The secret of training

What is so special about Wayne Bennett? Wayne Bennett, for the uninitiated, is one of the most successful rugby league coaches of all time. Before Bennett, St George were a talented collection of chronic under-achievers. With Bennett, they became a team, won the minor premiership in the first year, and won everything the year after that.

Wayne Bennett wasn’t a great of the game himself, although he did play to a senior level. He’s not a great innovator or tactical genius. In fact, he tends to favour simple, low-risk game plans that play to his team’s strengths.

He is not an emotional or charismatic man. When his team scores he occasionally raises a half-smile. When the other team scores or things go against him, you might see a flicker of annoyance pass across his face. When he speaks, which in public is not often, it is only to utter the bare minimum of words out of the side of his mouth.

Bennett’s secret is simple. He cares deeply about his players as people, and they know it. He takes an interest in their lives and families. He wants them to succeed not just in rugby league but in life. And as a result his players love him, and want to play for him. They respect him and trust him and want to improve for him. He inspires a personal loyalty that is rare in professional sport. Players swap teams just to follow him.

Wayne Bennett understands something about coaching people to do something well—that it is not just about imparting certain skills or practising certain moves. It also involves personal character and trust and relationship.

As we shall see, so does coaching and training Christians to speak the word of truth to others.

Speaking the word of God

Before we get to that, let’s recap briefly and deal with an unanswered question. In Part 1 of this essay, we re-booted the old argument about whether, how, or to what extent all Christians should be engaged in evangelism.

I suggested that a better way to think about the whole question was to understand that all Christians have been liberated to speak of the word of God, by being filled with the Spirit of God. Our goal with this Spirit-speech is to seek to move those around us towards Christ, and to maturity in him.

Another way of saying this is that the basic Christian response to almost any situation is simply to speak the truth in love, to speak “such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29).

“The basic Christian response to almost any situation is simply to speak the truth in love.”

Now as we do this we are fellow workers with God in his plan to see people from every nation come to Christ and grow to maturity in him. Our involvement in this extraordinary activity is, like every aspect of the Christian life, both God’s work and ours. It can only happen as the Spirit gives us utterance; but it is also something that we should be zealous to pursue and be trained in.

How should that training take place? What does it look like?

Before we look at that, we need to consider a question that we’ve so far left hanging.

Question: What about diversity of gifts?

If every Christian is empowered and enabled and prompted by the Spirit to speak, how does that relate to the diversity of gifts that God gives to his people? Isn’t it obvious that we aren’t all the same, and that God has equipped some of us with better speaking and communication gifts than others?

The biblical go-to place for this question is 1 Corinthians 12-14. In this well-known and (recently) controversial passage, Paul insists that although there is unity (the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God) there is also an undoubted diversity (varieties of gifts, varieties of service, varieties of activities).

In the face of a seeming fascination with speaking in tongues on the part of the Corinthians, Paul wants to emphasize that although we are one body, baptized in one Spirit, we have many body parts of many different kinds. Do all speak in tongues? Are all teachers? Are all prophets? The obvious answer to all these questions is no. And no-one is any less precious or any more important by virtue of having or not having one of these gifts.

In fact, we should utilize all the variety of things we do, in the power of the one Spirit, for the sake of others not ourselves. This leads to the famous exposition of the nature and centrality of love in chapter 13.

However, Paul then starts chapter 14 by saying: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual things,1 especially that you may prophesy”. And as the chapter goes on he builds an argument as to why prophecy is the ideal spiritual activity to practise in church—because it brings intelligible words from God to people for edification.

What’s going on here? If all are not prophets (12:29), why does he urge all to prophesy? And if some of the variety of activities mentioned in chapter 12 are not word-gifts (like faith or administrating), why does he summarize chapters 12-14 by saying this:

“What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (14:26).

This seems to assume that when we come to church, everyone will bring some kind of word to share (whether a hymn, a lesson, or something else).

The picture becomes clearer when we realize that there is a progression of thought from chapter 12 to chapter 14. In chapter 12, the Spirit manifests himself in a whole variety of ways for the benefit of the church—through someone’s faith (expressed perhaps in prayer), through someone’s knowledge and wisdom, and also through someone’s skill in ‘helping’ and ‘administrating’ (12:28). All these different things are for the “common good”, even though not all of them involve speaking.

