“The church is always more than a school…
but the church cannot be less than a school.”
Historian Jaroslav Pelikan included these critical words on the first page of his five-volume history of Christian doctrine. Around VantagePoint3 circles, we would tweak Pelikan’s language a little bit by saying—the church is always more than a learning community, but the church must never be less than a learning community. We are formed to worship, to fellowship, to be sent out into the world in Jesus’ name—all essential tasks of the church. But we must recognize that the church is also essentially a place of ongoing education. From the crib to the grave, a church community must be a place where we learn to make sense of our lives and of the world, where we explore with a fresh imagination what our lives could really become, where we learn together to follow Jesus and his way of life in the world. The church is always more than a learning community, but never less.
Sadly it seems that many adults are simply surviving, hoping to get by with what they already know; learning is for children and teenagers, or so they think. There is often very little expectation of further movement and development in their adult lives. We desperately need communities whose life together challenges such notions; we need churches where the cultivation of a lifelong learning posture is Discipleship 101.
A learning posture of the heart and the mind does not discriminate between Sunday morning sermons and Tuesday night dishwashing, between classroom lectures and dinner table conversation, between sunsets and supermarkets. It is a cultivated paying attention, which operates within the everydayness and everywhereness of life. And when practiced over the long haul it is what the ancients called the way of wisdom. Or as Christian educator Steve Garber states, “we understand that the deepest lessons are not learned in text books, but instead are discovered as learning meets life.”
When Jesus calls men and women to follow, he calls them to be his students. The subject matter involves our whole person and all of reality. Discipleship is where learning meets life. Robert Hoeber points out that the word disciple in Greek, mathetes, involves “a process of learning—not merely the acquisition of knowledge, but the surrender of one’s person to Christ in faith and service.” If our local church is to be a place where we are becoming men and women who love God, love one another, and love the world, it will be because the church has embraced its responsibility to cultivate a vibrant learning environment.
Discipleship, in its most comprehensive sense, encompasses the many teaching/learning dimensions of a local church that seeks to form its congregation into a people of worship, community, and mission. From sermons to home groups to spiritual mentors to counseling sessions to mission trips, and the list could go on. As J. I. Packer puts it, the church is in need of “constant teaching and learning.” He writes,
The Christian church is presented in the New Testament as a multi-congregational community that is called to a life of worship, work, and witness according to God’s will, and of constant teaching and learning as a means to these ends. As trainers impress upon athletes that they must never stop training, so Jesus and his apostles make it clear that the church must never stop learning, for only so will it move generation by generation into true maturity in Christ.
This is the work of making disciples, the means by which we grow up into Christ as persons and as congregations. Over the years of coming alongside churches we have learned a few things at VantagePoint3. One of things that has become very clear to us is that we are helping churches cultivate over time a more vital discipleship culture. Some churches refer to this as a spiritual formation culture or a mentoring environment or a leadership learning community, but whatever it is coined it falls under the church’s essential task of making disciples. It is about helping churches cultivate a community where people are consistently mentored into a life of apprenticeship with Jesus.
May we continue to work toward and pray with Moses’ simple and great prayer:
Oh! Teach us to live well!
Teach us to live wisely and well!
Psalm 90:12 (The Message)
(This blog is an adapted excerpt from VP3’s newly reworked process Walking with Others.)
 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 1.
 Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior During the University Years (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 102.
 Quoted by Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang, Teaching The Faith, Forming The Faithful: A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 259.
 “Foreword” in Garry A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang, Teaching the Faithful, Forming the Faithful: A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 7.