mall being a temple for consumerism or entertainment services as promoting hedonism. In general, help your students to identify practices which may hinder their spiritual growth, and have your students discuss examples of habits which they may need to address themselves. Remind your students that it is easy to identify bad habits and behaviors in one’s peers (e.g., “That student spends way too much time playing computer games or watching TV! I’m glad I’m not like them!”), but it can be difficult to identify bad habits in oneself (cf. Matt 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42).


Second, teach your students the following three responses to these habits or practices: diminishing, fasting, and abstaining. One may choose to permanently diminish or reduce his/her involvement in a certain practice. One may choose to temporarily reduce or abstain from a practice for a given period of time (i.e., fasting). Or one may choose to permanently abstain from a habit or practice. While Christians should always abstain from known sins, discipleship teaches Christians the benefits of diminishing, fasting, and abstaining from activities which may not be overtly sinful. An excellent resource on this subject is G. D. Watson’s short tract Others May, You Cannot.[18] Teach your students that God may want them to give up practices that other Christians are doing so that their relationship with Him may be strengthened. One should never assume, “Because other Christians are doing ‘this’ or ‘that,’ then it is OK for me to do those same things, too.” Rather than focusing on what others are doing (or are not doing), we should always focus on what Jesus wants us to do (cf. John 21:15-22).


Lastly, have your students write in a document one example of a habit, practice, or “secular liturgy” that they plan to diminish, fast from, or possibly eliminate this semester. This could include spending less time on or completely fasting from certain hobbies or recreations (e.g., TV, computer games, etc.) for the semester. Have your students write some significant details regarding what this habit or practice is and how they intend to respond to it. Have them write a tangible way of measuring success for their goal. During each discipleship meeting, ask your students how well they are keeping their commitments. Without accountability, people are prone to fail to keep their commitments. Stress the importance of learning to be held accountable while participating in this discipleship group. If one cannot be held accountable in a discipleship group, he/she will undoubtedly fail to hold himself/herself accountable after graduating from college.


Enhance Good Habits

After helping your students identify and diminish, fast, and/or abstain from habits or practices which may be hindering their spiritual growth, identify and cultivate practices which can help revitalize one’s desire for righteous living. Identifying such practices is quite easy. Some common examples include prayer (both private and corporate), reading the Bible, attending church services, and participating in Communion (a.k.a., the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist). Other practices that can cultivate spiritual formation include reading Christian literature (e.g., theology books, Bible studies, devotionals, biographies/autobiographies, etc.), listening to Christian music, playing/singing Christian music, watching Christian movies (especially in place of secular movies), and participating in acts of service.


Bible college students will not struggle to identify habits and behaviors that cultivate spiritual formation; however, students may suffer from a serious disconnect between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Ask your students to identify one specific area that they wish to cultivate this semester. This could include reading “X” chapter(s) from the Bible every day or spending “X” minutes praying every day. Have your students write their commitment in a document. Again, your students should write specific details, including how to measure success for their goal. Throughout the semester you and your students will help keep each other accountable for their commitments. These commitments may be small, but it is far better to make a small commitment and keep it than to make a big commitment and fail to keep it.


A second method that can help your students develop spiritual habits is identifying exemplary role models whom they can emulate. Students can relate to people better than they can relate to information. Students can remember people better than they can remember ideas. Students can imitate people better than they can imitate knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 11:1). Offer some examples yourself and/or assign your students the task of finding Christian role-models, either historic or contemporary, whom they wish to imitate. Examples include a pastor, teacher, missionary, martyr, or author. Have your students write something specific about this person which makes that person exemplary. Invite your students to find and display a picture of this person in their dorm room where they will see it often and be reminded of that person and his/her exemplary qualities.


A third method that can help your students develop spiritual habits and personal discipline is to study a Christian book. Examples include Life in the Spirit and The Disciplined Life by Richard S. Taylor, The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer, Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald, Follow Me by David Platt, and How to Ruin Your Life By 30 by Steve Farrar. You should always read a book before deciding to use it. Every leader is unique and will form his or her own style of leading discipleship groups. Not every book will suit your own style or preferences. Book studies offer the advantage of providing you with a “curriculum” for your semester-long discipleship group. A book will offer much content for you and your students to discuss. Also, books can have a profound and long-lasting spiritual impact. For example, in high school, I read and studied Richard S. Taylor’s books Life in the Spirit and The Disciplined Life, and these two books have shaped my spiritual formation more than any other book(s) besides the Bible. Book studies can come with disadvantages. Some of your students may struggle to complete their required reading before the next group meeting which could hinder their learning in the next group discussion. Also, a book may restrict you in what you wish to share. You may prefer not to use a book so that you can have more freedom and flexibility in leading your group.


Lastly, give your students opportunities to confess problems, issues, and questions that they may be facing. At the beginning of the semester, you should clearly communicate to your discipleship group that any confession made within the group must be kept confidential by all members for the sake of mutual trust.[19] Although you may not have sufficient responses to your students’ issues, questions, and/or confessions, the act of making a confession can benefit your students in several ways. Confession can be cathartic, but more importantly, confession allows you and your students to know how to pray for each other better. Challenge your students to pray for each other and their specific prayer requests every day until the end of the semester.