However, in chapter 14, Paul moves on specifically to that which ‘builds’ (or ‘edifies’) the church. And if it’s edification you want to achieve—and based on the imperative of love in chapter 13 that’s exactly what you want to achieve—then an otherwise good gift like speaking in tongues is not all that much use. If you want to build people into the church and to build Christians to maturity, you need to speak intelligible words. That’s why prophecy is the thing to seek. And that is also why the various things that the congregation brings to the meeting for ‘edification’ in verse 26, are all different varieties of speech.

So the speech of the Corinthians should have a common goal (edification), and a common nature (intelligibility) and a common participation (they all seek to do it)—but it is also varied. There are different forms of speech (hymns and revelations and even tongues-and-interpretation). There are also different responsibilities and levels of speech. While all may seek to prophesy and to contribute a word for the edification of the congregation, some have particular responsibility for leading, protecting and feeding the congregation with God’s word. These are those “elders” that Paul mentions elsewhere who “labour in teaching and preaching” (1 Tim 5:17), who are are responsible to guard and preach and propagate the gospel word.

In Christian history, people have emphasized one or other side of this dynamic. Some (admittedly a minority) have so emphasized the democratization of gospel speech in the Spirit that they have all but eliminated the roles of preacher, teacher and pastor. Others have so exalted the office of preacher and teacher that the role of the whole congregation in speaking words of edification has dwindled away to nothing.

I will leave it with you, dear reader, to judge on which side of this spectrum your own church tends to err.

We could summarize by saying that although in the New Testament there is a vital and necessary role for Teachers (with a capital T), there is also a role for every Christian to do as the Colossians were exhorted to do—to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Col 3:16).

In fact, it’s like a rugby league team. Every team member has a different skill set and a different role to play. But the different skills or roles they play are really variations on the same set of ball skills: the ability to run, pass, tackle and kick. All the players focus on a common goal, and they work together to achieve it.

Christian Spirit-filled speech is like that. We will have different abilities and roles and strengths and opportunities—but we will each in our own way, working as a team, seek to move others towards the goal through the word and prayer.

How do we train Spirit-filled speakers?

As we try to understand whether it is indeed possible to train Christians to speak the word of God to others, we need to define what we mean by ‘training’.

In English, we use the word in a variety of ways. Sometimes we use it to refer to the (usually repetitive) process of being instructed and drilled in a particular competency—such as going to football ‘training’, and doing the physical training in endurance, teamwork and skills necessary to play the game well.

We often think of Christian ministry training like this—as purely a matter of instructing and training someone in a particular skill or competency, such as how to share the gospel with someone, how to follow-up a new Christian, how to read the Bible one-to-one with someone, and so on.

And certainly, this aspect of ‘training’ is valid and important. Sometimes all a Christian needs to gain confidence and get started in engaging in a word ministry to others is some simple tips, frameworks and tools to practise and then to use.

However, not all ‘training’ is purely a matter of competency or skill. Medical ‘training’ is a long and comprehensive process, taking years. At the end of it, the student has not simply gained medical skills, but has ‘become a doctor’. They have mastered a massive array of knowledge, and a set of mental models and frameworks to apply that knowledge to whatever diagnostic situation presents itself. They have imbibed the culture of what it means to ‘be a doctor’; a set of values and practices and traditions that is more than textbook knowledge, and also more than a set of practical skills.

Christian growth and ‘training’ is more like this. It involves not only the gaining of competencies or the ability to do certain things, but the convictions that drive those practices, and the character that infuses and shapes them. Training for Christian living and ministry is about gaining knowledge, being convicted of that knowledge in our hearts, seeing the character form that springs from that conviction, and then putting into practice the daily actions and behaviour that result.

It’s like the older woman in Titus 2 who is to train the younger women in godly living. Paul is insistent that this ‘training’ is a direct consequence and outflow of the teaching of “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). A certain gospel or doctrine will lead to a certain way of life; the two are inseparable. And so the older women are to “teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3b-5). It’s one complete package: true doctrine, resulting in a godly character, along with practical outworkings in daily life.

“Training is the practical imparting of doctrine and character, in the context of personal relationship.”

