494582There was a time when I was gripped with a desire to go to Oxford University to pursue doctoral studies. I was finishing my masters at Regent College and seriously considered moving on to Oxford for the next stage of my formal education. Now I am no scholar. (I struggled to finish my Doctor of Ministry.) Besides, I knew I was called to pastoral work in Malaysia. So where did this desire for Oxford come from?

I recognised the desire for what it was. No, it was not a new calling from the Lord to be a scholar. It was just the very human desire to imitate those you admire and respect. (Warning, name dropping ahead.) Among the professors who had impacted my life at Regent included Dr. J I Packer, Dr. James Houston, and Dr. Don Lewis. And yes, they had all done their doctoral work at Oxford.

Fortunately there were other models at Regent and elsewhere that I could focus on, models that were more in line with my calling. However the whole episode reminded me of the power of models and the human propensity to learn by imitating models we are drawn to.

Daniel Taylor quotes Bruno Bettelheim in articulating the same principle:

…all of us want to be something like the characters in the stories we value. Bruno Bettelheim suggests that the tendency of major characters in fairy tales to be either wholly good or wholly bad, while not realistic, is necessary to their effectiveness in nurturing the child’s moral development: “Then the child has a basis for understanding that there are great differences between people, and that therefore one had to make choices about who one wants to be. This basic decision, on which all later personality development will build, is facilitated by the polarisations of the fairy tale.”

Bettelheim follows this with an intriguing assertion: “The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’ I would argue that the latter is a much more important question, not least because the answer determines the shape of human existence. It is not surprising that the bulk of moral education in human history has been through model, exampla, heroes…
(Tell Me a Story, St Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2001 p.45-46)

We are now in a better position to understand the apostle Paul when he says things like: “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ (1Corinthians 11:1 NLTse).” At first, I thought Paul was arrogant when he asked folks to imitate him. Now I realise he was just being realistic. People learn through imitation. We know that Paul was fully aware of his shortcomings (1Timothy 1:12-17). And folks were to imitate him as he imitated Christ. Finally, we are called to Christ likeness and not to Paul likeness, But Paul understood that people learned through imitation.

Hence when Paul seeks to shape disciples he doesn’t just use instruction. He puts forth his life as a model. So when he gives his charge to Timothy, he says: “But you, Timothy, certainly know what I teach, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. (2Timothy 3:10 NLTse)”

Paul is clear that the ultimate authority for life and ministry is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3: 16-17). But he is also clear that the Word of God is not learnt as abstract intellectual formulations. The Word of God must be modelled in life. And so Paul, aware as he is of his failures and shortcomings, knows there is enough of the Word in him for him to be able to remind Timothy of both the things he (Paul) taught and how he lived.

Modelling and mentoring then are the key ways that we shape lives. The business world understands this. In a recent article on leadership development, John Lechleiter, president and COO of Eli Lilly offers a typical model (for developing leaders): “About two-thirds of leadership development comes from job experience, about one-third from mentoring and coaching, and a smidgen from classroom training (Geof Colvin, “Leader Machines,” FORTUNE Asia, October 1, 2007, p.66).”

I suggest that mentoring is foundational because it helps the up and coming leader make sense of his job experience. What is interesting is the fact that classroom training provides only a “smidgen” of contribution to leadership development in Lechleiter’s opinion.

Contrast this with your typical church. The bulk of our Christian education is in the form of some sort of class room instruction. And this includes sermons. Influenced perhaps by outmoded business models, the concern seems to be: “How can we train the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time.” And so we put out a whole array of sermons, lectures and seminars.

Once in awhile we get excellent communicators, preachers and teachers that really impact us. But good as they may be, we do not know their lives in any detail. And therefore they can only say, “you know my teaching.” They can’t say “you know how I live.”

This evening I will be speaking to a group of final year students in the National University of Singapore. I have been asked to speak on the topic “Mentoring Relationships.” I have been warned that the group might be small. Great. I may be able to get to know some of them in a more personal way. I think I will be able to speak passionately about mentoring. But I hope that sometime down the road, for some of them, I can also say “you know how I live.”

Your brother,
Soo-Inn Tan