Recently, I had an older, experienced, extremely fruitful pastor suggest to me that I be careful not to simply take ideas and techniques and models and systems from other people and “make them my own” immediately. He told me that many people—especially young people in our present culture—are tempted to short-circuit the pattern of Information –> Imitation –> Innovation. They simply leave out imitation.
I’ve been reflecting on this for 3 weeks now. Why is it that we are so allergic to imitation? I think there’s a couple of reasons.
First, the thought of being imitated scares us. Being imitated means that people will need to get close enough for long enough to actually see who we really are. And that’s just too much pressure. I have made a habit over the last 10 years of deflecting encouraging remarks that people make about my character. I have often said—“well, just come hang out at my house for a week and you’re realize how much of a jerk I can be.” When we deflect sincere comments in this way, we are actually letting ourselves off the hook while pretending to be humble. It’s too hard to be a kind, generous, wise, courteous person all day and in all contexts, we feel. We don’t want people really watching our lives.
Second, imitating others seems to us to smack of inauthenticity. For some reason, an electrician’s apprentice knows that she must follow an experienced electrician around and essentially do everything she’s told, or else risk being electrocuted. I remember, however, a freshman student at the University of South Carolina, whose writing I was responsible to grade. She was indignant that I insisted she write an introduction, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. She was especially upset that I told her to make each paragraph begin with a topic sentence. This, she protested, was stifling to her creativity. Well, the fact is that if her first draft was the electric system of a skyscraper, the skyscraper would have burnt to the ground. She couldn’t write at all–much less write creatively. We get even more queasy at the notion of imitating someone else’s spirituality. It’s inauthentic, stifling, insincere, we instinctively believe.
But the reality is this: We are called by Jesus to be kind, generous, wise, and courteous all day and in all contexts. We are called by Jesus to make our conformity to him the top priority in our lives. We are called to imitate Jesus. And to do that, we need to get our nose in the Bible and our eyes on someone who is imitating Jesus better than us. Paul had no hesitation whatsoever calling Christians to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1).
Fellow disciples of Jesus: don’t be hasty to do things your own way. Anything worth doing is worth doing somewhat awkwardly and in someone else’s way until we’ve actually got the hang of it. And following Jesus is the most worth-doing thing ever. Find someone who is following Jesus closely, and do what they do.
Fellow pastors, elders, and church planters: whether you’re comfortable with it or not, you’re the one to be imitated. You might as well own up to this as soon as possible and it wouldn’t hurt to somewhat formalize the process. Gather 3-5 people that you love, who love you, and open your life wide to them. Call them to imitate you. And show them how to call others to imitate them.
The church is in the business of helping people trust in Jesus and become like Jesus. Don’t skip imitation.