Making Disciples: Implications from Successive Approximations

B. F. Skinner, arguably the most renowned research psychologist ever, taught pigeons how to play ping pong. Check it out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGazyH6fQQ4&sns=em. He also taught pigeons, among other tasks, to guide bombs and torpedoes.

Dr. Skinner shaped the behavior of pigeons and other animals through a technique he also called differential reinforcement of successive approximations. The technique involves the gradual changing of behavior from simple to more complex responses. Each newly-learned behavior is reinforced as it more closely approximates the complex behavior and until it is well-established. Consider this succession of pigeons’ reinforced behaviors: turning in the direction of the ball, looking at the ball, taking a step toward the ball, touching the ball with the beak, etc. Each is one behavior closer to playing ping pong.

Although pigeons are intelligent animals, they are no match for human beings. Yet, because of their achievements, there is much we can glean from their training. Here are seven implications for making disciples.

1. The potential for making more and better disciples is enormous, but much of the potential is untapped. We should humble ourselves before God, asking him for the courage of conviction to more effectively carry out the Great Commission.

2. Making disciples is a process. As it unfolds over time, our investments in new disciples require our time, commitment, focus, resources, and patience.

3. The starting point of discipleship varies from person to person. We should begin the process at each new disciple’s level of spiritual maturity, values, and disciplines, not at an arbitrary starting point.

4. New disciples develop successively. Although we can anticipate lapses and growing edges, our responsibility is to help disciples build on each growth point and not bypass critical growth points along the way.

5. Knowing in advance what it really means to be a disciple is essential. This knowledge, an embracing of an outcome orientation, enables us to correctly guide the process and avoid misdirection.

6. Affirmation is facilitative of the process. While understanding that correction also is integral to discipleship, we should continually affirm the growth in every disciple.

7. Expectations for new disciples should be high. From the outset, we should expect them to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and also themselves become makers of disciples.