Cautions for Discipleship

In this final section, I wish to offer a few cautions regarding the discipleship of Bible college students. First, human effort alone is not sufficient to reform one’s habits and desires. God’s grace is primary. Our works are secondary. We cannot work our way into spiritual maturity by our strength alone. We must seek God for His assistance. Salvation and sanctification are not achieved by our efforts alone and neither is spiritual growth. God has provided His people with His Holy Spirit to dwell within them and enable them to grow in grace.[20] Teach your students that they must always seek God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s aid throughout discipleship.


Second, do not place unrealistically high expectations on your students. Do not expect your students to reach your perceived goal(s) for them in one semester. Do not be discouraged if a student is still struggling with an issue by the end of the semester. Progress can take more time than you desire. In the early church, the catechetical process took months, sometimes years.[21] While justification and sanctification are instantaneous works of God’s grace, spiritual growth (i.e., progressive sanctification) is a lifelong process. Be patient with your students.


Third, do not feel as though you can fix all your students’ problems. Some students may confess issues which you are not qualified to counsel. Understand your limits, and do not be afraid to refer a student to a Christian counselor. You may need to admit, “I don’t know how to help you with this struggle/issue except to pray for you.” Do not feel like this is a copout.


Fourth, emphasize to your students that God is sufficient to meet all their needs. No struggle or temptation is too great for God’s grace to overcome. While Christian counselors or mentors can accomplish much to help one overcome various mental, emotional, social, and spiritual issues, no human being can do or say anything that can truly “fix” all issues apart from the grace of God.


Lastly, teach your students that Christians will struggle with infirmities that God may never fully eliminate in this life. For example, Paul suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” which he beseeched God to eliminate (2 Cor 12:7-10). Undoubtedly, Paul believed that God had the ability to remove this “thorn,” but God chose not to. In this life, we may never fully understand why God may choose to refrain from eliminating a certain “thorn in our flesh.” Nevertheless, we can learn to trust God and to acknowledge with Paul that God’s grace is sufficient and that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Be aware that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was not a sin but an infirmity. God always desires to cleanse us from the penalty, the power, and the pollution of sin; however, human infirmities are unavoidable consequences of the Fall.[22]


Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe that discipleship programs at Bible colleges are vital for the sake of God’s kingdom work. If future church leaders graduate from college without spiritual discipline, the church will suffer. First, discipleship programs should teach students to identify habits and desires which they may need to diminish, fast from, or eliminate. Second, discipleship programs should teach students how to cultivate godly habits and desires. Lastly, discipleship programs should hold students accountable for their decisions and practices, teaching them to aim for more self-discipline and self-control. In this manner Bible college students will not only “talk-the-talk” but also “walk-the-walk.” Bible college students will not only know the Bible but also live the Bible.[23]


Footnotes

[1] Michael Gryboski, “Only 6% of Americans Have a ‘Biblical Worldview,’ Research from George Barna Finds,” The Christian Post, 26 May 2021, https://www.christianpost.com/news/only-6-of-americans-have-a-biblical-worldview-survey.html. [2] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016). [3] John H. Westerhoff and William H. Willimon, Liturgy and Learning through the Life Cycle (New York, NY: The Seabury Press, 1980). [4] J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010). [5] Perhaps the decline in ecclesiastical catechesis is due in part to a lack of catechetical training in Bible colleges? [6] I would not be earning an MA and a ThM in Theological Studies at Asbury Seminary with the goal of teaching theology someday if I did not strongly believe in the immense importance of theology for Christian discipleship. [7] Smith, You Are What You Love, 2. [8] Smith, You Are What You Love, 1–2. [9] Smith, You Are What You Love, 1. [10] Cf. Smith, You Are What You Love, 27-55. [11] Smith, You Are What You Love, 46. [12] Smith, You Are What You Love, 40–45. [13] Smith, You Are What You Love, 40–41. [14] Smith, You Are What You Love, 41. [15] Smith, You Are What You Love, 41. [16] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 173. [17] Smith, You Are What You Love, 45. [18] This tract can be found in many places online such as https://bible.org/illustration/others-may-you-cannot and https://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/tracts/others-may-you-cannot.php#.YmmBi9rMLtU. [19] NOTE: Be aware that confessions regarding Title IX issues cannot remain confidential. You may want to inform your students that they are welcome to confess a Title IX issue to you, but they should do so in private and not within the group meetings, knowing that Title IX issues must be reported to the college’s Title IX coordinator(s). For more information on Title IX, see your school’s Title IX coordinator. See also, https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/sex-discrimination/title-ix-education-amendments/index.html#:~:text=Title%20IX%20of%20the%20Education%20Amendments%20of%201972%20(Title%20IX,activity%20receiving%20federal%20financial%20assistance. [20] Cf. Ezek 36:27; Ps 143:10; Luke 11:13; John 14:16, 26; 15:26; Acts 1:8; 2:38; 5:32; Rom 5:5; 15:13. [21] Packer and Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel, 171. Also, according to Dr. Chris Kiesling’s notes, “Early catechumenate could last up to 3 years...” [22] For more information, see Richard S. Taylor, Life in the Spirit: Christian Holiness in Doctrine, Experience, and Life (Salem, OH: Schmul Publishing Co., 1993), particularly pages 112–126. See also Richard S. Taylor, The Disciplined Life (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1962).

[23] This paper was written as the final project for the class CD-605 Gospel Catechesis which I took at Asbury Theological Seminary in the spring of 2022.

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