The Cohort Model of Christian Discipleship and Grimké College

By Andrew Lovette, Joe Holland    |    April 9, 2024

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When my (Andrew’s) wife and I got married, we became one flesh, and her Nissan Altima became my car. The best car is a car you own, but ownership over time always comes at a cost. As our marriage has matured through the years, so has our car, and although time may heal many wounds, vehicle repair depends on the skilled hands of a mechanic. Recently, I took our Nissan into the shop. In my experience, certain noises signal the driver to turn down the music or roll down the windows for further sonic investigation. But in my case, the sound my car was making told me I needed a mechanic.

My mechanic’s name is Lloyd. If you ever meet Lloyd, you won’t have any questions about his occupation. He presents covered in oil, wearing a durable, button-up khaki shirt, with hands powerful enough to unscrew the bolts that keep my tires affixed to the car. When I round the corner, Lloyd can tell what’s wrong with my car without ever popping the hood. Lloyd is the car-whisperer. He can hear the cacophony of sounds puttering down the street and have the part ready to replace. He keeps the history of my car at his fingertips like a practiced physician keeps a patient’s medical history. But how did Lloyd attain this level of grease monkey professionalism? Did he merely read about electrical systems, brakes, suspensions, and diagnostic techniques? Well, yes, he did, but that’s not all he did. Lloyd lives in the world of auto repair. If his head is in an engine with the hood popped, there are always younger aspiring technicians around him. Lloyd learned through immersion in a shop where cars were critiqued, listened to, and tinkered with, a feedback loop of constant cause and effect—listening and learning, diagnosing and treating. He could not attain knowledge of this kind merely by book, quiz, paper, and test. He needed to apprentice.

We learn best when we learn together in a community.”

—Andrew Lovette

Grimké College was founded to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12) in the local church. The robust theological foundation it provides is an unparalleled value in the theological education space. From access to Logos for all assigned reading, practical ministry assignments, mentor interviews, recorded panel discussions, weekly quizzes, a midterm, and a final–the courses are structured to provide a well-paced theological education. Members of local churches work their way through eight-week courses surveying the Old Testament to the New Testament, basics of biblical interpretation, philosophy and worldview, spiritual formation, marriage and family, systematic theology, and much more. A student who completes the program not only has a better understanding of the faith but becomes a better Christian.1

At our local church, we knew Grimké College would profoundly impact how we train and equip leaders. We didn’t realize how integral it would become to our plan to make disciples, train leaders, and raise up future pastors.

The Pedagogy of Apprenticeship and Cohorts

There is something to examining the work of master craftsmen to help hone our sense of biblical discipleship (in an ecclesial context). Few books have affected my (Joe’s) view of theological pedagogy more than Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. Crawford is a strange mix of intellectual—part PhD philosopher and part motorcycle mechanic (seriously). The third part of Crawford’s work shows the importance of apprenticing and mentoring for truly embodying a skill. Crawford writes about the power the apprenticing relationship when he considers how someone like Lloyd, or someone like a Grimké College student, commits to an embodied learning environment.

But consider that when you go deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear disgust in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to someone not initiated. In this way, judgment develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral formation.2

Anyone who has trained or been trained for Christian ministry understands by experience that raw intellectual training, while valuable, does not prepare one to lead and disciple others. In fact, book smarts without the skill of a disciple-maker, a skill only learned in an embodied community of disciple-making, can do more harm than good. And yet, so many of the ministry training options for Christians are based on the input-output model of information acquisition.

