The Other Half of Discipleship: Why We Learn Life-on-Life
The people we spend time with profoundly shape us. I was reminded of this truth recently at a small gathering of seasoned Christian leaders, focused on forming flourishing pastoral leadership.
Seated next to me was a surgeon who had spent many years training physicians in a prominent teaching hospital. We all listened with rapt attention as he made the compelling case that while the classroom of medical school was vitally important, it was inadequate to give the wisdom, skill, and competency needed for surgery. What was absolutely essential was lots of time at the scrub sink.
He went on to describe the process of scrubbing up for a surgery alongside more inexperienced surgeons. At the scrub sink, they talked through what the surgery would involve and what they might anticipate. Leaving the scrub sink, they rolled up their sleeves and did the surgery together. Afterward, as the team cleaned up back at the scrub sink, the lead surgeon would debrief with the rest what had taken place and what they learned during that particular surgery. Then they would go to the break room for some refreshments and more conversation.
The surgeon went on to say that in preparing a new generation of surgeons, extended times at the scrub sink were not optional. They were essential. In a similar way, he advocated for more intentional scrub-sink discipleship in the church at all levels, including in the preparation and formation of pastoral leadership.
The scrub sink is a helpful metaphor for more intentional and transformative discipleship and church-leadership preparation. For it is in a hands-on, life-on-life scrub-sink experience where needed tacit knowledge is transferred and obtained.
What is tacit knowledge? It can be defined many ways, but the basic idea is that tacit knowledge is the kind of learning gained through personal experience and relational connection. Tacit knowledge is implicit knowledge. It is a kind of knowing that goes beyond mere words. Learning to ride a bike, for example, requires a good deal of tacit knowledge. To gain the knowledge and skill necessary to ride a bike, a bike-riding manual may be helpful, but it is far from sufficient. We need to actually get on the bike, and in most cases, we need someone else there who knows how to ride a bike to guide us and cheer us on as we learn.
The twentieth-century philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) thought deeply about the important dimension of tacit knowledge. In his masterpiece work, Personal Knowledge, he writes, “By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself” (53).
“Shared experience is the heartbeat of the tacit dimension.”
Polanyi realized that while the classroom and curricula are effective conduits of propositional knowledge, they are limited when it comes to gaining tacit knowledge. The tacit dimension of knowing transcends words and flows from personal relationships in the context of real-life togetherness and experience. Shared experience is the heartbeat of the tacit dimension.
Jesus and the Tacit Dimension
When we reflect on Jesus and his discipleship methods, we observe a strong tacit dimension. Jesus invited his inner circle of disciples to what could be described as a three-year scrub-sink experience. Yes, they heard him preach and teach great propositional truths, but they also lived daily life with him, observing his sinless life, his miracles, his skills, his wisdom, and his spiritual practices.
Following the resurrection, Jerusalem’s religious aristocracy were in awe of Jesus’s disciples’ brilliance and boldness. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). How do we account for the astonishing transformation of Peter and John? Clearly, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost emboldened them, but I also believe the disciples’ three-year life-on-life experience with Jesus, where a much more tacit knowledge was transferred and obtained, is a large contributing factor. Don’t minimize the profound transformation that occurred in the life of Jesus’s closest disciples as a result of their personal experience with him.
Through the words of the religious aristocracy, Luke includes the pregnant sentence “and they recognized they had been with Jesus.” Is this mere historical observation to further the Acts narrative, or does it also give us something of pedagogical importance as we reflect on discipleship?
Taking Jesus’s Yoke
In our discipleship and church-leadership development, we would be wise to emulate Jesus’s life-on-life apprenticeship model, so rich in tacit knowledge. Jesus invites all who would follow him into his highly relational, highly transformative yoke of apprenticeship: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you, and learn from me, for I am gently and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29). In this great invitation from Jesus, he calls all who would follow him to take his yoke of apprenticeship. Entering his yoke in obedience and submission, we encounter a highly relational apprenticeship where we learn how to live as Jesus might if he were in our place.
“The tacit dimension of discipleship embraces both the precepts and the practices of Jesus.”
The tacit dimension of discipleship embraces both the precepts and the practices of Jesus. In grace, over time, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, apprentices of Jesus increasingly are formed into greater Christlikeness. Jesus put it this way: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
Emulating Jesus, the early church adopted an apprenticeship model of discipleship that was highly relational, rich in tacit-knowledge transfer, and embedded in the local-church community. Writing to his protégé Timothy, who was serving in a pastoral role in Ephesus, Paul gives this grace-filled instruction: “My child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1–2). While entrusting sound doctrine to others has a strong propositional element, don’t miss the highly relational environment of a vibrant local church and discipleship. Paul’s description seems a lot like scrub-sink discipleship. Transforming discipleship is both taught and caught.
Churches as Teaching Hospitals
What might a more intentional, tacit-rich dimension of discipleship mean for the local church? While our ecclesial context shapes how we answer this question, let me suggest a couple of thoughts. As good as classrooms and discipleship curricula can be, perhaps more emphasis needs to be placed on the importance of life-on-life community lived out in small groups over longer durations. This also could include a greater emphasis on multigenerational mentoring.
More than that, pastors and church leaders would be wise to focus discipleship efforts where congregants spend the majority of time throughout the week: the paid and unpaid workplace. Both pastoral care and pastoral-discipleship efforts in the church where I serve include regular workplace visits. These visits deepen relationships and become rich in the tacit dimension of discipleship and spiritual formation.
What might a more intentional, tacit-rich dimension mean for preparation of church leaders? While I am a strong proponent of the classroom and seminary, I believe we need to be more intentional to create learning environments outside the classroom that offer opportunities for obtaining and transferring tacit knowledge.
One of the most effective ways to create these environments is to establish ongoing pastoral residencies in our local churches. After completing seminary training, inexperienced pastors ideally would have a two-year immersion in a healthy local church where they learn, from more experienced pastors, the spiritual formation, proper self-care, and pastoral skills that will serve them well for a lifetime of ministry. In a sense, the church becomes a teaching hospital, where inexperienced pastors get time at the scrub sink.
Credit: Tom Nelson