It’s good to talk
I have been involved in Christian ministry for almost fifty years and over that period my passion has centred around two key themes – Christian discipleship and spiritual formation. Mentoring brings these two together, a key tool in helping people become grounded in Christ and growing in grace.
Ministry for me began in the 1970s when my wife and I were missionaries on the island of Borneo. Our brief was simple: to help the infant church become mature, and to develop leaders for the future. Mentoring was an obvious way to do this, although we were not familiar with the term then. We were simply following Paul’s advice to Timothy: ‘And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others (2Timothy 2:2).’
One of my great joys over the last twenty years has been to see mentoring become part of the ministry philosophy of many churches and Christian organisations. There are now several ways by which people can train to become mentors, and much has been helpfully written about the theory and practice of mentoring. However, while there are many books about mentoring, few have been written for mentoring and to provide resources for those involved in this key ministry. This is why I have written Mentoring Conversations (BRF 2020).
I wonder if you remember the British Telecom ads from the 1990s that featured Bob Hoskins and introduced us to the phrase, ‘It’s good to talk’? The campaign was based around the fact that conversation is at the heart of relationships, and that relationships are deepened through reciprocated confidences. So successful was the campaign that it transformed BT’s fortunes and image. Deep down inside, both men and women have a fundamental need to talk and to be heard.
We live, however, at a time of shallow relationships and superficial conversations. Few people know how to engage with others at a deep level and to share heart-to-heart. Yet good conversation is at the centre of mentoring. We must learn to be great listeners and to ask helpful questions skilfully so that a transformative dialogue can take place. We want our time together to be more than chit-chat or even theological reflection. It must be purposeful, with the goal of change and growth.
The Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries saw the value of what they called ‘holy conversation’ as a means of discipleship and spiritual growth. They encouraged people to be intentional in their talk, sharing deeply about the inner life and encouraging each other to grow in Christlikeness. Perhaps this is a much-needed emphasis for the church today, something that may need to be revived. Certainly, we must not lose its centrality in our mentoring of others.
Having reflected deeply on my own walk with God over a lifetime of discipleship, I identified 30 key topics that were pivotal in my own discipleship. These form the chapters of the book, with each being a potential starting point for meaningful dialogue in a mentoring context. For clarity I gathered them around six key areas or stages of growth: Foundations, Steps to growth, Living out your faith, Going deeper, Staying strong and Living with mystery. Questions for reflection and discussion are included in at the end of each chapter.
In any building work foundations are crucial, and spiritual growth is determined by the quality of the foundation a person has in Christ. For example, it is impossible to grow spiritually without experiencing the new birth and understanding the possibilities for growth inherent in the fact that the life of God is within us. Many problems in discipleship occur because people are building on a very shaky foundation, so it is worth taking time to review how a person began their Christian life. As Paul says, ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves (2Corinthians 13:5).’ Mentoring can help with establishing people on a solid foundation that makes growth possible.
Further down the line, mature disciples are often perplexed by the ways of God and disappointed when things don’t work out as they expected. In particular, suffering throws up many questions for believers. A major growth point comes when we realise that we will never be able to fathom the ways of God and that we must trust him for things we don’t understand and be content to live with mystery. Again, mentors have an important role in guiding those they serve through times of difficulty and darkness by providing wise counsel and introducing them gently to the mystery of God.
Experienced mentors may already be confident in knowing what to talk about with others, but those starting out or mentoring more informally may not be as assured. The topics covered in the book will hopefully be a catalyst for beginning strategic conversations. While the book does not aim to provide a curriculum, it does provide something of a road map for the Christian life that will suit people at different stages at the journey. It can be used either one-to-one or in a small group.
I am always amazed that good conversation can be evangelistic in a gentle way. I have been meeting for coffee on a fairly regular basis with Frank, a man steeped in the world of professional football at the highest level, and whom I met when I was chaplain at Barnsley FC many years ago. During the pandemic Frank was locked down like everyone else and it gave him time to think deeply about his life, his upbringing, and our conversations. When we met up again, he was eager to ask many questions and ready to acknowledge that there had been a re-awakening of his faith.
I can’t wait to give Frank a copy of Mentoring Conversations and to continue our conversation about faith, life and the universe but now, with the help of the book, in a more focussed way.