Over a recent public holiday, I hung out with a few good friends at one of our homes. There, I met my friend’s new dog, Taurus, an adorable mongrel who’s painfully shy.
As we spent some time trying to connect to him — which was proving rather difficult — my friend said something in particular that really made me think: Raising a dog is really like discipleship.
MEET THEM WHERE THEY ARE
I’m a tall man, so for one reason or another, Taurus was afraid of me. He would skitter past me whenever I walked near, and when I stood up in the living room he would not want to come out of his little indoor kennel.
My friend speculated that maybe while Taurus was a stray, a tall man once kicked him. She also mentioned that he’s a year old – so in dog years, he’s pretty much an angsty teenager.
After I made a few jokes about Taurus being cooped up in his room writing poems, I knelt down to Taurus’ level. And he immediately came out of his hole to eat out of my hand. I had brought myself down to his level, and engaged him with something he was interested in — kibble!
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” (1 Corinthians 9:20)
It’s not that far a stretch to say that the real-life equivalent would be to initially engage a disciple on their terms, based on what they’re interested in. Baby steps before bigger ones. Just as my friend knew Taurus’ condition well, we also should know our flocks’ condition in caring for them (Proverbs 27:23).
MANAGE THE ATMOSPHERE
“Sometimes when I come back from work, I’ll run around the house and let him chase me, repeatedly yelling his name to get him excited.
“He’s only as excited as you are.” That was what my friend told us about training and spending time with Taurus. Well, I tried that for a little bit before Taurus began growling at me — so maybe a bit more of Step One first!
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7)
If you lead a cell group, or mentor someone, you’ll know that the temptation is to fall into a routine. Eventually you’re just performing a role, and that’s really dangerous. Leaders are responsible for the holistic atmosphere of the group, similar to how mentors are in charge of shaping how interactions play out each time they meet a mentee.
So will it be an “Oh, hi” kind of thing, or will we actually show up excited to teach our kids new tricks? And even as I was thinking about this, my girlfriend, who was playing with Taurus, said to me: “It’s caught, not taught.”
LOVE IS TENDER AND TOUGH
My girlfriend was having a lot of success with Taurus getting him to go through some of the tricks he’d already been taught. Armed with a handful of kibble, she would speak him to sternly, but reward him at the end of it.
I, on the other hand, was really only good at the rewarding part. I couldn’t bear to be firm with the little guy and I would just reward him regardless. So it came as little surprise when he didn’t really listen to me.
One truth that was reaffirmed for me was this: Discipleship that is “soft” love and sayang all the way will get you nowhere fast. There is definitely a time and space for soft love, but if you spend all your time listening — never speaking life into the person’s life — the person will stagnate. And that failure would be on us as leaders (James 3:1).
“Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” (1 Thess 2:7b-8)
As we left my friend’s place, we said goodbye to her and Taurus from behind the windows of the bus. When I saw how patient, kind and affectionate she was with Taurus, it really drove one simple truth home.
It starts with love.
Without love, all these things we know about discipleship are just processes or tips. Without love, there’s no point. In the first week that my friend got Taurus, one of the sweet (or morbid) thoughts that she had was of how Taurus would die in about 15 years. I think that the brevity of life has a way of making our love swell for our neighbour when we contemplate it in a healthy way.
Think of the faces in your cell group or those of your mentees. Start with the end in mind: What if you only had a year with them? Let this urgent kind of love be the fuel for shepherding them towards God.