Discipling and Coaching….what’s the difference?
This question can be a tough one to answer considering all that’s out there on both of these practices. I can honestly tell you that I have been coached before, but I sometimes I wonder if I have ever been discipled.
Let me explain.
If we are going to grasp what discipling is, we have to let Jesus be our example. According to what we see in the gospels, discipling takes place when we are formally invited into a relationship where we are both supported and stretched to imitate another person.
Jesus said it like this: every disciple who is completely trained will be like their teacher. (Luke 6:40)
Pattern and Process
Notice he did not say the disciple will simply “know what the teacher knows.” He also didn’t say the disciple will simply be able to “do what the teacher does.” No, the fruit of a discipling relationship is much more than this. In a discipling relationship, you not only want to “know what the teacher knows” and “do what the teacher does”, you also want to “be who the teacher is.” You want to imitate the life of the one who is discipling you.
When we say that a disciple imitates the life of another person, contained within this person’s life is the process they use to make disciples. In other words, the one being discipled not only imitates the leader’s pattern of life, they also imitate the leader’s process of making disciples. So in a discipling relationship there are essentially two basic focal points of imitation.
We see these two focal points when Paul explains to the Corinthians why he is sending Timothy to them. Paul spent 18 months in Corinth, and now in his absence the church has been turned away from the patterns of the gospel into ego-centric forms of leadership and ministry. Paul knew that in order for them to mature in Christ, they needed more than just a letter (information). They needed strategic leadership that could provide a tangible point of reference on how to put the principles of Paul’s life into practice.
“For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” I Corinthians 4:15-17
The nature of Timothy’s task is reflected in Paul’s language when he says that Timothy will remind them of his “ways” in Christ. That word in Greek is hodos meaning “a course of conduct or pathway.” It carries with it the idea of a sequential flow or process, of moving forward along a path towards a destination. Timothy would essentially blaze the trail and lead the Corinthians back into the messianic pathway of cross and resurrection.
So why Timothy? Paul needed to extend his influence back into the Corinthian community. Timothy had been discipled by Paul, which meant he had been exposed to the pattern of Paul’s life. He also participated in the process Paul used for making disciples and planting churches. As such, Timothy could serve as a model for imitation to the Corinthians. If Paul could not be in Corinth, then he wanted someone there who would be able to represent his “ways” to the Corinthian community. Timothy was definitely qualified to do this.
Spatial Proximity, Relational Frequency, Situational Variety
If being discipled means imitating someone’s pattern of life, and hence their process for making disciples, then not just any relationship qualifies as a discipling relationship. In order for the scope of imitation to include someone’s pattern of life, there has to be spatial proximity, relational frequency, and situational variety. Let’s look at these three things real quick.
Spatial Proximity– If I am going to imitate someone’s pattern of life, I need to have access to their life in ways that allow me to observe them. If I live in another city, or even on the other side of the city (a big city that is…like Dallas) then access to their life will be difficult.
Relational Frequency – Let’s say we live close by, but we only hang out once a month. It’s going to be hard for me to get a holistic view of your life if my only window is one Sunday evening a month. I suggest anything less than once a week interaction will eventually lose traction and limit the scope of imitation that can take place.
Situational Variety – So what do you do when you hang out in a discipling relationship? I would say “As much as possible.” This means eating meals together, praying together, prayer walking a neighborhood together, recreational activities, doing evangelism together, or just talking about life over coffee. The point is that the discipling relationship needs to organize around what it means to be a disciple, not just a Bible Study or prayer meeting. In other words, there is regular interaction in multiple settings.
At V3, one of the ways we train leaders to make disciples is by learning how to lead what we call a T-Group. It’s an organized meeting where we help guide people through the process of discovering what God is saying to them, and then developing an appropriate response.
Coaching and Imitation
It’s important to recognize that imitation can take place in any relationship. In fact, I would say imitation is happening all around us. The question is, what is being imitated? Imitation can take place in a coaching relationship, but we have to be clear about what can actually be imitated in this kind of relationship. If we do not have spatial proximity, relational frequency, and situational variety with those we are discipling, no matter what we call it, it’s not a discipling relationship. By default, it’s something else.
A Spade is a Spade
It’s important to make this kind of distinction because making disciples is at the core of our Christian vocation. When we start mis-labeling things, then we can end up deceiving ourselves into thinking we are making disciples, when we aren’t. This in no way minimizes coaching relationships or what can take place in that relational framework, it only qualifies it. Jesus could not disciple everyone, but he could disciple 12 people. And if you look at the way he did it, we see those same features of spatial proximity, relational frequency and situational variety in his discipling relationship with the 12. So if your coaching people, then call it coaching. If your discipling people, then call it discipling. But don’t sell yourself short, and those you are investing in, by calling it something that it’s not.
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