Last year I was asked who the most influential Christian woman was in my life. I was sitting at a table with a bunch of other women, and as I listened to them recount women (some well-known, many not), I felt a little silly about my own answer—Elisabeth Elliot. I don’t know her. I’ve never met her. Over the years, I’ve read nearly everything she has ever written, but I only know her in the context of her books. Besides that, I’m in the dark.
Like many in our connected, Internet age, I have been discipled by women (and men) whom I do not actually know. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, but as I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve sensed that it has left me malnourished in my discipleship. It is not that I lacked examples or people in my life. I simply have missed them in my pursuit of wisdom from others. While I may have been the recipient of countless bits of counsel and truth from flesh and blood people over the years, I haven’t always recognized it as such. And in a lot of instances, I’ve missed the greater blessing of even more wisdom because I failed to ask for a deeper relationship (that takes work), instead settling for the ease and comfort of a book or a podcast. Many times I just didn't take the time to ask.
In books and podcasts, everyone is on their best behavior. It’s polished. Yesterday’s fight with her husband is not shining through. Her irritability over too little sleep is not impacting how she talks to you, because she’s not talking to you personally. While you might get personal tidbits here and there, you aren’t seeing the full scope of her response to life’s difficulties and joys. You aren’t getting the highs, middles, and lows. You are getting the most edited version of her. I get this. I’m a writer. I’m not putting my full self out there anymore than the next person is, so this is not lost on me. But as a recipient of discipleship, I am learning that woman does not live on podcasts and books alone. She needs flesh and blood people, too.
The New Testament model of ministry is one of flesh and blood discipleship, not discipleship by proxy. In 1 Corinthians 4:16, and again in 11:1, Paul urges the Corinthian believers to imitate him, to follow his example. As he ministered to various churches, he saw himself as a model for them to follow. He’s not the only one. The writer to the Hebrews also urges us to imitate our leaders, our pastors/elders who are called by God to shepherd us (Heb. 13:7). The pattern of scripture is that we know our leaders, that we study our leaders, and that in them we see a model to follow. Of course, this does not assume perfection on the part of our leaders, or blindly following into sin, but I think the point is that though they aren’t perfect, their way of life should encourage us and spur us on. By seeing their lives, in all its messiness, we are encouraged in our own struggles and sin. Leaders aren’t perfect. Leaders are people just like us, and when we watch their lives we see someone who faces the same temptations, struggles, and sorrows that we face throughout the course of our lives. This should encourage us to want to learn from them, not cause us to retreat because of unrealistic expectations of a mentor.
So let’s translate this into women’s ministry. Last month our church hosted a women’s event that included a panel of older women in our church. This year I’ve been giving leadership to the women’s ministry, and one of my first goals was to begin connecting the older women in our church with the younger women. We have a pretty young congregation, so there are a lot of women in one season of life, with not a lot of others to go around. Another women’s ministry leader gave me the idea of hosting a panel with some of our older women to begin fostering these relationships. I asked questions about a variety of things ranging from how they take in scripture (and how it’s changed over the years) to how they balance the various spheres of their lives (work, family, church, etc.). We talked about marriage and children, suffering and God’s faithfulness, and what they wish they knew twenty years ago. In all, it was an encouraging night for all of us as we learned from women many of us have known for a number of years, but haven’t always had a chance to ask these questions of. We left with models to follow, women who have walked ahead of us and who have seen God’s faithfulness to them all along the way. We saw women who were like us, and we were spurred on to the same faithfulness in our own lives. These women are not published authors or speakers, but they are redeemed by the Savior, which is all that matters. They have walked with God for years and they love him. Listening to them and learning from their lives was a beautiful sight to behold.
The New Testament model of ministry is within the context of a local community of believers. Paul knew the churches he ministered to. Peter knew the recipients of his letters. John loved the churches he cared for deeply, even calling them his children. The New Testament church knew their leaders. They knew Paul’s weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:7) and he knew theirs. We lose some of this when we outsource our discipleship to other, more well-oiled operations. But more than that, I think, is that we lose the hope that real life people bring to other real life people in the local body.
The great take-away from our women’s event for me, and for many other women in our church, was that perseverance is possible. As we listened to women a little farther ahead of us share about their devotional habits (that have varied over the years based on season, personality, and other factors), we were encouraged that even ordinary acts of faithfulness will bear fruit in our lives. We were reminded that there is no “one-size-fits-all” way to take in scripture or commune with God. As we heard women speak about what they would tell their younger selves, we were exhorted in our own season of life. We found commonality in hearing from older women and we were encouraged. But what made it even more encouraging is that these women were women we know. We worship alongside them on Sunday mornings. We’ve done bible studies with them, served in nursery with them, had dinner with them, and we have watched their lives and seen that God works. It gave weight to their words.
In our increasingly connected age, the availability of resources and opportunity to be discipled by someone via smartphones and computers isn’t going anywhere. And there can be a place for that. But let us be careful that we don’t let that take the place of real life people in our own contexts. In many of our local churches there are treasure troves of wisdom and life experience simply waiting to be awakened if we would just ask.