Abstract:This article analyzes the theological premises of the popular T4T model for evangelism and discipleship. The analysis argues that the T4T scheme largely depends on several false dichotomies that do not engage the Scriptures except in order to proof text and it regularly excludes the middle area that conveys the biblical balance. The result is an overly rigid methodology that undervalues the influence of context in cross-cultural communication. Rather than a theological vision that holds in biblical tension both truth and context, T4T sanctions an inflexible evangelism scheme that is more conducive to receptive audiences and a discipleship model that is more conversant with what is expedient than what is biblical.
Keller recognizes two kinds of missiological models that represent contrasting shortcomings.1 On the one hand, there are missionary paradigms that are thoughtful to theological fidelity, but negligent concerning contextual application. On the other hand, there are practical “how-to” models that “implicitly or explicitly” make “near absolutes out of techniques and models that had worked in a certain place at a certain time.”2 They are unduly casual about “laying biblical theological foundations, though virtually all of them cite biblical passages.”3 These practical “how-to” models are deficient both theologically and contextually. Whereas, the evangelical community generally recognizes the problem of models that overstate the importance of context, the danger of schemes that undervalue the influence of context to the spiritual vitality and longevity of the church often go unrecognized.4
When missionary models inadvertently demean the influence of context, the outcome is not dissimilar to the more theologically liberal ones.5 Without negating the propositional value of Scripture, there is the need for a renewed appreciation of the rich plurality of cultural contexts that requires a robust diversification of approaches exhibited in Scripture. As Keller asserts, “The gospel is not less than a set of revealed propositions (God, sin, Christ, faith), but is more. It is also a narrative.”6 In Scripture there is more than one way the gospel is conveyed, and context is a key consideration. Acknowledging the full authority of Scripture entails not only recognizing the content of divine revelation, it also involves appreciating how God conveys his truth to various audiences.
Thus, Keller calls for models founded on theological vision—i.e., models that are biblically sound and contextually adept.7 Given the extant danger of proof texting and the difficulty of objectivity in interpretation, Christopher Wright cautions, “Rather than finding biblical legitimation for our activities, we should be submitting all our missionary strategy, plans and operations to biblical critique and evaluation.”8 Uncovering the underlying and frequently concealed hermeneutical premises is the first step toward assessing missionary strategies and practices and correcting missiological paradigms that shape and are shaped by shallow or flawed theologies.
To show the importance of the dialogical and requisite relationship between theology and missions and the foundational nature of hermeneutics, this paper examines one recent model of missions that has garnered substantial attention in the contemporary scene—the model known as “Training for Trainers,” or “T4T.”9 Rather than offering a comprehensive evaluation of the T4T scheme, this article focuses on four core values that establish the practical agenda for evangelism and discipleship.
I argue that the foundational theological weaknesses of T4T translate into an excessively narrow paradigm that oversimplifies God’s vision and the church’s calling to the nations and, consequently, constrains the church’s ongoing effectiveness in cross-cultural and resistant contexts.10 This article contends that T4T’s approach to the Scriptures at key points is characterized by proof texting and that it depends on a series of false dichotomies that regularly exclude the middle area that conveys the biblical balance.
The goal is fivefold: (1) to demonstrate the integral relationship of theology and missions and the foundational nature of hermeneutics; (2) to expose the subtle but real threat of contextually conservative models like T4T to the spiritual vitality and longevity of the church; (3) to reverse the faulty assumption that there exists a universal method adequate for every context; (4) to substantiate the need for fuller reflection on context and for new models that are more conversant with the deeper and more formative issues related to worldview; and (5) to contend for models that are both faithful to Scripture and informed by context.
The intent is not to disparage the T4T model altogether or to imply that there are no positive contributions the model has contributed to the missiological field.11 Rather, I seek to encourage healthy and honest dialogue and to offer corrective suggestions that will hopefully advance the cause of Christ for the nations.
1. T4T’s Theology of Evangelism
Influenced by David Garrison’s “Church Planting Movement” (CPM) scheme and its successful application in an urban area in Southern Asia, missionary Steve Smith employed the paradigm to his context in another part of Asia.12 This experience led to the systemization of the T4T process.
