I knew I risked exhaustion. But I decided to do it anyway. At a recent retreat for Singaporean Methodist Youth Workers, I offered to meet with as many of the participants one-on-one who wanted to, with whatever time I had between my talks. This usually meant before or during meals, and during my rest time. (I did take some time out for refreshing naps. I am not fifty anymore.) One of the main points I made during the retreat was the crucial need for one-on-one, face-to-face interaction, in discipling. I had to walk my talk.
I have been concerned for some time now that our main nurturing events are usually sermons and lectures that involve one or two speakers ministering to a large group of people. In such events, participants are anonymous and passive. The people who know their stuff are on stage. We don’t really know them, beyond their public personas. And we don’t know the others in the crowd. Even if you had gone with friends, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to interact with them. And nothing much was required of you except to listen and take notes.
Randy Reese and Robert Loane make the same observation. They write:
So much of our contemporary life involves the experience of being the stranger, and this is sadly even the case in our Christian communities. We have been going to malls and hospitals and universities and sporting events and even churches where the vast majority of the people we are surrounded by — we do not know. Anonymity characterizes so many of our social interactions. (Deep Mentoring, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012, 34.)
Jesus, in comparison, invested significant amounts of time in personal encounters with individuals and small groups. Reese and Loane then point out how Jesus interacted with people.
Jesus’ way of noticing the other, not from behind a pulpit, lectern or computer screen, but up close and personal, confronts how we often go about doing what we do for God. Although Jesus had a lot to accomplish in his rather short time on earth, his approach was unhurried and compassionate — inviting people, often one at a time, to sink more deeply into the truth of their lives. (Deep Mentoring, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012, 35.)
I am not against large group events. I often speak and teach at large gatherings. Jesus too spoke to the crowds. But it is also clear that His most critical work was with individuals, with His twelve disciples, and from among them, focusing on Peter, James and John. A cursory glance through the Gospels will show how often Jesus had life-transforming encounters with individuals.
I think large groups are good for instruction and inspiration. They are important. But I think our Christian lives are lived out in the trenches of our individual stories. And to make sense of my life I need someone to look me in the eye and give me the gift of attention. This can’t happen in large meetings.
We need both large-group meetings, and intimate exchanges with spiritual friends, mentors and disciplers. My only concern is that it is our conferences and other large-group meetings that receive attention and promotional push. The unintended message is that large-group meetings are more important than one-on-one and small-group meetings.
Large-group meetings have the potential of being sexier. You get the best speakers at the best venues. And such meetings inspire and instruct. But people still need on-going personal nurturing. When does that happen? Who promotes the disciplines of relational transformation in our busy world where reaching as many people as fast as possible is the dominant value?
We are storied beings. And to help someone to grow we need to hear their story and help them make sense of it in the context of God’s Story.
The place where we pay attention to God’s shaping activity is in the story. We are a storied people who are part of the storied way of God. It is in the particularities of ordinary lives where we find the clues to what God has been up to. (Deep Mentoring, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012, 46.)
I know I am not alone in this burden for personal mentoring and discipling. But I often feel alone. I have no jazzy brochures to promote this. It is an approach that is not dependent on famous names and experts. It is about empowering the ordinary Christian so that he or she understands that everyone in the family of God is extraordinary and capable of significant ministry. I will continue to preach and teach on this. But I suspect this is a movement that will catch on one soul at a time.
Fortunately there were only thirty people at the Youth Workers retreat. I managed to have personal time with many of the participants. And yes I was tired. But I was glad I did it. As in many things, personal mentoring and discipling is more caught than taught.