Discipling by Design
Ever tried to disciple someone who just didn’t get it? Try speaking their language as you help them grow.
“Lord, what am I supposed to do with Josephine?” I prayed. “She’s so sweet and so eager to please. But I don’t know how to teach her to apply principles from Your Word.”
I had tutored Josephine in algebra, and I knew it wasn’t easy for her to apply concepts to practical situations. She needed to see things more concretely. Now she had asked me to help her study the Bible.
Struggling with how to teach Josephine reminded me of others I had tried to help in the past. I love word studies using Greek words, but a student I discipled was not impressed; she wanted an example of how the concept would work in her life. Another student wanted to skip the illustrations; just give her the concept. And now I was faced with Josephine, who survived algebra only by memorization.
Suddenly I was reminded of the Learning Style Inventory1 I had taken years before. This inventory revealed the different ways people approach learning. For example, some learn best by listening to a lecture, while others learn through hands-on situations. The Lord seemed to be saying to me that I should communicate spiritual truth to Josephine with her particular learning style in mind.
The Learning Style Inventory I was familiar with defined four basic styles. Actually, there aren’t just four (or even four hundred) learning styles. God has created each of us with unique gifts and abilities. Some of us have a blend of several learning styles. Yet, keeping individuality in mind, we can gain insight into the best ways to disciple others by meeting four classic personalities.
Part of our investigation will include examples of how Jesus taught different kinds of learners as well as ideas of how to communicate spiritual truth to a particular learning style. Let’s start with “Carol,” the Concrete Experience learner.
The “Carols” I’ve known are delightful. They love people. They use their feelings and the opinions of others to make decisions. Grasping theoretical principles behind a concept is usually difficult. They learn best from being involved in specific examples, and they learn from each other better than from an authority.
When Josephine, a “Carol,” asked me to study the Bible with her, I knew that giving her the task of identifying basic scriptural principles in a passage would be outside her best method of learning. So when I tried to teach her what Scripture says about gossip, I used a “finish the story” approach. Her assignment was to read this story:
Once upon a time there were two friends. George was always quiet and contemplative, while Fred was usually bouncy and bubbly. Fred could never understand George’s silence and assumed George had something to hide. One day Fred shared with Peter the assumption that George (the quiet one) had a secret sin. Peter was shocked to hear about George, and he told Mary, George’s boss’s wife, that George was a pyromaniac…
After writing her end to the story, I asked her to check it against Prov. 16:28 (“gossip separates close friends”), and Prov. 17:9 (“whoever repeats [a] matter separates close friends”). The method worked. After finishing the assignment she related a situation at work where she had misinterpreted someone’s comment and passed it on as truth.
Concrete Experience learners need real examples to understand scriptural principles, and studying the lives of biblical characters provides excellent examples for them. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37) is an example of how Jesus communicated spiritual truth to empathetic, people-oriented learners.
Another learner with slightly less people orientation is “Alex,” the Active Experimenter. Typically, Alexes learn by doing.
An Alex also seems to learn well if he can verbalize his thoughts in a small-group discussion or if he is allowed the freedom to work on a project. Basically, he will learn best in an active, “hands-on” situation. Being part “Alex” myself, I know what it’s like to listen intently to lectures but not clearly understand the concepts until I’ve done the homework. In fact, I have a hard time gaining much spiritual input from listening to sermons. But when I explain the content to someone else, it becomes clear to me.
Alex would have relished the opportunity Jesus gave the seventy-two evangelists in Lk. 10:1-17. Jesus sent them out two by two to announce that He was coming. They were given authority to heal, and they came back rejoicing that even the demons were subject to them in His name.
How would an Active Experimenter learn scriptural principles about gossip? Preparing to lead a Bible study on gossip would probably help him most, as he would discover the principles himself during this hands-on activity.