In Smith’s own words, “T4T is an all-inclusive process of training believers over the course of 12–18 months to witness to the lost and train new believers to form reproducing discipleship communities by generation.”13 Smith affirms that T4T is “a return to the original discipleship revolution of the New Testament.”14 The emphasis is on process, which is focused on “training believers to witness and to start reproducing discipleship communities.”15 The complete process is sequential and ongoing and encompasses four areas, commonly referred to as the “Four Fields.”16 These four fields became the headings for the major components of the process: evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership development.17
T4T’s core values define both the direction and theology of the entire process. This paper will focus on four of these: broad and indiscriminate seed sowing, the gospel as the filter for finding receptivity, obedience-based discipleship, and the ministry of the Spirit as Teacher. The first two values are reciprocal and relate to the field of evangelism, while the latter two deal with the discipleship field. Thus, this paper will interact with these four core values in order to assess T4T’s basic theology of evangelism and discipleship.
1.1. Broad and Indiscriminate Seed Sowing
“How many people will hear the gospel today?”18 That question drives the T4T evangelism scheme. If any single value epitomizes T4T’s concept of evangelism, broad seed sowing is it. Although everyone should agree on the objective of establishing the church extensively, whether or not this necessarily implies the practice of broad scale evangelism will depend on the theological conception of evangelism. The concern here is T4T’s unique construal of the practice of evangelism as indiscriminate seed sowing.
T4T deduces from the shared common goal of establishing the kingdom extensively the priority of broad and undifferentiating or uncritical evangelism. Smith affirms, “Share with everybody, because you never know whom God will choose.”19 Again, “We typically choose whom we want to share the gospel with. We try to pre-judge who might accept it. But God said to share with everyone. We cannot predict who will accept the gospel and whom God will use to birth a movement.”20
However, the fact of the unpredictability of the Spirit does not logically infer the need for indiscriminate evangelism. Man’s incapacity to discern God’s sovereign plan is not an argument for random seed sowing. Paul’s clear pattern of going to strategic cities along the Roman roads in Asia Minor argues otherwise.21 Although the apostle was flexible and open to the Spirit, he had a discernible strategy for sowing.22
Jesus instructed his disciples to exercise discernment concerning the receptivity of their audience (cf. Matt 7:6). Concerning this passage, R. T. France asserts, “There may nonetheless be times and situations when a responsible assessment of the likely response requires the disciple’s instinctive generosity to be limited, so that holy things are not brought into contempt.”23 Thus, even if rejection of the Word is a major factor in our discernment, Brunner’s assessment is insightful:
There is a form of evangelism that urges Christians to use every opportunity to share the gospel. Unfortunately, insensitive evangelism often proves harmful not only to the obdurate whose heart is hardened by the undifferentiating evangelist, but harmful also to the gospel that is force-fed.... Aggressive evangelism gets converts and counts them, but we are never able to count those turned away from the gospel for the numbers of the offended are never tallied.24
The biblical basis for T4T’s practice of indiscriminate seed sowing is deduced essentially from two passages: the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20 and the parable of the seed and the sower in Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23. The Great Commission is interpreted as a command to take the gospel to “everyone.”25 Thus the strategy of “indiscriminate seed sowing” is grounded in an interpretive tactic that involves the subtle shifting of Matthew’s wording “all nations” in the original to “everyone.” The gloss helps build a better case for the urgency of getting the gospel out quickly and randomly. This cursory reading “everyone” for the Greek πάντα τὰ ἔθνη (all nations) overlooks an important aspect related to Matthew’s version of the Great Commission.
The two primary interpretive options for “all nations” are either “Gentiles” or “peoples,” with the latter being equivalent to ethnic groups.26 The former would be understood as a direct confrontation to the extreme ethno-centricity of the Jewish people in the first-century and would highlight the surprising distinction of the church as God’s new covenant people. The second option, however, is preferable since Matthew uses the Greek term ἔθνη to include Jews (cf. 24:9, 14; 25:32).27 Thus, France argues
In each case we have seen that the emphasis falls positively on the universal scope of Jesus’ mission rather than negatively on “Gentiles” as opposed to Jews. Some have argued for such a restrictive sense here, and have suggested that Matthew has reached the point of giving up on the Jewish mission and urging the church to go instead to “all the Gentiles.” But nothing in the text indicates that; the suggestion depends on the fact that ta ethne can mean Gentiles as opposed to Jews (as in 6:32; 10:5, 18; 20:19), but that is a specialized use which does not apply to all Matthew’s uses of ethnos, and is most unlikely when ta ethne is qualified by panta.28
The essential function of “all nations” is to clarify the worldwide scope of the church’s mission. The biblical theology conjoined to the phrase is too important to be cursorily translated “everyone.” The Great Commission in Matthew is not the first time or the last time Scripture defines God’s vision for his world’s host of ethnicities. The original expression occurs in the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:3. There, God covenanted with Abraham to make him a blessing to “all nations.” 29 France sees in Jesus’s commission an echo to Daniel 7:14: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him.”30 Revelation 7:9 indicates the future historical fulfillment of this covenant: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, ... standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
It is interesting that in both God’s prospective looking ahead through the Abrahamic covenant and in his retrospective view from the vantage point of the fulfillment of this covenant in Revelation, he sees people in association with their ethnic identities—i.e., he views them corporately, without overlooking their individuality. The superficial reading “everyone” disregards this important biblical theology related to πάντα τὰ ἔθνη. From the beginning of the canon to its end, God’s vision has been for the nations of the world.