Training in the New Testament is the thoroughly practical imparting of doctrine and character, in the context of personal relationship. It is the kind of spiritual parenting that Paul showed to the Thessalonians, as he prayerfully taught and modelled the gospel in their midst, like a gentle nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7) and an encouraging, exhorting father (1 Thess 2:11-12).

Now if speaking the word of God to others is the privilege and role of every Christian—if it is, in other words, a facet of Christian growth and godliness under the power of the Spirit—then training someone in an aspect of word ministry will be part of an ongoing training of them simply to be Christian. It will encompass Bible teaching or study, personal example, character formation, along with practical help with the how-to details of putting it into practice.

As with all aspects of Christian growth and discipleship, resources, tools and programs can make it easier for us to do this. Training resources or courses (like Two Ways to Live or Six Steps to Encouragement) are incredibly useful, and we are crazy if we don’t take advantage of what they help us do.

But these frameworks don’t replace what ‘training’ really is, which is to work with God through his word and Spirit to see his people transformed into loving, outward-looking, disciples, who speak the truth in love to one another and to the world.

  1. NB – not ‘spiritual gifts’.

6 thoughts on “The secret of training

  1. Many thanks Tony. This was a helpful and encouraging piece, and I found it persuasive.

    I thought you may have been headed in a slightly different direction from your OP. I was struck by what you said about Wayne Bennett caring so much about his players, and this being the key ingredient to his coaching.

    There is a lesson here for Christian ministry. Sometimes we can treat people like pegs to plug holes we have in our particular program. Perhaps you are running a small group and you want everyone to turn up, not because you particularly care about any individual, but because it makes you feel good to have a full living room (guilty, your honour).

    The irony is that putting the person before the program will get better results than just trying to fill the program right away. This is true in many aspects of life, as the Bennett example shows. Anyway, I’m preaching to the converted as Tony wrote a book about that very subject!

  2. “We will have different abilities and roles and strengths and opportunities—but we will each in our own way, working as a team, seek to move others towards the goal through the word and prayer.”

    I really like that.

    While we are all “liberated to speak of the word of God, by being filled with the Spirit of God”, I think it relieves the pressure on those who might think we all need to specialise in the same role to achieve our common goal.

    And while we can (and should) all be trained in ‘a common set of ball skills’ so as to be ready for opportunities, working as a team might also allow people to be freed up to concentrate more on their strengths and abilities, whatever they may be.

    Tony, any further thoughts on what working as a team might look like in practise?

    It can be easy to get the impression that we work together when we meet, but then we think and act like individuals on our own for most of the week. We might be individuals on our own for most of the week, but any further thoughts on how a group of Christians might actively seek to reach the lost as a team? Or what that might look like, besides the typical invite to a guest service? (not that’s there’s anything wrong with that)

    Thanks Tony.

  3. I very much appreciated these two articles. They come at a time when our church is addressing these very issues and I have passed them on. One question does come up however. I take the point about “spiritual things” at the beginning of 1Corinthians 14 but is that a personal translation/interpretation because my ESV says “gifts,” and I can’t find a version that says “things.” A good point well made but it leaves pedants like me wondering.

    • miketea, in 1 Corinthians 14:1, it literally says in the Greek, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spirituals, especially that you may prophesy.”

      That is, there is the article ‘the’ (in neuter plural), plus an adjective, ‘spiritual’ (in neuter plural), but no noun. So the noun must be inferred. Most translations go for ‘gifts’. But Tony’s ‘things’ is a more general, less specific option.

      It’s the same thing that happens in 1 Corinthians 12:1. No noun is supplied, and this time the ESV footnote remarks that it could be ‘persons’ instead of ‘gifts’.

      But there is a separate word for ‘gift’, namely ‘charisma’, which is used elsewhere in this epistle, e.g. 1 Cor 12:4 and 9.

      Notably ‘gifts/charismta’ is used in 1 Cor 12:31, the ideas on which 1 Cor 14:1 may be resuming (after the crucial interlude of the chapter on love as the great ‘way’). So perhaps you can argue ‘gifts’ in 1 Cor 14:1 from context, but it is inferred. Tony is right that it is not in the text!

  4. Thank you Sandy, that is really helpful. We have been looking at this text in our house group and I will take this back to them. It underlines the point being made in the group from the text even though we didn’t have this understanding at the time. Duly noted and very much appreciated.

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