Discipleship through Mentoring

October 18th, 2011

Gordon MacDonald is passionate about encouraging and developing younger people in their faith. As chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large of Leadership Journal, his latest book is Going Deep: Becoming a Person of Influence, in which he continues the fictionalized leadership story of his earlier book, Who Stole My Church? We spoke to Gordon recently about discipleship, mentoring, and his time-tested method for developing committed followers of Christ.


We’ve heard a lot of pastors say that discipleship needs to be top priority in the church today, but I rarely hear much about how to do that. What would you say are the keys to real, effective discipleship in the church?

The word discipleship has been kicked around for at least fifty years and generally alludes to one person giving spiritual direction to another person, as people in evangelical churches borrowed that concept from Catholic tradition. In my experience, this translates to “were gonna sit and talk about Bible verses or spiritual issues for a while.” It’s something done on the side. What I did in Going Deep is to say this is the most important role of the pastor.

We’re in a new day in American culture, where you can make very little assumption that people have a background in church, in the Bible, the ability to discover their own gifts, etc. Pastors no longer have the low-hanging fruit of knowing people have that background and going from there. Going Deep is about pastors building people from the ground up, making that central to the church, developing spiritual leaders of the future.

You emphasize mentoring as a discipleship technique in Going Deep—older Christians mentoring younger ones. Does this always mean older in terms of age, or in spiritual maturity and length of experience as a Christian?

It often means age, to begin with, though not exclusively. Older in experience if not in years. It’s what I call in the book the rabbinical model. In Jesus’ day, there were teachers called rabbis who traveled around, gathered people around them, and taught. Those were like the colleges or seminaries of the day. For these people, it was life-on-life; they lived with the rabbi 24/7, tried to study and emulate that rabbi. They didn’t study books, they studied people, so you had, essentially, text-people, not textbooks. A rabbi would teach people the Old Testament, and by the time he was through with them, they would know what he knew, then they would go out and replicate that teaching with others. It was like a pyramid. This is how things went viral in those days.

But it was a 24-hours-a-day thing. Today, we’d like to do this in an hour and a half class, and we wonder why it doesn’t work.

Why don’t we see more of this in today’s church?

Pastors like to think the most important thing they do is preaching, but it really is the training of leaders. You can’t delegate this to second and third tier staff. The pastor has got to be doing this himself or herself.

Preaching changes very few people. People are comforted, inspired, and occasionally a sermon really reaches into someone’s heart and years later they tell you that a certain sermon changed the direction of their life. But it happens far more rarely than we realize. Ask people what the life-changers for them were, and you’ll find it almost always happens in context of small group or personal relationship.

You’ve been described as an “encourager of younger people.” What do you feel are the challenges faced by younger people today, and what is it that older mentors offer that is key to their growth as disciples?

My own call, I think, for this part of my life, was sharpened eight or nine years ago when I heard the Holy Spirit saying that I was to “be a father to younger people.” We’re in a crisis because so many people lack a relationship with their father. If you ask ten people about their childhood and family, many will tell you a sad story. Hillary Clinton was right when she wrote the book, It Takes a Village. It does take a village, or at least an extended family. It’s becoming important than men and women my age fill that role for younger people. To be their encouragers, affirmers, to answer questions, and give them a picture of what a mature Christian life looks like, because these models are not ubiquitous these days.

Going Deep is written in the same style as one of your previous books, Who Stole My Church?, which is essentially a leadership book written in the form of fiction. What will readers learn from the overall story of this fictional congregation?

There are several things, in no particular order. They’re going to learn what a husband and wife look like when they work together as a team, how a pastor talks to a lay leadership team, how decisions are made in the church, and how spiritual leaders might go about training younger people.

Why choose fiction to communicate these principles?

We’ve got a thousand books on discipleship today; most are “three steps to this,” “four steps to that.” You get the feeling “I’ve been there before, done that.” Putting it in fiction gives the opportunity to show how people speak to one another in making decisions, and solving problems. You create scenarios and let the characters dance in those scenarios.

If you’ve been a pastor for many years, as I have, you know these people very well. They form composite characters. You’re like a stenographer, sitting in the church and writing down the stories of these people. I’ve had pastors all over contact me to say “I know every one of these people. You must have hung around my church and seen these people.” People connect with the stories of this church because they know these people. Fiction is a very effective tool if used correctly, to let readers insert themselves into the book and think about how they would respond in these situations.

As the main characters of the book, you and your wife, Gail, lead the CDP program (Cultivating Deep People). How would real life pastors go about implementing such a program in their churches?

I think the book would give them a good menu. I tried to be specific enough to give a framework, but creative and innovative enough to let people stamp themselves into the process. Real discipleship requires time and intentionality. When Jesus sought to make disciples, he didn’t plan a meeting for 7:00 at the synagogue. He went down to the shore and spoke their language, got involved in their lives.

The book is fiction, but the CDP program is based on the fact that Gail and I did this for ten years. We faithfully picked the people we were going to invite and set a very high bar for them. We said, “If you will give us your Monday nights for forty weeks, three hours a week in our home; if you’ll make this commitment, if you’ll do all this, we’ll pour our lives into you. Don’t back out. Don’t tell me you’ll have to miss because of a baseball game. . .” And we knew not everyone would accept. Out of the twenty we’d invite, maybe thirteen or fourteen would say yes.

So you’ve got a group of people in their twenties and thirties willing to pay the price. Over these years, we kept these disciplines very high, and at the end of the year we were able to see people develop in a way that won’t if people are just gathering on their own accord. After ten years, there are now 130-140 people in various forms of Christian leadership and service. And it all began because they spent time in a living, learning community and let Gail and I pour our lives into them and teach them how to pour into others’ lives.

As you said, there are so many people who can’t commit to such a high standard of accountability. How can a leader nourish those other people at a level they are ready for?

Pastors have to see the people they’re with in concentric circles. Even Jesus had his twelve, then he had a circle of 70-100. A pastor has these inner circles, and then he or she has the larger congregation of people who are regular parts of the church, and even a fourth circle of people outside the church—folks that you want to be in touch with as much as possible. These are the people you’re evangelizing. You’ve got a responsibility for all these people, but you have a higher responsibility to this inner circle. This is like the group of people that Jesus vetted. It is estimated he spent 80% of his time with the twelve. He taught others, but he poured himself into that inner circle.

People throughout history, Socrates and others, knew that if they were to perpetuate their teachings, they had to create a group of people who would teach others. One of the biggest mistakes we make in church is thinking that the people we teach are the last link in the chain. We need to put in motion this process of mentoring, a process that will perpetuate itself generation after generation. After you’re dead, people will still be influenced by those you influenced.

comments powered by Disqus