The phrase connects the universal scope of the commission to the nations. This subtle nuance supports an essential aspect of a biblical theology of missions—i.e., the need for the contextualization of the gospel. The commission is concentrated on people as part of the nations, not as isolated individuals. This is not to say we are not concerned for individuals; rather, our concern for individuals recognizes their unique history and context. In this way Scripture affirms the decisive influence of all of the socio-cultural beliefs and values of the world’s ethnicities in the fulfillment of the Commission. These underlying cultural beliefs, values, and presuppositions constitute an indispensable consideration in the implementation of evangelism. Since the ethnicities define the scope of God for the establishment of his kingdom, evangelism should be anything but indiscriminate.
The second primary text to which T4T appeals for its theology of indiscriminate seed sowing is the parable of the sower and the soils in Matthew 13. Based on the parable Smith affirms: “It is impossible to predict where the good soil will be—only God knows. We only discover the good soil by sowing the gospel message to a lot of people!”31 Similarly, “We need methods that enable us to sow the gospel to a great number of people, not pre-judging who will respond, so that we find the fruitful ones.”32
The flaw of the argument is hermeneutical. The parable’s teaching is that comparatively few people will become spiritually fruitful for the kingdom.33 Concerning this context, Blomberg affirms that “the parables appear here as an important explanation of why the response to Jesus is becoming increasingly polarized and as a prediction of how that polarization will continue to grow.”34 The purpose was that Jesus wanted to expunge the faulty existing Jewish expectation that when the Messiah comes, the entire nation of Israel will join him in his reign. This parable “describes how the crowds hear and respond to his teaching.”35 Even though the ultimate power is in the seed, the soil is nevertheless a critical factor. Rather than teaching about the method or practice of seed sowing, it is a lesson about the variant responses to the gospel. The T4T model undervalues the importance of context in evangelism and proof texts this parable to support its indiscriminate approach.
My argument against T4T’s emphasis on indiscriminate seed sowing requires three qualifications. First, although T4T is not against relational evangelism per se, my contention is that relationship is more important in the early stages of cross-cultural situations than T4T implies. In short, T4T’s strong emphasis on indiscriminate evangelism devalues the need for establishing trust and for learning how to communicate effectively in cross-cultural situations. This is especially important in the initial stages of crossing cultures and in more resistant places. Although God can give favor without a relational foundation in culturally distant areas, good strategy should not assume it.
Second, it is important to affirm that indiscriminate seed sowing can be contextually sensitive. Thus, I am not arguing against all forms of “cold calls” in evangelism. I am arguing primarily for a slower model in the early stages of cross-cultural evangelism.36 Indiscriminate evangelism becomes less of an issue in near- or same-cultural contexts. T4T does not make this distinction clear and its emphasis on rapidity and getting quickly to the gospel is an underestimated problem in cross-cultural and more resistant contexts.37
The third qualification relates to the conception of the nature of evangelism itself, and that leads us to the theological premise of T4T’s value of indiscriminate seed sowing—i.e., the gospel as the filter for receptivity.
1.2. The Gospel as the Filter for Receptivity
The theological premise of T4T’s random methodology of evangelism is its core belief that the gospel is the filter for receptivity. If the gospel is the filter for receptivity, then it follows that it should be sown indiscriminately. Smith affirms, “It is impossible to predict where the good soil will be—only God knows. We only discover the good soil by sowing the gospel message to a lot of people!”38 Again, “You cannot predict which kind of lost people will prove to be people of peace. So, you just sow the gospel a lot to find them.”39 The assertion is that gauging the openness of the listener is not possible and consequently not the responsibility of the evangelist. The gospel alone determines his level of receptivity. The gospel as the filter for receptive people is the basic premise of the recommended witnessing tool “Any-3.”40
In order to substantiate the premise that the gospel is the filter, Smith constructs a dichotomy between bold and indiscriminate witnessing on the one side, and on the other side, timid and passive witness in the context of long-standing relationships. He writes:
We don’t build relationships with just a few lost people and then months or years later finally reveal to them that we are believers and begin to share the gospel. Rather, we use a gospel witness to filter our relationships, looking for the people whom the Holy Spirit is already attacking. Then we build relationships with them as we guide them into the kingdom.41
Smith leaves out an entire middle area between the two extremes—i.e., sharing Christ boldly, sometimes early, and with cultural acuity in the context of relationships. It is possible to be intentional and active in sharing, but to do it in a more relational and culturally conversant manner. Rejecting a passive and lethargic witnessing scheme does not automatically infer an indiscriminate and aggressive one.
