Michael Zigarelli, PhD, is an author and a professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah University, Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, United States.

Head, heart, hands. The alliteration is attractive to churches. So is the implied claim to complete Christianity. Fully-formed disciples are marked by what they know, love, and do.

In fact, the framing may be the most pervasive description by churches of their mission, particularly in my American context. But how does a church take that from rhetoric to reality? Here’s my humble proposal to help good churches deliver on their great mission.

Curriculum for developing the head

To be specific about developing the head, the target is greater knowledge of God. One way to make progress is to teach the congregation, primarily from the pulpit, much of the same subject matter that one would learn in a seminary or Bible college, though taught at a lay level.

So besides full coverage of the Old and New Testament, other sermon series would examine systematic theology, apologetics, hermeneutics, church history, worldviews, and world religions. A second pass at each message during the rest of the week might entail summary notes and sermon video highlights shared with the congregation via email and social media. “Read ahead” and “dig deeper” materials could also be valuable adjuncts for learning.

However, engagement is a key to education and retention, so how about two opportunities for interactive engagement with the topic each week? One, not surprisingly, would be the now-ubiquitous small group, where trained leaders (not just well-intentioned leaders) adeptly facilitate a discussion about the week’s message. The other could be a weekly after-service meal where the only price of admission is that attendees discuss the pulpit message with those at their table. The church leadership team could also be available during this meal to respond to questions and illuminate the lessons. This is among the most favorable moments each week to reinforce learning.

The intention is to bring a thorough understanding of Scripture and theology so that they are “always . . . prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [them] to give the reason for the hope that [they] have” (1 Pet. 3:15, NIV).

Curriculum for developing the heart

People do what they love, not just what they know to be wise or right. In fact, sometimes we do what we love despite what we know, following our heart more than our head. That’s why love for God, culminating in greater virtue, such as the fruit of the Spirit characteristics (Gal. 5:22, 23), is the aim of this second curriculum.

Among the discipleship models, Dallas Willard, in a paradigm that he calls “The Golden Triangle of Spiritual Growth,”1 postulates three interconnected pathways to growth: the action of the Holy Spirit (whose primacy is highlighted by placement atop the triangle), habitual devotional practices, and the perseverance through temptations and trials in ordinary life. To quote Willard, these are “the factors that can certainly lead to the transformation of the inner self into Christlikeness.”2

Willard’s golden triangle offers practical direction to any church or any believer seeking a trustworthy process for spiritual growth. Moreover, rather than a process pursued in isolation, a small group can be an accelerator in this regard, as can the training workshops discussed next.

Curriculum for developing the hands

In addition to curricula for knowledge and virtue, a third strand develops specific skills necessary to be disciples and make disciples. The delivery method might best entail church-sponsored workshops or Christian education classes that equip people to learn by doing.

A nonexhaustive list of skills might include conflict resolution, marriage and parenting, faithful leadership, evangelism strategies, faith in the workplace, intercultural communication, and public theology (i.e., addressing contemporary issues). Also, within this curriculum could be skills training to reach specific segments of society (e.g., youth, ethnic groups, divorcees, refugees, the homeless, atheists, agnostics) as well as deep small-group leader deep training to ensure expertise in discussion facilitation.

Cumulatively, the vision for developing skilled disciples is to cultivate ambassadors of Christ
(2 Cor. 5:20) capable of modeling the Christian way of life and pointing people to the God whom they boldly and winsomely represent.

Total training

Imagine a congregation with so much knowledge of God that their insights win the day in workplaces, schools, and even family gatherings. Imagine a congregation with so much love for God that they eliminate poverty in their community. Imagine a congregation so skilled in peacemaking that they bring reconciliation between disparate people and between people and God.

This holistic, total training of disciples need not be merely aspirational in our churches or patchy in its execution. Reframing each element as a learning objective and pursuing it through a rigorous, systematic curriculum may be wise stewardship, ultimately building better churches for boundless witness.

  1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1998), 347.
  2. Willard, 347.

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Michael Zigarelli, PhD, is an author and a professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah University, Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, United States.

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