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

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:

  • Ensure your curriculum is balanced. Grab three different highlighters and a few sessions of your curriculum. Go through each, highlighting everything that focuses on learning in one color, loving in another color, and living in yet another. When you are done, if you notice a lack of one or more areas, consider how you can work with your teachers to include or expand those areas beyond what is in the leader guides. 
  • Ensure your ministry is balanced. Your impact on kids goes beyond your curriculum. Consider a similar exercise with your calendar and highlight your events according to what each one’s major win is or should be. Not only will this help you balance your ministry, but it will also help you as you plan each event—making sure each one is faithful to its purpose. 
  • Ensure your kids are balanced. We all have a bent toward either learning, loving, or living. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it should be encouraged. But at the same time, we want to make sure that each child (and leader, too) is growing holistically as a disciple. So that kid who is a learner by nature may need to be stretched to love and live more. That kid who is quick to live may need to be encouraged to slow down and learn at times. We don’t want to stifle natural growth, but neither do we want to encourage disproportionate growth. 

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 and living without loving is legalism. We see this in Jesus’s description of the Pharisees in in Matthew 23:27–28. He said they were whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but dead on the inside.
  • Loving and living without learning is liberalism. We see this in many cults where people live passionately under their leaders’ errant guidance rather than under God’s inerrant truth.
  • Learning and loving without living is libertinism. We see this in church history in the monks, who withdrew from society to learn about God and love him in vacuum, without being salt and light in their communities. 

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.



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