Is it true that Christian education, discipleship, and spiritual formation all mean the same thing? To many people, the words are used interchangeably but should they be? Christian education, discipleship, and spiritual formation are all in the same ballpark.
While these words should mean the same thing, they have different connotations to the average person. To start with, they are all similar in that they have the same goal in mind. Education, discipleship, and spiritual formation all seek to make a more mature Christian. They differ in their methodology however.
Education is knowledge acquired by learning or instruction. Christian education is therefore acquired Christian knowledge. Most often this is thought of as formal education but this can in fact come from anywhere. One can be educated by a television program, through one-on-one discipleship, or through the written words of another in a book. Some people are educated for education’s sake and do not apply what they know. This is the drawback of education. Ideally application is emphasized but a person can be educated with no call to action for use of the information.
Discipleship takes education a step further. It seeks to not only impart knowledge on a student but to also give guidance on how to make this practical. While educating, a teacher can offer practical application but they are unable to follow up with every student individually. In the case of discipleship, a teacher can follow up with each student to see how they are applying the principles because there are far fewer students.
Spiritual formation comes as a result of practical application. Paul summarizes spiritual formation in Colossians 1:10, “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” Spiritual formation may come as a result of personal application of teaching, it may result from one-on-one discipleship, or it may result from a Christian’s personal study of God’s Word along with prayer and fasting.
We see education, discipleship, and spiritual formation evident in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus taught to the masses, thousands of people at some times. Some heard but never actually learned what was said. Some understood and learned but never applied the lessons. Others accepted the teaching and became followers of Jesus. Jesus cast a wide net, knowing that some people would accept His teaching while others would reject it.
Jesus obviously modeled discipleship and did so better than anyone else. He personally invested His life into the lives of twelve men. From those twelve He had an inner circle of three men, Peter, James, and John. He personally made sure that they understood His teaching and made it practical to them. His success ratio was far greater than with just His teaching but even discipleship did not guarantee results as Judas Iscariot still rejected Him.
Finally spiritual formation came as a result of everything that Jesus did. Some in the crowds accepted Jesus’ teaching, applied it, and grew spiritually because of it. The disciples were obviously cast in the mold of Jesus. And even after Jesus had left this earth spiritual formation continued as a result of what He taught and what the disciples understood with the help of the Holy Spirit.