I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
1 Corinthians 4:14-17
We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Hebrews 13:7, 8
Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone – and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.
3 John 1:11, 12
Recently my wife was having a conversation with someone, in which faith, in relation to a specific issue, came up in what was for her a very natural way. The response of the other person was, “I’ve never had a faith like that; only church leaders have faith like that.” It’s not exceptional: it seems that at the moment we keep coming across people who have been Christians for many years but who are still spiritual babies. It’s not exceptional: but it is scary.
One of the things we’re observing, looking around at the churches local to us while I’m training to be a vicar, is that discipleship isn’t even on the radar.
Sunday services are on the radar. Preaching is on the radar. Pastoral care is on the radar. These things and discipleship are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but, a weekly worship event including half-an-hour of generic monologue supplemented by coming alongside people when they are ill or bereaved does not equate to discipleship – and it would appear that the demands of these things does muscle-out response to the command to go and make disciples.
What do I mean by discipleship? The intentional discipline of imitation: of identifying someone whose life of faith you are seeking, with their help as well as God’s, to imitate; and of identifying and helping someone who is seeking to imitate your life of faith.
It seems to me that one of the barriers to discipleship is confusion in our minds between imitation and mimicry.
Consider the difference between the two. We have a saying in English, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We seek to imitate those we admire; imitation has sincerity to it. On the other hand, when we mimic someone, it’s not often sincere; the intention is not usually flattery. Even if the intention is sincere, the best mimicry can achieve is a pastiche of the original.
Too often, church leaders identify someone with character and gifting, and encourage that person to mimic them. They ask them to lead a service, for example. Research by the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity has revealed that far too many of the (far too few) teenagers in our churches aspire to being a church-based youth worker. That’s mimicry at work. Why don’t they aspire to being graphic designers, or bankers, who might disciple teenagers coming up through their church?
It is easier to ask someone to mimic you than it is to invite them to imitate you, because mimicry is of external things – what I perform in public – and does not require vulnerability of internal things – how I act in private. But imitation leads to transformation, whereas mimicry leads only to dependence (which is why satirical impressionists have to rework their repertoire or become irrelevant whenever there is a change of political leader).
I don’t want anyone to do what I do, in the particular. But I do want some people to be becoming like me, in how I live my life, recognising that I am myself a work in progress…