Matthew 28:19-20 reads: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (NIV).”
What if the people of God started to approach mentoring as intentional discipleship? Mentoring does not happen haphazardly. It requires intentionality, preparation, patience, prayer, and yes, mentoring can be a lot of work. But, what if we made a commitment to mentor because it is necessary for advancing God’s mission in the world?
It is easy to sit back and accept the world’s narrative for the decline of western religion with older congregation members and generations missing from the life of the Church. Most young people today hunger for mentoring and discipleship. On the flip side of this, older church members don’t believe they have anything to offer. So we have younger people who demand mentoring and discipleship and congregation members who have a wealth of experience and wisdom to offer…So why do we struggle with it and what could we be doing better?
Insights spoke to leadership across the Church about the need to strengthen our capacity for discipleship and mentoring that will encourage and enable Church growth.
Research tells us that western church attendance is shrinking and congregations are aging, but on the flip side of this research, we discover that while young people tend to be under-represented in the pews, it’s not because they don’t want to be there, it’s often because they don’t feel valued or heard, or they are pigeon-holed into doing worship or youth leadership.
As Karen Mitchell-Lambert, Pulse Leader for Uniting Mission and Education is travelling around the Synod she is discovering that young people “just want to be seen, listened to, and recognised by our congregations and appreciated for what we are trying to do here and supported in some ways.”
“I’m surprised at how many young leaders are actually feeling like they are invisible to the church.
“The other thing that is coming through in these conversations is the amount of young leaders that are burning out because they have these massive expectations on them with nobody to walk alongside them, to listen to them and to care about them.”
Perhaps this is the crux of the matter for the Uniting Church. Simply passing on knowledge belies one of the many flaws in the stereotypical apprentice/teacher model – it seems to excuse the teacher once the apprentice has learned what they need. But it also doesn’t adequately look at how the teacher can then stand aside, pass the torch on to the apprentice and offer guidance and discipleship from the sidelines, in the process building capacity along the way.
We see Jesus using the apprentice model in the Bible—an experienced teacher gathering inexperienced learners, who soak up knowledge and skills. It involves long periods of time together, watching the teacher in different situations and reacting to different stimuli, and then having the opportunity to make decisions in those same situations.
Jesus instructed the disciples, travelled with them, even lived with them for periods to transfer his knowledge of His relationship with God. This is our primary model of mentoring and discipleship.
It takes a village
As Rev. Ben Gilmour, Head of Vital Ministry for Uniting Mission and Education explains, mentoring and discipleship takes a community of people.
“Discipleship at its core is following in the way of Christ, following Jesus’ way of life.
“I think one of the challenges of discipleship when it hits particularly our western individualists’ kind of framing, is that we think discipleship is just about me and myself…and Jesus.
“I think that’s good and there is a place for that but the church’s practice through millennia is that our discipleship is practiced in the community. So it’s being practiced with one another.
“Our discipleship of following Jesus is individual but it is also us as the community of Christ.”
Rev. Mitchell-Lambert agrees that it’s our individuality that binds us together as the people of God.
“We have the church because we are called to be together as the whole people of God and we’re not all supposed to be the same,” says Rev. Mitchell-Lambert.
“We’re diverse and we’re annoying sometimes because we are so diverse and we don’t fully understand each other and we have to wrestle with that difference. But that is also the gifts that we bring.
“And that’s why everyone needs to be engage in mentoring young people because not all young people are the same.”
Identifying gifts and skills
As the Moderator Rev. Simon Hansford and others explained, the classic model for mentoring and discipleship in the church is having recognised musical gifts and being tapped on the shoulder to be in the church band. This is a very popular metaphor for mentoring and discipleship in the church.
“Not to be too nostalgic, but the classic example [of mentoring and discipleship] is with the band at church,” offers Rev. Hansford. “People were invited into the band, they learned how to play, they might not have been very good, but they became more confident and they became better in the process.”
“And while this is a simplistic way of viewing things it’s a really good model of discipleship, in that in this space it’s safe to make mistakes, it’s a place to grow and try new things and then as they became more confident, they grew in their gifts. And what’s more—and this is really important —they became responsible for discipling others which I think is key.”
On the flip side of this, often people are placed in positions where they struggle to find their place, because it isn’t in their gifts or skills set. Actively listening and hearing this and working with the community to discern is key to effective discipleship.
“A couple of years ago I was a Youth Worker at a Church and I had these young people in my congregation and one of them said to me, ‘I’m not a youth leader, I don’t want to be in the youth group,’” said Rev. Mitchell-Lambert.
