It is not great talents God bless so much as great likeness to Jesus. —Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-43)
Watch this video first. Then read the article.
When Christians think about discipling, they think about method, about how to—what topics to cover, how to organize them, how to cover each one, assignments, and time structure. But the apostle Paul didn’t think this way. He thought about following Jesus, imitating him so that people could see how to follow Jesus by watching his example and following him. Paul distilled it this way, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” and he repeated this consistently (1 Cor. 11:1)[a]
Missionary George Patterson loves to say, “People are apers. They are always aping someone.” Paul understood this. He knew believers would copy him. So he imitated Christ in all of life, doing everything to the glory of God, [b] and called his churches to imitate him just like he imi-tated Christ. His churches knew how to work hard and do quality work. Paul showed them. They knew how to serve customers well, how to handle the joys and struggles of work, how to suffer wrong with genuine contentment. Paul showed them. And they knew how to inte-grate work and ministry. Many were recipients. They saw as well as heard God’s grace through Paul.
So foremost in discipling is living and exhibiting godly discipleship. Accordingly, fervent, godly pastor Robert Murray McCheyne said, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.”
When we see a Christian living some tough truth in Scripture like putting God’s kingdom first and hear how they think and respond, it is easy for us to do it. When I arrived at Johns Hop-kins University as a new InterVarsity staff member, I ended up launching a new group. This made it easier to build new patterns. But the Christians were very intimidated by academic demands and by relativistic secularism. None of them believed that they could seek first the kingdom of God and all these things they needed would be added unto them. (Mt. 6:33) They did not believe that they could put God first and still be good students. And they did not believe that the gospel could transform people on campus. They had not seen this practiced in their youth groups. We faced a huge hurdle.
So I started a discipleship group which they committed to attend faithfully and to do whatever God showed us in the Bible. Then we began studying what God wanted us to do in personal Bi-ble study and prayer, evangelism, working together, etc. Slowly, they began taking small steps of faith, stepping out into the “impossible.” God honored, and they took more steps. My faith and example helped and so did members’ examples as they shared stories. They began giving time to God’s agenda in their lives and they began reaching out.
Over the next two years, incredible growth occurred. They developed patterns of personal Bi-ble study and prayer, of studying together and praying, of witnessing. And they discovered that they could still be good students. In fact, they became better students. They also saw that God did work in students’ hearts and they came to Christ!
The impact on new Christians on campus was amazing. They found it much easier to build these practices into their lives. When they first arrived they also did not believe these things were possible, but they saw Christians doing them and copied. The group quickly grew to 60 with nonbelievers steadily coming to Christ and believers being changed and following him.
Christians must see the truth lived to understand and do it. They cannot do what leaders teach but do not do. Actions negate words. When leaders teach something they don’t practice, they have not figured out how to do it in real life and cannot show others. They cannot pass on what they do not know. Instead, followers they copy what they see.
This explains much weakness in the church. We are attracted to method, technique, and or-ganization. Many pastors talk about God’s great power to save people, but run a program powered by polished performance, trendy music, feel-good messages, and emotive group dy-namics. Nonbelievers respond to the emotional pull rather than the convicting work of the Spirit. And Christians equate strong feelings in worship with genuine love for God even though their life does not match.
Leaders tell people to trust God because he is in control, but clearly worry about money or health or whatever. So their hearers do the same. A friend has gone through a very tough time facing the risk of bankruptcy and losing property. She kept saying that she just put it in God’s hands and trusted him. Yet she worried so much that she lost weight and could not fo-cus in her work. She was not able to rest in God in the midst of the threat. She was simply emulating others—worrying intensely while thinking she wasn’t because she kept saying, “I’m just putting it in God’s hands.”
Nothing can substitute for likeness to Christ. Only by living example can people see the reality of Christ’s teaching, believe it is possible, understand how, and do it. Christ-likeness is more caught than taught.
I have seen wonderful examples. I remember a speaker during a Spiritual Emphasis Week at Bible school who radiated joy in God as he opened Scripture. He awakened in me deeper long-ings to pursue God. I also knew someone in high school who lived in such enjoyment of God that friends would stop and ask him what caused such joy and peace in him.
I learned how to dig out what the Bible is saying with questioning, diligence, and carefulness from Christians who showed me and opened it to me. I’ve learned more of relating to, loving, and moving nonbelievers toward Christ through the example and teaching of Ruth Siemens and Ari Rocklin. John Alexander, President of IVCF, powerfully reinforced the absolute priority of godliness in leadership. Over and over he said, “Godliness comes first.”
[a] 1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Th. 1:6; 2 Th. 3:7, 9; Phil. 3:17; Of imitating other examples: 1 Th. 2:14; The writer of Hebrews uses this idea in 6:12 and 13:7. Example and model are used similarly in Phil. 3:17; 1 Th. 1:7; 1 Tim. 1:16, 4:12; Tit. 2:7
[b] 1 Cor. 10:31