About this time last year I posted a reflection on the ambivalence many Christians feel about following Jesus. You can read The Impossible Mentor in full, but here is the heart of that article:
I believe that the central problem in nurturing followers of Jesus in North America is our view of Jesus as the Impossible Mentor. It’s a paradox: nearly everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus as a worthy role model, but almost no one seriously believes it is possible to live up to his example. Our esteem for Jesus’ life of obedience to the Father and our desire to be “just like Jesus” does battle with the deep-seated notion that it is impossible to be like him. Who would choose a mentor who is impossible to imitate?
In the last twelve months I have seen first-hand how many believers feel the urge to go deeper with Jesus while struggling with the conviction that it is impossible to measure up to him. What has surprised me is how many church leaders also hold this view. How does a leader build and shape the church if he or she believes that the goal is impossible?
Across the spectrum of Christian worship, our churches are filled with individuals who do not believe Christlikeness is possible. Even more striking is the number of church leaders who have largely abandoned the task of making disciples. Local churches place any number of expectations on their pastors: preaching, visiting the sick, counseling, and supervising the ministries of the church are all standard aspects of the job description. Reproducing the character and power of Jesus in the lives of individual members is rarely on the list.
The challenge is reflected in more than job descriptions. The preparation and training for pastoral ministry in North America seldom includes courses focused upon the process of making disciples. For example, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s core curriculum for a Masters of Divinity degree does not include a single course on disciple-making. The rise of graduate-level “Christian Leadership degrees” in recent years is a more promising trend, but these degrees are explicitly marketed against the expectations of traditional pastoral models. The language of Fuller Theological Seminary’s website is revealing:
“Students who are pursuing the MA in Christian Leadership degree are typically looking to be well grounded but not necessarily interested in ordained ministry or those working in churches that do not require a seminary education for ordination.”
The issue is more than education. It goes to the priorities we place on “ministry.” In some church circles, there is a common saying from the pulpit: “There are only two questions God will ask when you get to heaven: ‘Do you know my Son?’ and, ‘How many other people did you bring with you?’” These questions reflect the priorities of many evangelical pastors. Evangelical churches have placed leading others to the conversion experience as the highest calling of the church.
Liturgical churches have frequently placed corporate social action as the highest calling of the church. Their witness is to the community at large through the corporate actions of the congregation. While taking the lead in ministry to the poor or in matters of social justice, the formation of disciples capable of reflecting the character and power of Jesus is left behind. The emphasis is on the prophetic voice without producing prophetic individuals.
In both evangelical and liturgical circles, the growth and maturity of believers is secondary at best. The consequences are plain: we have produced congregations of people willing to work for Jesus, but unable to relate to him.
What would happen if pastors and leaders began to operate from the conviction that it is possible to reproduce the character and power of Jesus in his followers? Jesus apparently held that idea:
Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. (John 14: 11 - 13)
The Apostle Paul apparently labored under the idea that his mission was to reproduce Christ in his converts: “I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you..." (Gal. 4:19) In fact, even more telling, Paul offered himself as and example: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1) The fact that neither the Galatian or Corinthian people had yet measured up to the standard of Jesus didn’t stop Paul from pointing to the center of the target. The best way to hit any part of the target is to aim for the center.
What are church leaders are aiming for these days?