It is sometimes easy for me to turn discipleship into the art of finding the right book to hand someone. We have discipleship classes where we teach people the basics of the Christian faith and we usually follow some sort of book that walks people through what we want them to know. We have new member classes that teach the fundamentals of faith to those who would join our communities. However, the more I study the art of discipleship the more I realize that formal education is just a part of what we are called to do when Jesus tells us to make disciples ‘as we are going’.
In the rabbinical traditions the reality was that you followed your teacher around and watched what they did, learned from their ways, and then did what they did while eventually gathering your own followers. Discipleship seems to be more about relationship than it is about formal religious education and training. The Heidelberg Catechism was itself a ‘teaching tool’ that new adherents to the faith were expected to learn and know. I remember my own fear filled appearance before the elders of the church silently praying I would remember the right answers to the questions they might ask from the catechism.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with formal education. It is a good opportunity to help people understand the Bible better and to learn from wise teachers. Rabbis taught their students and called them to study and learn. Still, by itself, education falls short of what we are called to do. Discipleship is broader than just formal education.
I like to think back on what I learned from those who discipled me. I learned from Mr. Diekman how to run a business with integrity because I worked in his flower shop which was always closed on Sundays, even on Mother’s Day, the busiest flower shop day of the year. It impressed me that he would forgo obvious profits for the sake of a principle. I watched carefully how he conducted himself and how he treated others. I watched as he set an example of hard work and I noted how generous he was to others.
I learned from Mr. Wanders how to faithfully visit those who were old and infirm by riding to the nursing home with him on Sunday afternoon and I watched as he spoke lovingly to those whom society quickly forgets. He was respectful and kind and had the knack of seeing the image of God in each person he met.
I learned from Mr. Kamstra the art of running a council meeting by watching him mindfully hear all the concerns in the room before calling us to pray and collectively discern what God might be saying to the church. I remember asking God to make me as wise and trusting as Mr. Kamstra.
I learned from Mr. Rus, or Pete as we called him, how to honor and care for widows and orphans because I was one of the orphans he ministered to and my mother was one of the widows that he helped in small, sometimes seemingly insignificant, yet powerful, life changing ways. When Pete was around faucets got fixed, cars were maintained, and bills got paid. He was a model of love in action and many times when I take out the trash for the widow lady next door, I think about Pete’s simple loving acts of service to widows and orphans.
The truth is that most of what I learned in life was what I learned as I walked in proximity to those who followed Christ. They taught by example, far more than by their words.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” NIV. It seems like such a bold, brash statement. It almost touches on the arrogant. The truth is that Paul has a deep understanding that the eyes of others are on him and that when he is following Jesus, he is worth being followed. Paul didn’t hand out copies of Christianity for Dummies or Seven Principles for Living the Christian Life. He didn’t hold formal classes in the back room of the synagogue imploring people to learn their catechism. He instead invited people to walk with him and follow his example. It was the way of discipleship.
Pastors, elders, and other leaders poured into my life through their actions. They were flawed sinners who believed and trusted God and followed him whole heartedly. They ‘taught’ me to follow God like they did. They taught by example and with words. As I look around I see people who watch me. They are learning how to follow God. Sometimes I wonder what they see. Sometimes it seems it would be easier to just hand them a book rather than choose to live the kind of life that allows me to tell them to follow my example as I follow Christ. Then I remember that most of what I learned was mostly what I watched, not what I read.