Steve Bremner

Author, Podcaster & Writing Coach

Information, Imitation and Innovation in DiscipleshipThis post is a 7 min read

Information, Imitation and Innovation in Discipleship

“For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17, ESV)

In my last post I mentioned information transfer which can take place from a preacher or leader in a pulpit to an audience or congregation and how this alone does not produce disciples.

Today I want to focus on imitation, which is a crucial part and function of discipleship if we’re to follow the Biblical model.

Contrary to what some may believe, you can’t get discipled “remotely” through books, websites, YouTube videos or podcasts. When I’ve mentioned in past blog posts that discipleship by default is relational, people have pointed out to me that we’re discipled by Jesus even though He’s not “physically” present in our lives but inside, so to speak. This is true from one perspective, but if we model how Jesus Himself did it, we see that He called His disciples to literally follow Him around, not just read the Torah and pray more.

Many Teachers, Few Fathers

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians that they had many teachers but few fathers, he was using a Greek word that can be translated as “pedagogue”. This almost literally translates as “the principle slave tutor”. These tutors tended to be servants the family hired (owned) and it would be among their responsibilities to teach Roman children how to be Roman because the parents often times were usually too busy. For example, the pedagogue would maybe walk the child to school, or teach and demonstrate customs so the child would know how to behave properly in many social situations. Information could be shared in this working relationship, and imitation could take place, but the children would not learn from their own fathers. They’d learn these things from a teacher.

Paul was acknowledging this when he told the Corinthians to imitate him. He had spent time spiritually fathering Timothy, who could now also spiritually father them when he came later. Paul knew he could send him and Timothy could aptly reproduce more reproducers or disciples. He could visit them in his place since Timothy contained the same DNA Paul had.

Discipling is fathering more so than teaching. I might add here that spiritual fathering is biblical, even if the concept has been abused and left a bad taste in some peoples’ mouthes. The proverbial baby can’t be thrown out with the bathwater due to heavy-handed leadership or abuses. Paul was probably also a spiritual father to Priscilla & Acquilla depending on how you look at it, and Barnabas seems to have been a spiritual father to John-Mark. And of course, Jesus discipled twelve men during his earthly life who reproduced his message and lifestyle and from at least a numerical perspective, they multiplied the Gospel throughout the known world in their generation.

Discipleship is necessary to spreading and multiplying the Gospel. Church planting will become necessary only after discipleship has been made the focus. Like Ed Stetzer said in his article I quoted from yesterday, the church will develop if we first start making disciples, and not the other way around.

Discipleship is an inherently relational thing

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

To continue with our DNA motif, in the natural a father can share his seed with his wife and produce a child together. The DNA contains all the information needed to give the child its identity. What colour its hair and eyes will be, whether the child will be male or female. Information is shared here in one sense of the word.

However, if the father is absent and never around due to divorce or abandonment for example, and never spends time with the child, it will never learn to imitate the father’s good qualities. If it’s a boy for example, he will have a jaded view of fatherhood as well. The child will need to learn how to play baseball from someone else. Someone else will need to teach him how to ride a bicycle. The child will need to find someone else he can have uncomfortable guy conversations with. Simply put, proper fathering is more than just reproducing or passing down information. It requires imitation.

You can get information transferred at conferences and Sunday morning church meetings. Information can be taught, and unfortunately many church pastors and leaders do only this. Paul on the other hand told the Corinthians he was not just sending a letter (information) but sending Timothy his spiritual son so he could be a spiritual father to them as well. Some things are “caught not taught”. For this reason spiritual fathers live their lives with their disciples so life on life imitation can take place as well.

Too many pastoral figures skip imitation, and try reproducing disciples through information only. This won’t produce the results they’re looking for or that Christ commanded us to do. In a way the concept of an associate pastor is a type of imitation, learning from doing. They don’t just learn how to become a pastor through seminary training, but from being in the environment and learning directly from living life or maybe sharing offices with the senior or principle pastor in a church setting.

So why do so few implement this with disciple making?

Discipleship is a process of being led by someone, imitating their faith

It’s important to actually train disciples in the areas of prayer, soul-winning, healing the sick and deliverance by taking them outside the walls of the church building, into the public, the malls, and maybe even door to door. You start to see a pattern of the leader or fathering doing, and the spiritual baby watches. Then after that the leader still does, but the disciple helps, followed by the amount of responsibility changing and the disciple does while the leader merely helps. Then, if all goes well, the father can step back and be more hands off, letting the disciple do the task while he watches. Eventually the coaching and leading is no longer needed, and the disciple can repeat this process and teach disciples themselves.

In Oikos, we’re in various stages between these patterns with different individuals we view as our disciples. Of course there’s not a one-size fits all approach to discipling, obviously, but generally speaking these principles I’m presenting to you today work and you may notice the pattern is worth following. The steps you take and how you relate in your discipling or relate to your mentor will obviously be unique to your own relationships.

This is also where innovation will come in, and we’ll look more at that in an upcoming blog post. But at this point it should be noted that just like physical children will not look exactly like their earthly fathers but bear a resemblance, or they might not necessarily go into the same profession as they did, so spiritual disciples will reproduce or make disciples in their own way that suits their innate character traits, spiritual gifts and skill sets. We’ll refer to this as innovation.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV)

Related Posts Worth Checking Out:

How I Make Disciples: Invitation & Challenge

Check out a recent episode of the Fire On Your Head podcast with Dr Stephen Crosby where we discussed spiritual fathering. 

About Steve Bremner

Steve the coffee drinker is a Canadian missionary to Peru, who after raising up disciples to flow in the power of the Holy Spirit within a missional community named Oikos for many years, now helps people bring their own ideas and messages to life through books and audio productions. If you like Steve's blog, you'll also like his books and audiobooks. Note: this post may have contained affiliate links of which the author receives a small commission if you purchase something recommended in the post.