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Mentoring Is More than Teaching

It’s actually a lot more like mothering.

“So can you help me? Please? I really need your help.”

As I stared into the eyes of my new Christian friend, I saw her struggling. She was feeling tempted to enter into a serious romantic relationship with a non-Christian. Of course I will help her, I thought. I know just what to do!

I scheduled a weekly one-on-one Bible study with her to examine the book of Romans. I just knew it would be a great help as she faced this temptation. We met weekly in my office, but after a few meetings, it became apparent that my bright idea of Bible study didn’t really seem to help my friend when the forces of temptation came at her most strongly.

What’s wrong with Bible study? Nothing, of course. But when we’re fighting a serious battle against temptation, we might need something more. Though I’d been eager to help my friend, I approached her with the mindset of a teacher rather than that of a parent—and there’s a big difference.

In 1 Corinthians 4:14–16, Paul offers a warning to the church: “I am not writing these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children. For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. So I urge you to imitate me.” Paul related to the Corinthians as a father, not as a teacher. A teacher’s predominant goal is to pass on information to others in a way that can be understood, processed, and applied easily and effectively. It’s what I do as a university professor. And I would argue that it’s the default mentoring approach of many in evangelical church leadership. Thus, church seminars are offered, sermons are delivered, Bible studies are written, and podcasts are recorded—all with an eye to helping individuals grow. But growth requires much more than a transfer of information and an exhortation to apply that information.

A parenting approach, on the other hand, incorporates a different mindset. Mothers and fathers focus on what will help their child change, grow, develop, and become all that God desires them to be. It’s a more holistic approach. It certainly includes teaching, but it’s not focused exclusively on the mind. Instead, parents take into account both the will and the emotions.

Parenting is centered on relationship. While I can teach people without a personal relationship with them, I certainly can’t parent without one. Relationship makes trust possible, drives discussions to deeper levels, creates a safe place for failure, injects encouragement, and allows for healthy imitation as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 4. This kind of caring relationship touches the individual in a deeper way than teaching ever can.

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