Although Smith affirms the need to adapt the witness to the context, his suggested variations are perfunctory. For instance, regarding the Any-3 model, Smith writes, “This bridge has also been used with Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists. With little adjustment it works well in a number of contexts.”42 Smith affirms addressing the basic worldview of the context, but he oversimplifies it.43 T4T unintentionally discounts the reality that some people who reject an abrupt and uniform presentation of the gospel may nevertheless be open to the gospel when it is conveyed in a more culturally informed manner and in the context of a relationship of trust.
To depict T4T’s evangelism approach as abrupt and uniform is fair. The Any-3 approach is about getting to the gospel quickly and a core value of T4T is rapidly reproducing disciples.44 Smith affirms that most CPMs are uniform in “the use of ONE simple gospel presentation and a call to commitment that any new believer can reproduce. Not three. Not two. One.”45 I recognize the strategic value of mastering a proven approach, especially for new believers. The point is, however, that the T4T approach portrays evangelism as a methodologically unvarying endeavor and insufficiently recognizes the importance for contextual diversification.
Good contextualization requires more than translating terms into another language or transferring the same scheme into a wholly different context based on a dissimilar worldview. Jackson Wu shows that contextualization entails more than finding a redemptive analogy or a contextually appropriate way to do church. He develops a holistic view of contextualization that aims for the transformation of worldview and views the process as more than a tool for communication and the gospel as more than a series of propositions.46
This T4T premise underestimates the formative influence of worldview and discounts a major anthropological factor related to decision-making. The principle is referred to in the sociological realm as the “sociology of knowledge.”47 People do not make decisions, especially life changing ones, in a vacuum, as isolated individuals, completely disconnected from the sociology of their environment. Choices people make are filtered through the network of all the informative presuppositions, beliefs, and values of a worldview that has been shaped by life experience, by culture, and by their social context. Life changing decisions normally occur in the context of relationships of trust.48
We need to recognize the tension in the concern for appropriate contextualization. On the one hand, we can overestimate the importance of culture in our approach, thereby minimizing the principal issue of man’s sinful rejection of God. “This would imply,” as Van Engen rightly affirms, “that a missiological discussion of ‘receptivity/resistance’ should deal primarily with issues of spirituality, theology and reconciliation with God, self, others, and the world, and secondarily with matters of worldview, sociology, contextualization or strategy.”49 However, without disaffirming this priority, we need to recognize the other side of the tension. As Van Engen correctly asserts:
Just because there is a negative response to my particular approach or message may not necessarily mean the receptor group is ‘resistant’ in the sense of saying ‘no’ to God. Their negative response to my instrumentality may, in fact, be more a commentary on my own ineffectiveness, sinfulness, foreignness, or inappropriate-ness as a bearer of the Good News. My church or agency and I may be bad news, rather than Good News.50
Hiebert has conclusively shown the problems inherent with undervaluing context.51 Also, Keller affirms, “Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of ‘common-sense’ beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people.” Thus, our proclamation of the gospel must be “hooked into the baseline cultural narratives” to be effective.52
Trousdale’s scheme, though similar to T4T in its excessive pragmatism, invalid hermeneutic, and shallow contextualization, recognizes the force of this sociological factor for evangelism across cultures.53 Trousdale recommends sharing
only when and where people are ready to hear.... Selective exposure is a problem; people don’t listen to what they don’t want to hear. Selective perception is a problem; people reinterpret what they do hear to align with their presuppositions. And selective memory is a problem; people often forget what they know but don’t agree with.”54
Although the gospel is the power of God and the Spirit is free and sovereign to override the powerful influence of culture, a comprehensive evangelistic strategy should not assume culture. God normally chooses to work through the means of culture in order to turn it toward Christ. The issue here is the definite article in the premise—i.e., “the gospel is the filter.” Although it cannot be denied that the gospel functions as a filter for receptive people, the claim begs the question of contextualization, since not every presentation of the gospel will filter for every context.
