I Was Never “Mentored”

This is a conclusion to a topic of discipleship that we all seem to neglect: Mentoring. This writer Dr. David Nelson, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Worth reading this, reading the followup and then read the earlier articles in the series.

Feb 8th, 2010 by David Nelson

This is the third installment of blogs I penned while spending time with overseas workers during the month of January. Not all of these blogs are specifically about “missions,” but are topics raised during my time spent with these workers.

Mentorship is all the rage. Everyone wants to be “mentored” and not a few people want to be a “mentor.” And mentorship has easily found its way into forms of discipleship among evangelicals. Fundamental to mentorship in Christian discipleship is the notion that a mature believer can pass on wisdom and help to shape the life of another.

None would (or should – I’m sure we’ll find some oddball who would) quarrel with the value of such a relationship between two believers. During discussions with overseas workers I found myself, however, confirming some of my suspicions that one-on-one “mentoring” relationships may not be the best form of discipleship.

The one-on-one discipleship movement is usually cast in the context of “Paul/Timothy” relationships, and no doubt there is something to be learned from whatever we learn of that relationship in the biblical text. But I wonder about the wisdom, not to mention the accuracy, of suggesting that the “Paul/Timothy” model is the model for Christian discipleship. I think not, and let me explain why.

The relationship of Paul and Timothy is largely unknown to us. We have limited information from the text itself, and are left to infer the nature of the relationship, the time they spent together, and the nature of the discipleship that occurred between them.

As well, there simply isn’t a singular pattern in the Scriptures that is monolithic or that is prescribed as the primary means of discipleship. Jesus taught the masses and discipled a group of men. And even when we find in Scripture those indications of more personal attention given by Jesus, it isn’t strictly in a “one-on-one” relationship. We should not, therefore, read too much into the descriptions of these relationships in the text. We should not draw too little, of course, but neither should we draw too much.

While overseas I listened to our workers talk about the task of discipling, and I learned more about what I had discovered in my work here in the states. That is, that discipleship is best done in the context of the community. The one-on-one model lacks the robust opportunities for the formation of life that is found when a believer is influenced by more than one person.

Put another way, the one-on-one model often highlights the strengths of the discipler, but may also unduly reproduce the weaknesses. I became acutely aware of this some years ago when I saw a person who had met one of my “disciples” (a young man I “mentored” for about two years) and our mutual friend commented, “Oh, I wasn’t with him ten minutes before I knew he was your disciple.” As I listened to him explain why I realized that the young man had not only been positively shaped by me, but had also picked up some quirks and peculiarities from me that I could only hope he would outgrow.

Granted, this sort of thing is inevitable in human relationships, but it leads me to ask if the Paul/Timothy model (or a distortion of it) doesn’t have some weaknesses that would lead us to value more highly the prospects of something like the relationship of Priscilla and Aquilla with Apollos, or the model of a mother and father with their child. And to realize that the longer one person disciples another, we might find the greater the possibility that they will absorb weaknesses from their mentor as well as strengths.

In 1 Corinthians we gain some insight into the problems that occur when disciples identify too much with a certain figure in the church. We don’t need anyone in the church to be “of David” or “of Bruce” or “of Nathan” or “of Danny.” We need them to be “of Christ” and our discipleship models should lead us to that end.

Don’t get me wrong. There have been some individuals who have clearly influenced my life – for the good. One older couple was a key influence on me when I was a young man, just starting university. A pastor helped to breed in me a love for the Scriptures and the discipline of theology. Another older man showed me the patterns of a disciplined life. And my doctoral mentor formed in me the desire to be rigorous and relentless in the pursuit of truth and the ministry of the gospel.

I am and always will be grateful for the influence of these men and women. But note that it was a variety of members of God’s church who formed my life as a disciple of Jesus. And among those examples, some of them influenced me concurrently – the body of Christ was used by the Spirit to shape my life.

The “Paul/Timothy” model may not be a discipleship “paradigm” at all. But even if it is, it is only one description of discipleship. It is not commanded, nor does it even appear to be a primary means of forming a Christian way of life.

Rather, life in the community of faith, the cultivation of a liturgical life, and the enactment of faith as a way of life is the stuff of real discipleship. And the church should be diligent and intentional about shaping the life of the community to allow for relationships that form mature disciples.

Perhaps in a subsequent blog I’ll flesh out what that may look like, but for now I’ll leave us with this little challenge to think more thoroughly about the nature of discipleship than we may have previously. And I’ll note that this is what happened to me the past month while joined together to learn with my friends from overseas. We together, in community – studying together, arguing together, eating together, living together – helped to form one another in Christ.

So thank you to my friends – you have made me a better disciple of our Lord.

This article is found at <http://betweenthetimes.com/2010/02/08/i-was-never-“mentored”-a-report-from-the-field-part-3/&gt;

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