I confess that discipleship is one of these words of “Christianese” that have to come mean so many different things that it is almost useless. For this purpose, I will define it as the process through which Christians learn and grow spiritually. I much rather the “spiritual formation” term, yet this one is also facing a similar fate as discipleship and becoming a commodity word. I am focusing on discipleship because it entails a mentorship relationship between a mentor and mentee. In the New Testament, it is best model in Jesus relationship with his disciples and the apostles teaching to the young churches. My argument is simple: discipleship is moving away from mentor-mentee relationships to more friendship relationships. Spiritual guidance is done now less in a top-to-bottom fashion and more in a lateral fashion. Even spiritual leaders are accommodating to this reality.
Echoing from my previous post, spiritual leadership is changing from being directive to being influential. Being directive means you tell people how things are and what they should do. You do so not expecting your authority to be in question. Being influential means expressing advice as to what they can face challenges. You shy away from telling people what to do but instead suggest what they should do. The more skilled leaders go a step further and teach people how to think which empowers them to figure out the right decision on their own.
Certainly this new environment of ministry has its share of problems. I am sure a lot of pastors would love to tell lay people to get a grip and grow up. This type of tough love is at times necessary but unfortunately is becoming less and less the norm. The reality is that the relationship between mentor and mentee is so transient that it cannot withstand these confrontational moment. Most mentees will just leave and find a mentor that tells them what they want to hear.
Yet, teachability is not the only issue here. The reality is that mentors are many times ill-prepared to help mentees to navigate their world. It is not that they are poorly trained but they just have not lived through it. The speed of change can at times make one’s experience seem irrelevant to the present generation. A more adequate approach is for the mentor to walk together with the mentee and collaborate in navigating the challenges he or she may be facing. It is not that the mentor and mentee are equals in knowledge but they are not as distant as they used to be. It is the job of the mentor to evaluate his or her experience in light of the mentee’s new situation. It is the job of the mentee to listen but also participate in this evaluation process.
Discipleship in this environment looks more like a partnership than an apprenticeship. It is less about spiritual directing and more about spiritual companionship. It forces us all to be humble and it also takes away the pressure of the mentor to have all the answers.
These types of spiritual companionships are difficult to foster but are absolutely essential if we are to face the ever-changing challenges in this century. Spiritual mentors need to learn to be facilitators rather than manufacturers of spiritual growth. Spiritual mentees need to take ownership of their spiritual health rather than relying on a leader to have all the answers. We must all humbly seek the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us through this messy process.