While T4T affirms varying the approach according to context, my argument is that its emphasis on getting quickly to the gospel undervalues the importance and meaning of contextualization in evangelism across cultures and in resistant areas. Furthermore, whether the gospel is the only, or even the best filter in every context is problematic. I am arguing for a broader conception of the nature of evangelism itself than what T4T suggests.
Although the goal in evangelism is confession of faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, there are many ways to establish the plausibility of that message. Moreover, the process of evangelism may include preliminary work that moves the listener incrementally toward that understanding.55 Keller lays out four stages that people go through to come from complete ignorance of the gospel to full embrace and affirms that the problem with modern evangelism programs is that they tend to jump through the stages too quickly.56 The problem with this approach, according to Keller, is that “until people’s minds and worldviews have been prepared, they hear you say ‘sin’ and ‘grace’ and even ‘God’ in terms in their own categories. By going too quickly ... you guarantee that they will misunderstand what you are saying.”57
Jesus portrayed the process as inclusive of the stages of sowing and reaping, and he described the sowing process as the “hard work” (John 4:36–38). T4T’s theology of the gospel as the filter conflates both stages into one and implies an exclusive concern to be the reapers.
Scripture indicates this view of evangelism as a process. The parables in Matthew 13 were spoken to the crowd (v. 2), but did not state the gospel explicitly or in confessional terms. Jesus used parables as filters for receptivity (cf. Matt 13:10–12). France explains why parables are an appropriate medium for the proclamation of the message:
It is because people are so different, and react so differently. A parable is a story or epigraph which does not carry its meaning on the surface. It challenges the hearer to engage with it in an educational process which, if the hearer brings to it the right attitude and openness, will result in their perceiving and responding to the truth. But it can equally be resisted, and dismissed as a mere story. So parables, given without explanation, are open-ended.58
Jesus healed the centurion without giving him the plan of salvation (Matt 8:13). Even the Sermon on the Mount could be considered evangelistic in the sense that though intended as instruction for his disciples, the crowds were eavesdropping (Matt 5:1).59 It is laced with the gospel throughout, but in an implicit rather than explicit manner.
Three events in Luke 4–5 further demonstrate Jesus’s conception of the evangelism process as incremental. At the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16–30), Jesus deliberately provoked the wrath of his audience, thereby declining a prime opportunity to explain the gospel explicitly to what appeared to be a receptive audience. Then, in successive accounts Jesus disallowed the disclosure of his identity as the Messiah because of the false expectations attached to the concept (cf. 4:34, 42; 5:14). Regardless of the reasons for quelling testimony about his identity, Jesus discerned the need for a more discrete approach.60 In short, he knew the people needed time before they could receive the message of his identity. In each of these incidents, the filter was not a gospel presentation, but a culturally-informed response crafted to address important preconceptions and allow for a period of gestation that would lead to a later, more conclusive encounter.
The apostles’ concern to contextualize their witness in Scripture affirms their high regard for establishing credibility with their audience. Certainly this can happen quickly, but the fact that there are instances in Scripture where the audience is brought quickly to a point of decision is not necessarily a compelling argument, as T4T suggests, for an indiscriminate approach in every context. This is an important hermeneutical oversimplification in the T4T scheme and it concerns T4T’s strong disavowal of the natural tendency to discern receptivity.
Paul’s practice in Acts of getting to the gospel quickly in his witnessing encounters needs to be qualified in three ways. First, his approach is more contextually conversant than the way that T4T suggests.61 T4T assumes either exceptional gifting in cross-cultural evangelism or unique cultural acuity. A survey of Paul’s encounters with Jews in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia (13:13–52), with pagans at Lystra (14:8–18), and with Greeks in Athens (17:16–34) indicates that Paul approached his audiences with greater cultural insight and adeptness than the T4T scheme requires. These encounters also indicate that Paul’s message had more force in the culturally near encounter at Antioch than it did in the culturally distant locations of Lystra and Athens.62
To deduce that a basically uniform presentation with slight variation is enough to discern those who are receptive is an oversimplification of contextualization. T4T’s idea of contextualization is insufficient, dealing primarily with surface level issues and limited to the propositional plane. It is intriguing that Paul’s earlier proclamations at Athens and at Lystra are misunderstood and required extensive follow-up.63 Quickly getting to the gospel to discern receptivity may be appropriate in culturally near contexts, but in culturally distant situations it is more vulnerable to misunderstanding and extensive follow-up will be more critical. As we will see below, T4T discounts this altogether. Moreover, given Paul’s exceptional gifting and cross-cultural adeptness, as well as other factors such as the common Greek language, Paul’s Roman citizenship, and Jewish ancestry, this pattern should not be considered uniform without condition. This leads to the next qualification.
