Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mentoring and Spiritual Formation

In Homer's great epic, the Odyssey, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, sets sail to lay siege to Troy, leaving behind a young wife and an infant son, Telemachus. However, he also leaves behind his trusted friend to instruct, train and guide his son to be the future king. "I leave with you this son, whom I so tenderly love; watch over his infancy if you have love of me, keep flattery far from him; teach him to vanquish his passions."[1] This man's name is Mentes (Greek) or Mentor (Latin). Thus the word "mentor" entered the English language. A mentor, as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is a trusted counselor or guide. A person who is being mentored is called a protégé. If I were to ask you to name the greatest mentor in the New Testament aside from Jesus, who would you choose? I believe most people will choose the Apostle Paul. My vote is for Joseph of Cyprus. This unassuming man, after knowing Jesus Christ, sold part or all of his lands in Cyprus and donated the proceeds to the church in Jerusalem. He stayed on in Jerusalem and had such a wonderful reputation that they called him Barnabas, which translates as the Son of Encouragement.

It was Barnabas who chose to be a mentor to Paul when he first came to Jerusalem to meet the church there. The disciples were understandably suspicious of Paul, their former enemy who persecuted Christians. It was Barnabas who sponsored Paul and won the confidence of the rest of the apostles (Acts 9:26-27).

Barnabas and Paul were sent out on a missionary venture and it may have been Barnabas who convinced the companions who joined them in Paphos that Paul was trustworthy (Acts 13:13). When Paul and Barnabas disagreed over giving John Mark a second
chance, it was Barnabas who took John Mark under his wings (Acts 15:36-38). Later Paul
came to depend on this young man. I believe that it was due to the mentoring of Barnabas that Paul became such an effective mentor himself. He proved that when he wrote as a mentor to Timothy, "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim 2:2).

Without Barnabas, Paul may not have had such a profound influence on the development of the early church. After Barnabas had mentored Paul, Paul started mentoring a large number of protégés. One of Paul's strategies was to mentor protégés from different parts of Asia Minor. At one time, Paul's entourage consisted of nine men: Sopater (Berea, Macedonia), Aristarchus and Seccundus (Thessalonica). Luke (Philippi), Gaius (Derbe, Galatia), Timothy (Lystra, Galatia), Tychicus and Trophimus (Ephesus, Asia) and Titus (Achaia). When Paul's protégés returned home, they could effectively spread the gospel. Hence with this precedent in the early church, it is surprising to discover that mentoring is not commonly done in our churches nowadays. Instead mentoring has become popular in the secular world, especially among those in management.

How is mentoring different from discipleship?

Discipleship is different from mentoring as the table below shows:

Is it scriptural?
Taught and modeled in Scripture
Modeled in Scripture
Models in Scripture
Primary basis of interchange 


Type of role
Teaching new believers spiritual truths
Caring for and helping a person in all aspects of life
Whose agenda?
Discipler's agenda (spiritual disciplines)
Protégé’s agenda (goals/problems)
Training required
Academic knowledge and personal mastery of the spiritual disciplines
Practical experience relevant to protégé

Time frame
Limited time for duration of study
Life-long as needed

Focus of time together
Teaching the spiritual disciplines
Supporting toward maturity in all areas of life
Modern role parallels
Disciplined mature teacher
Loving uncle, aunt or close, more mature friend
Essential message
To mature spiritually, here is what you need to know, do, or become
How can I help you get where you are going?

(modified from Biehl, 1996, 29-30)

As we can see from the table above, discipleship is narrower in its objectives while mentoring is broader and helps to develop a more holistic person. This involves a long time and is not as objective-oriented as discipleship. Basically in mentoring, a more mature Christian is helping a younger Christian grow spiritually, emotionally and mentally through the stages of his or her life. It is a long-term commitment. As my mentor Dr Philip Cheong once commented. "We can help develop a spiritual life one-mile wide and one inch deep or one-inch wide and one-mile deep." Mentoring is building a spiritual life that is one-mile deep.

To show how mentoring can fit into our ministry, Bobb Biehl, who has consulted with the various ministries of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980, has this to say:

In a year’s time, you may see 300 students come to Christ in your Campus Life program. Out of this 300 you will probably have 30 that become involved in a leadership program in which you will disciple them over a years period in the Ten Steps to Maturity. But when the year is up, you may say, "God bless you. Go in peace!"

This is great! You do wonderful work! But consider what would happen if you were to choose one to three students out of your discipleship 30 who you think have the most long-term potential, the greatest heart for God, or the highest potential to lead all of Campus Crusade someday and say to them, "I'd like to be one of your life mentors." Mentoring can be a logical extension of the discipling process for a few students per year, and the discipling can continue.[2]

Mentoring means building deeply into a few disciples for more lasting influence. It may
be considered an extension of the many discipleship programs available. Mentoring builds up spiritual maturity in life situations and the stages of life. In some cases, mentors choose the persons they want to mentor and approach them. In other situations, Christians who want to develop in their spiritual life seek out mentors to help them.

The mentoring process

The mentoring process is a process of spiritual formation both in the mentor and the protégé. Frequently mentors have shared that they have learnt as much from their protégés as their protégés have learnt from them. Mentoring is not a teaching program but a sharing of life experiences. Often it involves spending time together and the protégé sharing what problems or difficulties he or she is facing at the moment. The mentor then shares out of his or her own life experiences in similar situations. Eugene Peterson wrote, "The life of Christ emerges from within the actual circumstances of our seemingly very unspiritual lives — the daily stuff of ordinariness and accidents and confusion, good days and bad days, taking the humdrum and the catastrophic both in stride."[3]

The mentoring process should also be saturated with prayer and study of the Word. In any mentoring process there are three parties present: the mentor, the protégé and the triune God. Both the mentor and the need to learn to be sensitive to the leading of
the Holy Spirit who will lead them into the depths and mysteries of God in everyday life.


Good mentors are hard to find. A good mentor can make a lot of difference in our spiritual formation and can help us discern the presence of God in our lives. Mentoring can help to facilitate our spiritual growth. The church needs a great number of good mentors — godly, mature men and women who are willing to invest their lives in a few younger people. What a difference that will make in the expansion of the Kingdom of God.

Published in The Great Commission: building movements everywhere, March 2007, 10-11,13

[1] Quoted in James M Houston, The Mentored Life: From Individualism to Personhood (Colorado Springs: NavPress. 2002). 33
[2] Bobb Biehl, Mentoring: Confidence in Finding a Mentor and Becoming One (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers. 1996), 31
[3] Eugene H Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation between Spiritual Friends (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 53

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