“But to help find his place I really did need to have that conversation with the whole Church, to get to know this person, love them and find a place where he could belong and where he could use his gifts and skills. He was passionate and wanted to use those gifts and skills, but because of my limited knowledge I needed the whole community to step up and explore a place for him.”
“Mentoring is about genuinely loving young people for who they are and where they are at. And even if you don’t understand that it is important to be consistent in that love and ‘I love you because Christ first loved me and this love that I have from God is so life transforming and powerful that this is what I want to share with you.’”
Mentoring younger generations
The goal of mentoring young people is to expand their values and worldview, strengthen their character and enlarge their personal and professional capacity. Younger people often desire opportunities for personal growth through a friendly and supportive partnership.
Mentors and leaders have an opportunity to help shape younger generations. The challenge mentors often face is around how to turn general conversations into character and skill development.
We all want to see younger people reach their potential, the problem is that the pathway to productivity and living a life of high capacity and growth is not just a straight line to Gen Y and Gen Z. In an era of increasing change, younger generations need mentors to grow them, guide them and give them the feedback they need to develop and mature.
Church leadership has an opportunity to mentor these younger generations through formal and informal conversations, active listening and relationships. Gen Y and Gen Z are keen to be mentored and that means they want to be listened to, not lectured at. They also value authenticity.
As author and speaker Carey Nieuwhof, who writes extensively about millennials, Gen Y and Z and the Church: “If you’re having trouble attracting the next generation, it’s likely because they don’t see value in what you’re offering. Rather than blaming people for not embracing what you’re offering, offer something worth embracing.”
Changing the model
We have the perfect example of community and exercising gifts in Acts, but as Rev. Gilmour explains there is often discomfort in mentoring and discipleship in that “it challenges us and we need to develop that kind of culture with each other, the church and in community, in small groups and in one on one relationships.”
“The other reason why I think we’ve lost the art of it is that we believe that we need to do this for ourselves.
“Art of self-actualisation has become the predominant Western framework of what it means to be human. I think the Christian faith and discipleship actually says something different, it says actually all of us are a bit fallible none of us have it all together we all need each other to encourage the gift of God in each other.”
“I think most people including myself, would say that it is through that encouragement to explore together, is where faith gets legs.”
“Discipleship is also about relationship and love and grace and hope.”
Perhaps one the most important areas of the Church that needs to acknowledge the importance of mentoring and discipleship is in the area of succession planning.
As Rev. Hansford explains “succession planning is not in our DNA” but needs to be.
“We don’t want mentoring to be, ‘well back in my day we did it this way’. That’s not discipleship that’s not mentoring, that is something else. It’s about active listening and stepping aside. When I look back upon my faith journey, there are people who have deliberately set themselves aside to help me along that path.”
As Uniting Mission and Education Executive Director Glen Powell explains, “we often confuse control with leadership.”
“A leader should hardly ever say no to someone who has an idea or wants to do something,” Dr Powell explains.
“They might interrogate it a little by asking the how and the why but they should rarely say no. Someone who controls says no and that person is discouraged.”
“As a church we need to be better at capacity building. Jesus is interested in our gifts and talents, but wants us to grow, so the church should be looking at how growing capacity is about offering more training and mentoring and discipleship.
“There is also the question of agency. So you’re a disciple, and you are being taught how to become the best person you can be. When you are a follower of Jesus, He is interested in your gifts and talents being used for what they are intended.
“A community of disciples should be about helping people find their vocation. A bit more training and a bit more discernment needs to happen. Then it’s not just about the individual it’s about the collective community.”
Succession planning helps prepare people to step into new roles when their colleagues leave, retire, or move on to other areas of the organisation. This makes for a smoother transition for everyone.
Mentoring fosters leadership. Up-and-coming talent can learn the leadership ropes under the watchful gaze of successful leaders serving as mentors.
The need for mentoring in the Church
We are all called to be disciples of Christ. When you mentor you receive a great blessing – mentoring is a rewarding experience for both people.
How can a person discover the living presence of God and how can we grow in a deepening relationship with God?
Mentors need their own mentors as well. Discipleship and guidance are important parts of Christian life. Who have been the key individuals that helped guide you? There is no one, right way to be a spiritual mentor. There is a variety of ways because of a variety of experiences.
“I think you can’t hear and see the gifts and charisms of the other unless you are listening unless you have an interest the other,” says Rev. Gilmour.
“Not just the ‘you have to follow me, because I have worked it out’ but rather there is something unique and beautiful about God in you that I want to hear, that I want to encourage.”