Second, a discernable pattern in Acts does not automatically infer a uniform application. The issue here relates to the functional authority of Scripture, particularly with regard to the narrative portions like Acts. The question is, how can a book that is mostly narrative function authoritatively? The assumption in T4T is that patterns in the narrative suggest uniform application.64 This is true with certain qualifications. Patterns suggest similar application in comparable contexts. Thus, the fact that Paul gets quickly to the gospel in multiple situations in Acts is not sufficient to establish a normative application, unless the contexts are analogous.65
Furthermore, Acts is a survey of the initial expansion of the early Church. It is not a comprehensive instruction manual on how to start churches. There are a lot of details that Luke cannot cover in this historical overview. As Gempf astutely notes:
[P]erhaps the hardest thing to reconcile with the Missionary Primer theory is that there is no case in Acts in which we have an evangelistic ‘first contact’ sermon to pagan Gentiles. In both Lystra and Athens, as presumably elsewhere, Luke knows that the apostles gave such a message, but he only repeats the follow-up talk intended to clarify misunderstandings.66
Principles and practices can be gleaned, but we should be cautious about reading it prescriptively given the enormous amount of information that we do not have about how Paul engaged people in every situation. Based on the “missing evangelistic message” at Lystra, for instance, Gempf concludes that “Luke does not intend his book to be a primer on ‘How to Evangelise,’ and even for him, language and culture are evidently still barriers that need to be overcome.”67
Third, it is not explicit that Paul got to the gospel quickly in every instance, and there is evidence elsewhere the other way. It is noteworthy that Paul’s presentation of the gospel at Lystra is not Christological as at Antioch, but theological, “explaining the sovereignty of the one true God in whom they believe.”68 We read that Paul spent three months in the synagogue in Ephesus, “reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:9). Then he “continued for two years,” reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus” (19:10). The explanation for the paucity of material for prolonged evangelistic encounters is explained by the fact that writing about them would be problematic for Luke’s purposes. The nature of the story lends itself to short, episodal events.69
Cultural insiders are able to establish credibility and trust much more quickly than cultural outsiders. Although T4T affirms finding cultural bridges, it devalues the influence of context in communication. The result is an excessively narrow view of evangelism, which constrains the church’s ability to translate the message across cultures and especially among more resistant peoples.
2. T4T’s Theology of Discipleship
There are two theological premises that drive T4T’s practice of discipleship: obedience-based discipleship and the ministry of the Spirit as Teacher. Similar to the dual premises undergirding T4T’s evangelism scheme, both of these premises rely on a portrayal of the biblical data as a choice between two extremes, excluding a middle area altogether—what is commonly referred to as “the fallacy of the excluded middle.”
2.1. Obedience-Based Discipleship
Smith affirms, “T4T is built on an obedience-based discipleship model,” since “obedience is the mark of true discipleship.”70 The obedience to which T4T refers is inclusive of all the commands of Christ, but witnessing becomes the central focus of T4T, since the objective is to train believers to witness to the lost. “Every disciple is to learn how to obey Jesus’ commands, including witnessing to others and then training these new believers to repeat the process.”71
The emphasis on obedience is T4T’s rejoinder to what Smith perceives as an over-emphasis on knowledge by the institutional form. The T4T scheme is dependent on the dichotomy between the passivity that characterizes knowledge-based discipleship models of institutional churches and the more active T4T obedience-based model. The dichotomy is seen in several affirmations:
- “In some Christian ministry, we assess how mature a believer is based on how much he knows. But the New Testament assesses the maturity of a believer based on how much he obeys.”
- “Some Christians emphasize Bible study, but not obedience to the Word.”
- “Teaching conveys the idea of transferring knowledge, but training conveys the idea of changing behavior.”
- “A new believer in a CPM may not know as much of the Bible as the knowledge-based disciple, yet his value is to obey everything he knows.”72
The devaluation of Bible knowledge, Bible study, and Bible teaching in T4T is subtle, but apparent. For instance, Smith asserts, “He taught, but he taught them how to listen.”73 The content of Scripture is not valued except that which can be directly obeyed.74 Although Smith makes a couple of passing statements affirming biblical content, they are effectively buried by the avalanche of disparaging statements elsewhere. My argument is that the importance of Bible knowledge and teaching is understated in T4T.