One Alex I know was effectively discipled by a very wise Christian worker. She was willing to risk letting me lead a Bible study and be a leader in student ministry after I had been a Christian for only three months. Because I learn by doing, preparing to lead a Bible study forced me to gain much more Bible content than I would have as only a participant in the study.
“Andrea,” the Abstract Conceptualizer, learns well when someone in authority has directed the learning. If there is something to analyze or a theory to comprehend, she’s eager to learn it.
I knew a high-school-aged “Andrea” who had to know the why behind everything. When I discussed the Bible with her she would develop her own theories and even draw diagrams to explain her point of view. On one occasion, another student told Andrea she was wrong about a biblical interpretation, even though the other student couldn’t explain why to Andrea’s satisfaction. I sent them both home with an assignment to read several chapters in Romans. After Andrea systematically analyzed God’s authoritative Word, she commented, “That wasn’t fair; you picked the passages to support Carol’s view.” Even though she didn’t want to admit her theories didn’t line up with Scripture, she did face the truth after careful, analytical, systematic investigation.
An Andrea usually forms firm opinions, with or without expressing them. To gain God’s perspective on the topic of gossip, she could do a verse-by-verse study that would reveal God’s view on the subject. However, the instruction to do the study should leave room for Andrea to develop her own creative approach to the topic.
The Pharisees in Matthew 19 may have been learners like Andrea. They wanted to learn in authority-directed, systematic packages. Since their opinions were well established, Jesus knew that He would have to quote their authority, Moses, in order to be heard.
Not all learners are motivated by the why of things. Reflective “Ralph” prefers a lecture so that he can take the role of impartial, objective observer. Reflective Observers are usually introverts. Since they rely heavily on careful observations to make judgments, we shouldn’t expect them to be quick thinkers.
I asked one “Ralph” why she didn’t seem to be growing spiritually.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“So, does that mean you don’t care?” I countered.
“I don’t know,” she said again.
I was an Active Experimenter trying to disciple a Reflective Observer. I was asking for an immediate, spontaneous response from someone who needed time to think before she could adequately respond. If I had asked the question and given her some time and further input, we probably would have had a good discussion about her spiritual growth.
In this particular situation, time proved extremely important. When she was ready to let God begin working in her life, she asked me for tapes of a speaker we had heard at a conference two-and-a-half years before.
Reflective Observers benefit from small-group Bible study when homework is required. Doing the Bible study before they come to the meeting gives them time to think. At the meeting it’s important to let them sit quietly. They learn as they listen and will probably make significant contributions if not pushed.
Probably the best way for “Ralph” to gain God’s perspective on gossip would be to assign him to take notes on a lecture about gossip. The more respected the speaker, the greater the impact.
Jesus used the lecture method frequently, most notably in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
A Combination of Styles
Perhaps thorough learning requires equal amounts of all four styles, but each of us tends to learn best in a unique blend of one or more of these styles. Whether or not we minister in a church setting, God will place people in our paths who want to learn. We need to know them well enough to provide a learning environment best suited to each one.
Carol, the concrete experience learner, needs to be involved with people in real situations. Andrea, the abstract conceptualizer, wants analytical explanations of concepts. Alex, the active experimenter, learns best as he does something. And Ralph, the reflective observer, needs to read and think over a period of time.
Remember Josephine, the “Carol” we met at the beginning of this article? Over a period of many months she eagerly did the Bible study homework I had designed specifically for her and became active in many church activities, including, of course, the social committee.
One Mother’s Day during a sharing time in the worship service, she expressed her appreciation to women in the church who had been “mothers” to her. I was encouraged to hear my name mentioned. I’m convinced my relationship with her would have been entirely different had I not discipled her according to her unique learning style.
1. David Kolb, Learning Style Inventory (Boston: McBer & Co., 1976, rev. 1985), 137 Newbury St., Boston, MA 02116.
The above article, “Discipling by Design,” is written by Kathy Holkeboer and was published in the Discipleship Journal in the March/April 1993 Issue.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study and research purposes.