With this in mind, we crafted Grimké College from a particular theological pedagogy. And this pedagogy has two key aspects—one requisite, the other optional but highly recommended. First, a Grimké College student must be a member of a local church in a mentoring relationship with a leader in that local church. For too long, theological education has been conducted adjacent to, but not inside, the local church. Christian colleges and seminaries see theological and ministry education as a waypoint between two churches. There is the church you came from before you began your studies. Then, there is the church you’re going to go to after your theological studies. If you’re lucky, you can pick up an internship in the college or seminary town, but this adds yet a third church to the mix. Grimké College (and Grimké Seminary), due to our ecclesial focus, expects that students will pursue theological and ministry training in the context of the church they are members under the skilled mentorship of a leader who knows that church and community. A student’s mentor is that student’s lead professor. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

A second aspect of Grimké College is the recommendation that students learn in cohorts. A cohort would be a number of students taking a class at the same time under a skilled mentor. This is the equivalent of a bunch of novice auto mechanics standing around a car with Lloyd teaching them the ins and outs of an internal combustion engine. Students not only benefit from a skilled mentor but also benefit from each other; all of them are invested and immersed in a cadre of disciple-makers in training. Each student brings to the group their deficits and strengths, their questions and their answers. All students gain from the collegial learning environment that exists inside of an ecclesial community. This is how ministry training should be done.

This is exactly the kind of learning environment that The King’s Church (where Andrew pastors) created when they partnered with Grimké College to provide ministry training for their lay leaders.

Back to Lloyd and Our Church

With Crawford’s thoughts and Grimké College’s pedagogical philosophy in mind, think back to my (Andrew’s) friend Lloyd for a moment. I’m sure he had elements of formal training. But the local learning necessary to bring that half-knowledge to bear is crucial. A mechanic working in the shop learns with their hands in the drive shaft. Feeling the torque, listening to the engine, asking questions to master mechanics and working curiously. If the education remained theoretical it would remain incomplete. If I were dropping my car off to a man in a sear-sucker suit with no oil under his fingernails, I would rightly be suspicious of his ability to find the source of the ticking. The same is true of students pursuing theological education. Students need pastor-theologians who can help students follow Jesus by observing all he has commanded (Matthew 28:20).

When Grimké College launched, our church had four students enroll. Early on, it became clear we would need a space where the students could bring their half-knowledge to bear (enter the local church), and the cohort was born. I took on the role of adjunct professor, preparing companion teachings to complement the syllabus. We would meet together four times per course for a time of teaching and discussion. The students bring curiosity and questions to help frame our discussions. As a mentor, my role is to shape the students by clarifying the subject matter, pushing them to ask why the subject matter matters, and then probing for ways this changes how we live and serve the body of Christ. Together we seek to love God and love the specific, local people he has called us to by being in the cohort.

While there was a benefit to individual students walking through the content alone, the experience of a trained pastor functioning as a mentor/teacher allows students to dig deeper. Through being asked questions such as, “What does our church think about this? How does church history impact the way we do ministry?” YouTube University can (at best) only lead to half-formed disciples. Hearing and listening to others, questioning and seeking understanding in the moment, and agreeing and disagreeing create a learning environment that no “purely” online education can deliver.

The idea of coming together several times per course was not foreign to us, having attended so many intensives with the brothers at Grimké Seminary, but the ability to bring that experience to the local church has been a joy. We are in the process of integrating Grimké College into a formal church program with a designated line in our operating budget. We believe Grimké College is perfect for churches that want to raise resilient disciples who know and love God.

We learn best when we learn together in a community, among the people of God. You may need to start thinking of the way you make disciples differently. Perhaps there are lessons to learn that only Lloyd and his fellow mechanics can teach us. We learn deeply when we learn locally by applying immediately what we intake theoretically. If you are not fully satisfied with your current plan to develop leaders in your church, consider how to start your own “mechanics” cohort today, where students seek a greater worship of Jesus through theological education and practical ministry experience.

Find out more about hosting a Grimké College cohort in your church.

Find Out More
  1. Grimké College currently offers three certificate programs, a bachelor of Christian ministry (BCM), and a master of Christian ministry (MCM). See our program listing for more information.
  2. Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 210.
Andrew Lovette, Joe Holland

Andrew Lovette is associate pastor at The King’s Church in Lakeland, Fla.

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