How To Disciple an Immature Teacher (APEST Series)

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to be wired up to help people understand things? They seem to have an uncanny ability to make things simple and give away knowledge. They’re also generally concerned with logic, order, process, and development.

In our churches, they typically are found looking for ways to help others understand and live out Scripture. In the “fivefold gifting” framework, these are the teachers among us. But, like the other types, their gifting can be present in immature form. For teachers, this means they can become “cerebral” Christians, elevating information above practice.

It’s important for us as leaders to be able to recognize the immature teachers among us, and disciple them to maturity so they can fulfill their ministry in the Body of Christ.

But discipling a teacher is a lot different than discipling someone gifted in another way, so let’s talk about the unique challenges and opportunities of discipling immature teachers.

(This article is part of a series on discipleship and APEST, and it’s adapted from an article I originally published for the V3 Movement.) Here are the links to the other articles in this series:

Five gifts for the church

The way I’m using the word “teacher” comes from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:11-13, where he is laying out five different gifts that God gives his church. These gifts are actually people that God has gifted and then given to the church to build it up and bring it to maturity and unity.

(This is sometimes called APEST – Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, Teachers. If you’ve never heard of this, check out Alan Hirsch’s brief descriptions, or JR Woodward’s video introduction.)

Paul’s assumption is that the church needs to grow into the fullness of her identity in Christ, and that these five gifts are crucial to that happening.

In other words, we need teachers in our churches if we’re going to grow into maturity. The problem is that mature teachers don’t grow on trees. Teachers normally come to our churches immature, in need of encouragement and shaping. How can we do this faithfully and effectively?

You might be a teacher if…

Before we talk about immature teachers, let’s talk about teachers in general. How are they Christ’s gift to the church?

Teachers are people who are motivated to help people learn and grow. JR Woodward calls them Light Givers, people whose primary concern is “that the community inhabits the sacred text

[of the Bible]

. They create a learning environment where people immerse themselves in the scriptures in order to be formed by them.”

Here are some signs of teachers in general:

  • They are drawn to the Scriptures and are often intensely hungry to read, study, and memorize Scripture.
  • They desire to help other people understand the truths of God’s Word.
  • They are often concerned with logic, order, process, and development.
  • They have a gift for outlining comprehensive curricula and systems.
  • They lean toward proven systems to “get the job done” vs. new (unproven) ideas.
  • They often ask tough questions that can lead to greater clarity for everyone.
  • They help “operationalize” the dreams and visions of apostles and prophets.
  • They like to see established track records of success before doing something different. “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” is a typical mantra.
  • They look for ways to explain, enlighten, and apply Scripture.
  • They often make excellent coaches and mentors.

Signs of an immature teacher

But teachers need to grow from immaturity to maturity, just like all of us. Their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

Here are some signs of an immature teacher:

  • In their hunt for clarity, they can offend people with their bluntness. Immature teachers lack empathy.
  • They can get so enamored with order that they’re unwilling to endure any kind of ambiguity.
  • They can get so attached to stability that they’re unwilling to take risks or try something new.
  • In their desire to know the truth and make truth known, they may end up “cerebral” Christians, elevating information intake over above practical obedience.
  • More than any other type, teachers are prone to become Pharisees: content that they know and do the “right” things, setting up certain knowledge and behavior requirements as litmus tests for being a “serious” Christian.
  • In their desire to teach and train people, they have a tendency to keep people “in the nest” too long, fearing they aren’t “ready” until they take just one more class.
  • When in senior leadership roles, they can become “sermon machines,” leaving day-t0-day discipleship and leadership to others and assuming the “main” thing the church needs is teaching.
  • Like shepherds, they like to be needed. While shepherds like to be needed for the care and help they provide, teachers like to be needed for their wisdom and insight.
  • They can become “devil’s advocates” with their questions about new ideas, creating a wet blanket effect on leadership teams.

Does any of this remind you of anyone? Maybe you’ve got an immature teacher in your church. Maybe you notice these characteristics in yourself?

It’s important to have teachers present in a church situation because when people become new Christians through evangelism, you’ll need people who are excited to develop learning environments for those new Christians to grow in the basics of the faith.

So one temptation is to use an immature teachers as “content developer” that helps people assimilate into your community. The immature teacher will love this because people now “need” their knowledge… but it sets up a “mutual using society” that is a poor substitute for real covenant community.

Also – especially if you’re an apostle – you might experience teachers as people who are always asking pesky questions about HOW you’re going to pull things off! Because of this, it can be tempting to reject an immature teacher as a pessimist.

But immature teachers need to be discipled, not used or rejected. How do we disciple immature teachers when we find them in our churches?

How to disciple an immature teacher

In some ways, what teachers need to grow in discipleship is the same thing that everyone needs: an abundance of both grace and truth (this is one of the main competencies we train for in our coaching).

We calibrate grace in discipleship by offering connection and compassion in an authentic relationship. We calibrate truth in discipleship by holding reality in front of others non-anxiously.

This calibration looks different for a teacher than it does for an shepherd or evangelist. The grace and truth they need takes on a certain shape. So what does grace and truth look like for teachers?

Offering grace to an immature teacher

Here are a few notes on bringing grace to a teacher:

  • Take their bluntness in stride. They don’t mean to be rude – remember they’re probably just seeking clarity.
  • Listen to their “HOW?” questions. They aren’t trying to shoot down ideas, they’re just interested in how things will actually get done.
  • Listen to their frustrations about the lack of organization in your church and empower them to do something about it.
  • Give them opportunities to teach others in appropriate ways.
  • Understand that their “evangelism” will often take place among nominal Christians rather than the unchurched. Empower them to do this; tell them it’s important work.
  • Listen to them to learn from them, and tell them when you learned something from them. This is a way of honoring the gift they are to you and the church.
  • Empower them to develop systems to implement vision, then give them the time and space they need (alone) to work on this stuff!

Offering truth to an immature teacher

Here are a few notes on bringing truth to an immature teacher:

  • Teachers need to embrace empathy for others, but it’s hard for them because they oftentimes think of it as “weak.” Help them realize how powerful it is and encourage them to truly empathize with others.
  • Encourage them to trust that the Holy Spirit can “fill in the gaps” in people’s knowledge, and that he’ll often do so as they’re on mission. Help them see places in Scripture where Jesus sent people out with almost no theological knowledge whatsoever!
  • Encourage them to have an apprentice at all times, someone that is learning to teach like they teach, so they can pass along what they know how to do.
  • Remind them that their job is to equip the body of Christ to live out truth, not just understand it.
  • Draw their attention to their tendency to make people dependent on them. Challenge them to “work themselves out of a job” by teaching people toward competence, not just clarity.
  • Teachers can get so convinced by their own theological framework that they create a little enclave within the church for people who “really get it.” They sometimes need to be challenged to hold less rigidly to watertight theological systems. This is really hard for them, though, because they tend to associate their ideas about God with God himself. Letting go of those ideas feels like “heresy” (they may say this when you challenge them about this!).

A mature teacher is a wonderful gift for a church plant to have. They can create catechetical frameworks and classes that deepen people’s understanding and practice of faith.

But they don’t just fall into your lap magically. Churches often have to disciple their team into maturity before they can lean on their team to disciple others into maturity.

Questions for reflection and discussion

Do you know an immature teacher? Reflect on your experience with them.

  • What did you find frustrating? What was invigorating?
  • What have you done well? What mistakes have you made?
  • After reading this article, what is your next step in discipling this person?

Have you ever intentionally discipled a teacher?

  • What have you learned in this process?
  • If you are a teacher, what has been most helpful in your growth?

Leave a comment below to join the conversation!

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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