There are three important errors made by this false dichotomy. First, although Scripture does warn against knowledge without obedience, it does not demean knowledge in the way that T4T does. For Paul, correct doctrine is the foundation for practice and knowledge is the ground for hope (Rom 5:3) and spiritual freedom (Rom 6:3, 6, 9, 16). Schnabel notes that Paul uses the phrase “do you not know” fourteen times referring to both theological information and ethical knowledge.75
Second, there is a biblical alternative to T4T’s obedience-based discipleship model and to the knowledge-based discipleship models that Smith portrays. It is what Zane Pratt calls “Gospel-based discipleship.”76 Pratt rightly argues that the biblical view of discipleship is motivated by grace, not by obedience to his commands. The difference is subtle, but enormous. In fact, the gospel depends on this difference. The stress on obedience in the T4T scheme in effect makes it the driving motive of the Christian life, rather than the grace of God.
Third, this dichotomy demeans all of the content of Scripture that cannot be directly applied or obeyed, and it oversimplifies the process of the application of Scripture.77 The large majority of Scripture, in fact, is not intended for direct application. The impression T4T gives is that only that which can be directly applied is of value. To abstract behavioral and attitudinal precepts outside of the story of Scripture is in effect to misread it. Correctly applying Scripture is complicated by the fact of the historical gap between its original setting and the contemporary reader. Thus, Strauss rightly cautions that a “face value” reading of the text underappreciates the fact that “we are all products of our culture, background and worldview.”78
2.2. The Spirit as Teacher
The second theological premise for T4T’s model of discipleship is the idea of the Spirit as Teacher. The theological importance of this premise is evident in Smith’s assertion, “Essentially T4T is a process of helping disciples depend on the Spirit as their Teacher.”79 Smith affirms,
Many of our current discipleship models overly depend on our frequent and continued physical presence with our new disciples. But this neglects a critical teaching about the Spirit. After the Spirit has come, our physical presence is not nearly as essential. Personal involvement is not unimportant. But we need a discipleship process more akin to post-Pentecost that depends less on human intervention. It is a model that takes the great risk of depending on the presence of the Spirit in the life of the new believers.80
Smith differentiates between Jesus’s model of discipleship that depended on his physical presence and what he calls “post-Pentecost” models of discipleship that relied on the Spirit. He laments that most churches ignorantly follow Jesus’s pre-Pentecost model that relies on the physical presence of the teacher, not realizing that they have the Spirit.81 Paul’s teaching in essence was teaching them to rely on the Spirit, and not so much on learning the theological content or the rationale of Christian faith. Smith asserts, “This does not mean that Paul did not teach. But he taught new believers how to listen to the Spirit of God, apply the Scriptures and grow in the faith without Paul’s continued presence.”82
Furthermore, he attributes Paul’s proficiency at quickly producing disciples as he moved from place to place to his reliance on the Spirit to be their Teacher, citing 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4–7. This is a classic case of proof texting. Paul is addressing the division of the church caused by an exclusive identification with one or the other of the apostles. He is not arguing against human teachers per se. In Acts 18:11 we read that Paul stayed eighteen months “teaching the Word of God” among these same Corinthians.
For the practical application of this theology of discipleship, the T4T scheme proposes a “three-thirds” model of discipleship that actually discourages teaching, preferring instead the idea of training.83 For Smith, “Teaching conveys the idea of transferring knowledge, but training conveys the idea of changing behavior.”84 The worship component includes a time of Bible reading, wherein the individual participants read together and discover together the teaching of Scripture for themselves.
Smith affirms, “The goal of the middle third is to give the trainees enough biblical content to obey and pass on. You don’t want to give them so much that they can’t obey.”85 Three simple questions guide the group discussion: “What is this passage saying? What should we obey from this passage? Who is someone we can share this message with?”86 Leaders are instructed to facilitate discussion and avoid the role of teacher. They are discouraged from sharing expert knowledge, or knowledge that is not apparent in the passage itself, in order to foster active participation by the group members in reading and interpreting Scripture for themselves.87
In T4T, teaching does not qualify as a “bold part”—i.e., the important parts of discipleship needed for reproduction.88 If pressed for time, Smith recommends, “Just do a half lesson in order to keep the goal of building a trainer.… A rule of thumb is to cut down the amount of content before cutting down anything else. You are just trying to give them enough to obey.”89 So the robustly directive approach in evangelism is now flipped to a resolutely passive model in early discipleship. The rationale for this non-directive approach is that believers have the Spirit and need to learn early to rely on him. The non-directive approach of T4T, it is affirmed, is the way to encourage and cultivate active participation of believers to read and apply Scripture for themselves, thereby circumventing the problem of passive learning.
