In Part One, we looked at the importance of imitation in relation to the pattern of the disciplers life and the process they use to make disciples. In this post, we are going to take an even closer look at how coaching differs from discipling.
Coaching is primarily focused on developing competency and skills in relation to performing certain tasks. If we use sports as an example, a basketball coach is looking to help his players become better dribblers, shooters, passers, and rebounders, as well as better team players. The really good coaches look to develop the character of their players as well. However, as some of you may be able to attest to, a player rarely has access to a coach outside of “practice” and “game time.” Despite a coach’s good intentions, without relational access to the coach’s life, the scope of imitation in the relationship will typically be limited to what is made available during organized times of “practice” and “game time.” The learner, then, in a coaching relationship, will be primarily focused on imitating the methods and practices which the coach uses to train the players during practice and game times. In this sense, coaching is somewhat one dimensional in that it is primarily task, or process oriented.
What makes a discipling relationship different from a coaching relationship is that the learners in a discipling relationship, in addition to participating in an organized process, will also have what we call “organic access” access to the leader’s life. Organic access includes regular times of interaction where the disciple shares in the rhythm and pattern of the discipler’s life. Things like eating dinner together, exercising together, or just plain hanging out for the fun of it. Basically, sharing life together.
Adding “organic access” to an “organized process” is what moves a coaching relationship to a discipling relationship. The inverse is equally true. When access to the leader is restricted to an organized process, then the nature of that relationship will, by definition, shift away from being a discipling relationship and be characterized by other types of learning relationship. Without access to the leader’s life, the scope of imitation will default to the more narrow venue of the organized training environment. Notice the diagram below.
While a discipling relationship is the ideal thing to shoot for when it comes to learning, distance and availability do not always afford this kind of relationship to take place. If time, distance or other variables pose a challenge to the disciple having organic access to the leader’s life, then a coaching relationship is possibly the next best thing to be involved in. As you notice from the diagram above, coaching still involves an organized process, but it lacks the kind of relational interaction to qualify as a discipling relationship.
The other two kinds of relationships where learning can take place are through spiritual fathers and mothers in Christ, and advisors. Fathers and mothers in Christ give us organic access to their life, but do not always provide an organized process of learning. It is typically on an as needs basis. Paul described himself as the father of the Corinthians because he helped bring them into existence through his seeding of the gospel. However, by virtue of his absence, Paul did not sustain an ongoing “discipling” relationship with them. This is not to say that imitation could not take place in the relationship. However, the scope of imitation was limited to their memory of his example via his absence, hence the need to send Timothy (I Cor 4:12-17.)
Spiritual fathers and mothers in Christ can be a source of encouragement and accountability to us. They are there for us when we need counsel or encouragement, and they can also be there when we don’t want them to be, if they feel we need to be admonished or exhorted to pay attention to something we have neglected to pay attention to. They are people we often orbit in and out of our spiritual household (oikos) or extended family, or we orbit in and out of theirs.
Advisers are people who we deem to have wisdom and discernment, but may or may not be a part of our “oikos,”(spiritual household) or extended family. It is advisers who, upon our request, offer occasional feedback and input into our lives. Advisers could be elders or other spiritual leaders in your relational network.
A SQUARE IS A RECTANGLE, BUT A RECTANGLE IS NOT NECESSARILY A SQUARE
I always get this phrase mixed up, but it is a valuable phrase. A rectangle, like a square, has four right angles. But having four right angles does not make somethign a square. No, a square has another feature that puts it into a different category. A square has four right angles PLUS four sides of equal length. A square is more defined and therefore occupies a different category than a rectangle.
So to apply this to our discussion, discipling includes coaching, but not all coaching can rightly be called discipling. A discipling relationship, by definition, has additional features that set it apart from other learning relationships.
Clarity in this area is critical if we are looking to obey Jesus’ command to be and make disciples. Without access to the leader’s life, the relationship will not be able to supply the range of exposure and learning characterized by a discipling relationship.
This reality poses a dilemma. If we only coach people on how to disciple people instead of discipling people to disciple people, we essentially violate the principle of imitation. We end up saying, in part, “do what I say not do what I do.”
There really is no way around this dilemma. Coaching people on how to be and make disciples, by definition, will always possess this inherent contradiction. However, naming this distinction between coaching and discipling allows us to name the relationship for what it is, and thereby guard the generative nature of authentic discipleship. If someone walks away from a coaching relationship and thinks they experienced discipleship, then the coach has failed to adequately define the relationship.