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The Impossible Mentor, Part Two

Like any writer, the narcissist in me believes you would enjoy a peek into the book I plan to release this fall, The Impossible Mentor. Advance praise for this book comes from my wife, my children, and the stray cat we keep feeding at the back door. They all agree: this will be the finest book on spiritual formation ever to come out of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Just because these witnesses are deeply biased doesn’t mean they are wrong, it just means they will buy the first thousand copies.

This week and next I’ll share the opening passages of the first few chapters. Today, a bit from the opening of Chapter Two:

Chapter One: "I'm Not Jesus!"

Chapter Two: "You're Not, Either"

The class held about thirty students. A class that size guarantees a mix of sleepers, zombies, texters and those rare few who participate in discussion. We had spent the whole hour talking about whether Jesus could have possibly been serious when he said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” One student seemed to pay particular attention but hadn’t spoken up once during the period. I decided to draw her into the discussion.

“So we’re just about done for today. Tiffanie, you’ve been listening hard but haven’t offered your opinion. Why don’t you have the last word?”

She shifted in her seat and said, “I don’t know if He was serious, but one thing’s for sure: you’re not Jesus.”

Our inability to connect with Jesus as the model for our lives has two immediate consequences.  First, all other Christian role models pale in comparison to the perfect Son of God.  This means that since no one measures up to the Master, no one is qualified to lead us.  Regarding our own behavior we are tempted to say, “I’m not Jesus.”  When we encounter another believer who could possibly become an example for us the same defense mechanism rises up to say, “You’re not, either.”  Second, because earthly mentors are fallible we have trained ourselves to keep our guard up, to remain at a distance.  There are too many examples of fallen Christian leaders.  We are determined not to be drawn into a close relationship with those who could nurture us into Christlikeness, because they could also let us down.  So we end up with no role models at all.

Beware the pastor who plays on your church-league softball team.  Or basketball.  Or horseshoes.  You will discover that your pastor has character flaws like the Jordan River, deep and wide.  If he is athletic he is likely to be considered too competitive, and if he is not athletic he likely doesn’t take the game seriously enough.  We started a church softball team at our church in order to encourage the value of community--and ended up losing two families by the end of the season!

If we have difficulty embracing the flawless Son of God as our life coach, then an accessible human mentor would seem to be just the ticket.  Unfortunately Christian leaders are at a real disadvantage when compared to Jesus.  Not only is Jesus perfect, he also isn’t here.  That means we are left with imperfect leaders whose flaws are available daily for inspection.  Most people will pay lip service to the idea that there is “no perfect leader,” but when the flaws begin to show through, lip service gives way to disappointment, hurt feelings, and criticism. This is the second challenge to taking the yoke that Jesus offers.  The Christian who hears the call to discipleship is faced with two difficult choices in looking for a mentor.  First, Jesus is the Impossible Mentor; second, most Christian leaders are Unqualified Mentors.  The church is left with no mentors at all.

Over the decades I discovered that most youth leaders and pastors were unwilling to step forward and suggest that they can teach people how to become conformed to the image of Christ.  In church after church the substance of sermon after sermon was either our need for a savior or our responsibilities to live up to the commandments we find in the Bible.  The “how to” of Christian living was strangely missing.

Then, one day, almost by accident, I came across an amazing statement by the Apostle Paul.  It startled me because it was so different from what I was used to hearing in church.  This man, Paul, said: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”  (I Corinthians 11: 1)  Paul seemed to be confident in his relationship with Jesus.  Although he once referred to himself as “the worst of sinners,” he claimed to know what was required to follow Jesus and invited people to imitate his actions.  Instantly I knew I needed exactly this: someone to imitate.  Jesus was still the goal, but Paul was someone who did something more than simply point to the goal.  He told the Corinthians, "Here. I'll show you how."

How many Christians (or even leaders in the church) make such statements today?  I suspect that many people would consider Paul’s words boastful if they heard someone else say them.  Yet this is exactly what Jesus instructed his followers in the Great Commission when he charged his disciples with making more disciples, and to “teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 20)  I believe this is the second challenge for those who want to become followers of Jesus.  We have a gospel that promotes forgiveness and exalts Jesus as Savior.  We have Biblical language that exalts Jesus as Lord.  We do not, however, have much of an idea about how to make disciples who will actually become like Jesus.

Reader Comments (5)

One of the reasons why I didn't go into pastoral ministry was the job board at seminary with all of the qualifications for pastors. Each time I reach one of them, I thought to myself, "They just want me to be Jesus." In seriousness, the list of preferred qualities for pastors are pretty crazy sometimes, and we forget that pastors are people who God can use to do extraordinary things, but they have their limits, quirks, and flaws too.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEd Cyzewski

I get it, Ed. Coming out of college I went into the business world for pretty much the same reason. I think we all need to be reminded that Jesus chose radically un-qualified men to be his disciples. Even with Jesus as a mentor they remained deeply-flawed *and still* Jesus used them. Plus--they became world-changers!

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

I have noticed, too, that some people to whom God has absolutely given the gift of leadership--a good mind, good personality, and an air of being in charge and at least appearing to know what they are doing most of the time--are willing to exercise it in a non-ministerial vocation but allow it to languish in spiritual matters.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I have noticed, too, that some people to whom God has absolutely given the gift of leadership--a good mind, good personality, and an air of being in charge and at least appearing to know what they are doing most of the time--are willing to exercise it in a non-ministerial vocation but allow it to languish in spiritual matters.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Excellent point. The gift will find expression, won't it?

It's a bit distressing that much of the business world embraces mentoring of up-and-comers (despite the obvious flaws of the "elders"), while large sections of North American evangelicalism seem to run from it.

May 3, 2012 | Registered CommenterRay Hollenbach

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