An anxious man asked one of the Desert Fathers of long ago for help in his prayer life. The wise mentor invited him first to unburden his soul: “Just as it is impossible for a man to see his face in troubled water, so too the soul, unless it be cleansed of alien thoughts, cannot pray to God in contemplation.”
Where are the Spiritual Mentors?
What has happened to the spiritual mentors? Where are the people in the Body of Christ who are prepared to engage others in soul talk as a means of saying with the Apostle: “Follow me as I follow Christ”?
People seeking God need to be nurtured in the Christian faith by soul guides from their Christian community. Until recent generations this was common. But today many of our churches have become like religious shopping malls that try to give people whatever they want – exciting worship services, entertaining preaching, dynamic Bible studies, fellowship groups with people in their life stage, recovery programs and lay counseling to heal whatever hurt they have, and many opportunities to serve.
Don’t misunderstand me. These ministries are good. But our mission has become scattered by attempting to meet all the felt needs that people have and as a result we have compromised our ability to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission of apprenticing people to himself by immersing them in Trinitarian reality and teaching them how to obey everything that he said to do (Matthew 28:19-20).
Spiritual mentoring, as it was practiced in the Bible and for subsequent centuries of the Church’s history in the ministry of spiritual direction, is about the “one thing” of seeking the Lord’s face. David did it in his desert trials (Psalm 27), Mary did it in the clamor of her kitchen (Luke 10:38-42), and Paul did it in his demanding apostolic ministry (Philippians 3:7-14).
Throughout the Bible we see that soul friendships and spiritual guidance relationships are central to developing our relationship with God. To grow spiritually, we all need mentors to learn from, soul friends to share with, and people for us to guide to Jesus. The Apostle Paul is one of many in the Bible that modeled this: he was trained by Gamaliel and Ananias, shared spiritual companionship with fellow disciples like Peter and Barnabas, and mentored many other disciples including Timothy and Titus.
If in our churches we can train crisis counselors to prevent suicides, sponsors to help alcoholics into recovery, and elders to minister to the sick and dying then why can’t we train spiritual mentors to assist people in their spiritual journey? We can if we will catch the vision, rely on Christ, and invest the time that is needed. Any ordinary Christian can progress in personal discipleship to Jesus and learn how to offer the ministry of spiritual hospitality to others (1 Peter 4:7-10), laboring to help them to be formed into the image of Christ (Galatians 4:19).
What is a Spiritual Mentor?
In a spiritual mentoring relationship the soul guide is someone who is following Jesus on the path of life and holds out his or her hand and heart to a fellow pilgrim needing encouragement. The guide is “Christ’s Ambassador”, humbly representing Jesus to offer his ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20) and constantly relying upon and pointing to the Holy Spirit, the real Spiritual Mentor (John 14:26, 16:13).
In this kind of soul shepherding (1 Peter 5:2-4) the conversation between the guide and seeker is really a conversation of three – a “prayer process” that centers on responding to God’s presence and his kingdom purposes. To get in tune with God’s presence awakens our souls (Psalm 57:8) to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), to find our delight in him (Psalm 37:4), and to seek him in all things because he is in all things holding them together (Colossians 1:17).
Spiritual mentoring is a distinct type of spiritual guidance relationship. It’s different than teaching in that it’s more intimate and personal than typical lesson-giving. It’s different than counseling because the focus is on improving relationship with God rather than overcoming psychological problems. And it’s different than discipleship, as the term has come to be used today, because it’s more of a personal and relational process than a content-driven course on the early steps of the Christian journey. It’s most similar to soul friendship, but less mutual.
Spiritual mentors apprentice people to Jesus through soulful conversations and prayer that foster appreciation of the Spirit’s presence in daily life and submission to the Lord’s will in all things so that they become increasingly loving toward God and others.
What Spiritual Guides Need to Learn to Do
The heart of spiritual guidance, like any form of soul care, is listening (James 1:19). There is no care of souls without compassion: patient attentiveness, generous open-heartedness, gentle inquisitiveness, continual stepping inside the other’s shoes to empathize and then reflect back words that convey what has been understood.
This kind of hospitable listening makes space for God’s light to shine in the pilgrim’s heart. Listening, more than sharing insights, is the most profound way that a soul care provider can serve as “the light of the world” for Jesus (Matthew 5:14-16). Of course, there is a time for a soul guide gently to share Biblical insights or words of encouragement. But we all know from experience that “the lights come on” best – we see God and what he is doing in our lives – when we are listened to well.
In spiritual conversation the guide focuses the conversation on how the seeker is experiencing God (or struggling to experience God) and facilitates for the seeker a growing longing for and intimacy with God. This increased closeness with God is gained through becoming more aware of God’s active and gracious presence in the particulars of daily life in all its ordinariness and stressors.
I have found that the key to inviting connection to God is through the use of “salty questions” that invite people to consider where God seems to be or what he might be doing in their life situations (Matthew 5:13). Salty questions elicit thirst for God’s presence, add God-flavor to life, and preserve relationship with God in the midst of struggles. Examples include:
- How have you sensed God’s presence recently?
- What challenges are you experiencing in your spiritual life?
- When have you delighted in the Lord recently?
- What is the Lord teaching you?
Spiritual mentors facilitate the conversation with the pilgrim to invite prayer. Much of this happens in the background through adopting the posture of being Christ’s Ambassador, asking salty questions, “shooting up” silent little arrow prayers as they listen, and interceding with God outside of the conversations. But mentors also are ready to invite the pilgrim to participate in prayer (in session and between sessions) in a variety of ways as the Spirit leads, understanding that all of the classical spiritual disciplines are forms of prayer.
Training Soul Guides
The shepherding of souls is a ministry that needs to be done by more than just pastors, counselors, and retreat directors; it needs to be done by regular people in the church – those who don’t have seminary degrees or professional certifications or licenses. Spiritual seekers long for soul talk in the context of their daily lives with someone in their church community like a small group leader or a friend.
For the body of Christ to function as it’s designed many ordinary people in the local churches need to be equipped for ministry. We need “amateur” soul guides to be developed and available in our congregations to lead small groups, provide lay spiritual guidance as part of a church ministry, or apprentice people to Jesus over coffee. “Amateur” comes from the Latin word “amātor,” which means “lover.” True amateurs who offer spiritual mentoring do so out of love for Christ and people and a passion to connect them together. They don’t consider themselves experts, just fellow pilgrims on the path following Jesus.
Central to the training of spiritual mentors is to put them into a context where they can learn personally what it means to “keep your soul diligently” (Deuteronomy 4:9, NASB) by participating in a mentoring relationship or small group for their own spiritual formation in Christ. Effective ministry is always inside out, meaning that it overflows naturally from our character and relationship with Christ. This is not to say that mentors don’t have weaknesses! Of course, we all have struggles and these remind us to depend on the grace of the Lord as we minister to others (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Soul guides in training also need to practice offering the ministry of spiritual hospitality and encouragement through role-plays and supervised experience. This way they can receive feedback and adjust their approach to become more helpful in the ways that they listen, collaborate, and pray for people’s relationship with Christ.
Other aspects to spiritual mentor training include appreciating the seasons and stages in the spiritual journey, practicing the classic spiritual disciplines in healthy ways, and learning from the rich history of examples and teachings on the spiritual life from the Scripture and the classics of Christian devotion.
The church of Christ grew exponentially in the book of Acts because the 120 disciples that Jesus trained over three years (Acts 1:15) gave themselves personally to engage with other people in the ministry of discipling souls to Jesus. Ray Ortlund gave his life to this cause. How privileged I am that he discipled me to Jesus. I am seeking to follow his example.