My contention is that in seeking to avoid one extreme—i.e., passivity—the T4T paradigm has gone to the other—i.e., antipathy toward knowledge or expertise. In T4T’s concern to avoid creating dependence on the human teacher, the scheme essentially depreciates the importance of teaching and of human teachers. The reader will discern a clear hermeneutical pattern: the T4T scheme repeatedly takes a legitimate teaching of Scripture and turns it into an illegitimate teaching because it ignores the balance of Scripture. T4T is dependent on a series of dichotomies that do not accurately portray the fuller biblical picture. Here the dichotomy is between either absolute dependence on the Spirit as Teacher on the one side, or on the other side an excessive dependence on human teachers.
This excluded middle is T4T’s most puzzling and serious failure. It overlooks the biblical balance in Scripture of God calling and gifting godly teachers to make disciples (cf. Eph 4:11; 1 Cor 12:28), the importance of the role of teaching throughout all of Scripture, and the indispensable role of teaching in the fulfillment of the Great Commission (cf. Matt 28:18–20). Thus, Schnabel argues for teaching as an essential part of the missionary task since it is “inherently educational.”90
T4T’s argument against the necessity of the physical presence of teachers is especially disturbing and altogether unsupported. Paul spent eighteen months teaching in Corinth (Acts 18:11) and two years teaching in Ephesus (Acts 19:9). Kostenberger and O’Brien affirm that for Paul proclaiming the gospel “meant not simply an initial preaching or with it the reaping of converts; it included also ... the bringing of believers to full maturity.”91 Even though he moved from place to place, he regularly left teams, relied on co-workers, revisited, and stayed engaged through his letters and intermediaries. Scripture manifestly does not know of T4T’s docetic form of discipleship.
D. A. Carson affirms that “the New Testament lays an enormous amount of emphasis on teaching, both conduct and doctrine—both how to behave and what to believe.”92 The prominence in teaching sound doctrine is explicit in the pastoral letters and denotes the primary task of Timothy and Titus.93 Teaching required learning how to interpret Scripture correctly (2 Tim 2:15), which implies both knowledge and skill. Given the extant threat of all kinds of false teaching, it was unthinkable for the apostle to simply entrust believers to the care of the Spirit.94 Paul’s preferred antidote was making sure their disciples knew “the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13) and were thoroughly trained in “the words of faith and of doctrine” (1 Tim 4:6). According to Scripture, knowing the content passed down from Christ through his apostles is an essential part of growing up in him and, when conveyed through the lives of godly teachers, it is an indispensable element of the biblical model of discipleship. T4T’s depreciation of teaching content is foreign to Scripture.95
Finally, T4T’s model of keeping the teaching simple is overbalanced. Without denying the need for clarity and for contextualization, T4T’s obsession with rapid reproducibility effectively abridges the teaching process in a way that does not sufficiently appreciate the doctrinal depth of the Word and the time needed to ground new believers in it.96 Nor is the abridged T4T scheme modeled in Scripture.
T4T offers a model for how to train believers to do evangelism and discipleship that adherents claim facilitates church planting movements. What drives the process are a series of underlying pragmatic premises about the most efficient way to accomplish this goal. T4T proponents are orthodox, doctrinally speaking, and cite Scripture to support their model, but the importance of theology for defining the process is pushed to the periphery in favor of what works. In this way T4T is analogous to the seeker-driven church model. Thus, Wells’s caution concerning seeker-driven churches applies here. He notes:
Seeker churches, then, represent a coalition bound together not by a theological vision of the world but by a common strategy for reaching particular segments of society and by a common methodology for accomplishing this.... There is no theological truth upon which the methodology is predicated and upon which it insists, because theological truth, it is thought, is not what builds churches.97
The analysis has sought to show that the T4T scheme largely depends on several false dichotomies that do not engage the Scriptures except in order to proof text and that it regularly excludes the middle area that conveys the biblical balance. The result is an overly rigid methodology that undervalues the influence of context in cross-cultural communication. Rather than a theological vision that holds in biblical tension both truth and context, T4T sanctions an inflexible evangelism scheme that is more conducive to receptive audiences and a discipleship model that is more conversant with what is expedient than what is biblical.
This article argues that evangelism and discipleship in more resistant areas and in culturally distant contexts requires more diversity, more dialogue, and often more time. Although the content of the gospel is essentially the grace of God offered through faith in Christ, the approach to communicating that message cross-culturally so that it resonates with the listener, challenges his core beliefs and values, and conveys the true meaning of the message needs to engage people at a deeper level.