A three-fold model for children’s discipleship: Learn, love, live

April 14, 2021

Jesus’s healing of the man by the pool of Bethesda was an impressive miracle, except in the religious leaders’ estimation. They were more concerned that Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath, so they began attacking Jesus. In the middle of Jesus’s lengthy reply to these hard-hearted leaders, we read this: “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life” (John 5:39–40 CSB).

Our temptation is to read this with a “Yeah they got what they deserved!” mentality. While that’s understandable, we need to read these verses with humility instead. In the Savior’s words, we find a sobering warning to us as disciple-makers, especially those of us who are discipling kids. 

These religious leaders knew the Scriptures. They were the Bible trivia champions of their day. But what did that amount to? Death. All of their meticulous study of the Scriptures didn’t move them even a fraction of an inch from death toward life. In this passage, we see that there is much more than just knowing Scripture; we have to know Jesus through Scripture

We don’t want to follow in the religious leaders’ steps and train up kids who know the Bible but are still dead in their sins because they haven’t come to know the One the Bible is all about. Rather, we want to disciple kids who have learned about Jesus through the Bible, love him, and live for him. 

Learn, love, live: The foundation of the Shema

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find this three-part structure of discipleship woven into what many consider to be the seminal passage on discipling kids in the Bible—the passage known as the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4–9. 

Learn. Notice how the Shema begins:

Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4 CSB).

The foundation of discipling kids is orthodoxy—having a right knowledge and belief about who God is. You cannot love whom you do not know, and you cannot live out what you do not know. So, in many ways, discipleship must begin with our targeting a child’s thinking—the head. We need to help kids understand God and his ways. We need to help kids engage their minds and think deeply about the gospel. But if discipleship ended here, it would be just a matter of information transfer; the religious leaders and even the demons would be excellent disciples (James 2:19).

Love. The Shema continues:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart (Deut. 6:5–6 CSB).

God’s intention is that the truth of who he is and the beauty of what he has done to restore our broken relationship with him should stir our affections for him and others. This is why Jesus pointed to the commands to love God (in Deuteronomy) and to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) as the two greatest commands in Scripture (Matt. 22:34–40). Love is the divinely appointed conduit that helps us to put what we know into practice.

As critical as love is in discipleship, it’s often neglected. The tendency is to move straight from learning to living. This robs kids of the opportunity to engage their feelings rightly. Orthodoxy should lead to orthopathy; right doctrine to rightly directed affections. Being moved deeply, that is, being filled with gratitude, love, and awe is the only reasonable response to what we learn. So, those who teach kids don’t just target right thinking, we also go after the heart. 

But if discipleship ended with the head and heart, it would be incomplete. Love is not love without action.

Live. The Shema concludes:

Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your city gates (Deut. 6:7–9 CSB).

Whether or not these commands to bind and write the law are to be taken literally or metaphorically, the result is the same: obedience to God’s commands should mark his people such that they are easily recognized by others.1For more on whether these instructions were intended to be literal or metaphorical, see Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 170–71; Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1–21:9, Revised, vol. 6A, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1994), 167–68. Knowing and loving God rightly will result in living rightly; this is called orthopraxy. Living on mission is not just extra credit for the spiritual elites; it is a requirement for all who believe, and it’s a test to determine whether a person has indeed learned and loved.

Required action is what Jesus had in mind when he explained what separates the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46. Jesus pointed to each group’s action or inaction as the reason they were judged as either saved or perishing. Jesus was not teaching a works-based salvation, but he was assuming a holistic discipleship process. His premise is that the righteous will do what they do because he knows them and has already transformed their heads and hearts It will be their natural and reasonable response to being in relationship with God. The inverse is just as true: it is unreasonable to contend that a person is a disciple of Jesus if he or she fails to live any differently. Our goal is not just to aim for the heads and hearts of those we are discipling, but also for their hands. 

Learn, love, and live: Putting discipleship into practice

How, then, do we put this learn-love-live discipleship triad into practice in our children’s ministries? Here are three tips to get you started:

Learn, love, and live: An inseparable triad

Learn. Love. Live. Learning the gospel must result in a love for the God of the gospel and then living out the gospel in our context. Orthodoxy develops orthopathy which prompts orthopraxy. But once the process begins, each propels a person toward the other two as a person grows to become a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. In this way, all three work together in a beautiful and fruitful symbiotic relationship. None of the parts can be removed.

Learning, loving, and living are like the three legs of a stool. Remove any one, and it all topples over. But when all three work together, they provide a solid foundation. 

The newest cycle of Lifeway’s Gospel Project curriculum was revised with this Learn, Love, Live paradigm in mind. Learn more at gospelproject.com.

Brian Dembowczyk

Before becoming the Gospel Project’s Managing Editor, Brian Dembowczyk served in local church ministry for over 16 years. Brian is completing a Ph.D. dissertation on family discipleship at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and holds both a D.Min. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a M.Div. from The Southern Baptist … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24