Has your walk with the Lord been a text book case? Have you memorized the five steps to powerful prayer, found your purpose in a best-selling study guide or multiplied your wealth by becoming a hilarious giver? Chances are, no. Though there is a fortune to be made in Christian self-help books, tapes and television, they only marginally help us. Only occasionally, lottery odds occasionally, an insight breaks through and makes a lasting impact in our lives.
I hunger for life-changing, transformational insight, guidance and encouragement, and though that might be advertised on the label, I usually find that I get a package full of promises but can’t seem to find the goods. The real goods, I’ve found, come in the form of faces and names—trusted relationships that turn the Word into flesh. And this is the Church’s largest need, greatest opportunity and most pressing challenge: to deliver on the promise of transformation by finding and nurturing mentors.
When I first met the Lord in high school, some 30-plus years ago, I developed a voracious appetite to learn God’s ways. My hunger led me to attend any event, visit several churches and consume every book or audio tape recommended to me. Like searching for gold, I sifted through a lot of dirt to find even the smallest nuggets of truth. You probably have similar experiences from your journey, too.
While many of my friends found Sunday school, audio tapes, books, Bible studies or parachurch organizations like Navigators helpful, I desired a less structured but more personal style of discipleship. I entered my Christian faith expecting to find at the very least the kind of coaching I received as an athlete. However, my early Christian growth and grounding was largely hit and miss.
I eventually found the personal kind of discipleship that I was looking for in a rather odd place: a course in Rabbinical Judaism during my sophomore year of college. It was there that I discovered the intimate relational context of Jesus and Paul and the discipleship model that they had both experienced and utilized. I got excited. Not because I barely passed, but because I now saw discipleship in a completely different light.
Mentoring or coaching really didn’t capture what I read in those early-century texts. The image of fatherhood felt better but carried with it a lot of distorted baggage. Regardless of what it was called, with a hungry heart and a naïve framework of discipleship, I was ready for the plunge into a radical experience that would transform my life.
I searched for and eventually found two mentors: Professor Clifford Christians and Pastor Charles Simpson. Professor Christians became an academic mentor who helped me to develop a biblical worldview while giving me necessary tools to understand secular culture. The enthusiasm I gained in our joint research and dialogue continued well after school and eventually led to the kind of thinking that resulted in my book The Millennium Matrix.
Charles Simpson became the second and more substantial influence in my life. During my search for mentorship I was given one of his audio tapes. Though I had never heard of him, his effect on me was nearly immediate. Simpson’s critique of the Church’s tendency to focus solely on evangelism at the cost of leaving new converts to teach themselves resonated deeply with me.
As an excited young Christian, I very presumptuously wrote Pastor Simpson, explaining that his tape had planted a "seed" in me, one that needed to be tended to. Through an interesting series of events, he contacted me through a member of his congregation who had also been attending my university. Needless to say, I was surprised and impressed, and, over a 20-year relationship with Simpson, I have learned several significant lessons.
First, discipleship is a relationship born out of mutual faith. The mentor or master’s role has little to do with Bible study and is much more about imparting Christ’s identity. This relationship is about clarifying destiny, dealing with sin and self-centeredness and learning how to really serve. In the relational aspect of discipleship, I learned how to hear the Lord and respond in faith. And I found that I had the necessary affirmation to move forward as a mature believer capable of helping others similarly.
Of course, true discipleship is much more than accountability meetings over coffee or short, preplanned Bible studies. As young Christians, we learn very much like children. Lasting lessons are rarely planned but are born out of life circumstances. Children learn best experientially: when they run errands with their parents or watch their parents’ dealings with others, they are always listening, picking up the rhythms and movements of their mothers and fathers. The same holds true for discipling relationships: the more time we spend in fellowship and work with one another, the more lasting lessons emerge.
I will say that this model of discipleship that I have experienced is not a particularly quick or efficient way of "becoming"; however, it seems to be the most effective. Efficiency rarely equates to effectiveness when it comes to human life. Look, for example, at the current state of our nation’s foster care system. Anyone who has been remotely connected to foster care knows how dreadful and ineffective it is—even with those who do eventually find homes. Unfortunately, foster care is a good parallel to the Church’s approach to discipleship—it often relies on shallow and heartlessly programmatic ways of dealing with new Christians.
When the world is looking for adoption, it’s important that we not give them more self-help or leave them to our current foster-care-style systems. The world doesn’t need to know more facts about Christ or to be herded through one-size-fits-all programs—they need to know Christ through the living example of loving and vibrant relationships.