“No comprende.”

My friend tried again, but was met by the same response.

“No comprende.”

I looked at my friend’s face. He has taken three years of high school Spanish and one year of college Spanish. Yet, nobody in Nicaragua could understand him.

I think what frustrated my friend most was when the Nicaraguans understood my English better than his Spanish!

Later that evening, I asked our translator why my friend’s Spanish was hard to understand. She explained that academic Spanish was different from conversational Spanish. It’s one thing to know vocabulary and grammar, yet it is a totally different thing to know how people use the language.

Linguists have known for years that the best way to learn a language is by immersion rather than the classroom. I can attest to that. Several students from the church I pastored spent a summer in Nicaragua and came back with the ability to speak Spanish intelligibly.

That’s not to downplay learning the academic side of Spanish. Certainly, there is great value in knowing how to conjugate verbs, identify nouns, and use prepositions. But without conversational skills, none of the grammar matters.

It reminds me of the difference between learning about the Christian life in a classroom or pew versus learning the Christian life by experience. Both are needed.

That’s why discipleship requires both teaching and experience. Most discipleship “programs” focus teaching. Notebooks, videos, and discussion questions help believers learn facts about the Christian life. These are valuable as long as the believer has real-life situations in which to connect the concepts.

Discipleship is more than a set of lessons. It must be a lifestyle.

Walking alongside more mature believers is the quickest way to grow (Proverbs 13:20). Just like a person learns to communicate faster when survival depends on it, a person learns to depend upon Christ when thrust into a situation that demands faith. Experience makes learning meaningful.

The Scriptures describe plenty of real-life situations in which Christ taught His disciples through life-immersion. Yet, rarely do we observe Christ sitting down with His men for a weekly lesson. And when we do, it is always as a follow-up to the life-situation in order to answer questions and give clarity.

Paul also made disciples this way. When writing to the Thessalonians, he recalled the investing in the Thessalonians through teaching and relational experiences.

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us (Thessalonians 2:7-8).

Paul points out that he shared both the gospel (teaching) and himself (life experience) with the people. In Acts 20:20 he similarly speaks of investing in the Ephesians in public (teaching) and house-to-house (life experience).

When a believer’s grows academically in the faith rather than experientially, they may know all the theological answers, but have no skills to implement them into life. They aren’t “fluent” in the Christian life.

On the other hand, those who have vast, real-life experience with mature believers, but little instruction, may follow their “gut” or “instincts” without knowing how to process each situation biblically.

Disciples need both: teaching and life experience.

If you want to be most effective in making disciples, spend time in real-life situations with your disciple. Hang out away from the small group or bible study. Let the disciple into your life.

But don’t stop there. Let your experiences together drive you to search the Scriptures. Spend time studying the God’s Word together.

Help your disciple learn by immersion and improve with study.