Most of us have role models. Children learn best from role models and the very best role model is a good parent. Sometimes our role models even become our heroes. If we actually get to know our heroes they will eventually disappoint us. But if we learn to rightly understand our role models they will become powerful guides and bring great blessing to our lives.
In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 the apostle tells believers to “follow our example” (by which he means the example of the apostles). In 2 Thessalonians 3:9 he says that the work of the apostles is to “offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.” That is a great encouragement to all of us who influence others in Christian ministry.
It has been rightly said that “precepts may lead, but examples draw.” The Puritan Thomas Brooks concluded that “example is the most powerful rhetoric.” and Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.” I do agree.
I thought about these truths regarding role models last Thursday (July 16) when I drove to suburban Milwaukee (two hours from my home) to share nearly three hours of fellowship with two very special role models of mine—Stuart and Jill Briscoe.
The story of how I came to admire Stuart Briscoe goes back to 1967–68 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Stuart was conducting one of his itinerant journeys preaching the Bible in various parts of America. He spent the better part of a week on the university campus preaching in sorority and fraternity houses as well as in local churches. I can still remember two things about this unusual week. First, there were a large number of real conversions following Stuart’s mission. Second, I developed a deep hunger to preach the Word of God faithfully by watching Stuart speak in so many different settings. He taught the Bible and did evangelism. I wanted to do the same.
In 1969 I transferred to Wheaton College. In 1970 Stuart and Jill moved to America when Stuart became the pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. When I was a graduate student at Wheaton in 1972 I planted a church. I then sought the counsel of two role models. In the case of Stuart and Jill they invited me into their home. I spent three days listening, learning and watching. I had never been in a pastor’s home for three days. The impression made upon me was lasting.
Some months later I heard Stuart answer a question in a home meeting that did not sit well with me. Being ever vigilant to make sure that my role models agreed with me about every thing I read in the Bible I began to grow disinterested in Stuart’s counsel for a period of time. I chose another well-known role model to help me frame my views of preaching and ministry in my early days in the pastorate. This brother seemed more biblically sound to my young mind. A few years later I added another role model, a man who was very much like the other brother but who was even closer to my views of preaching and ministry.
Last Thursday I told Stuart that when I made that choice back in the early 1970s it was a bad one. I regretted years later that I had not followed his example more carefully. The other pastor did nothing but teach me how to wage war and battle with others over doctrinal matters that were not central to faith in Christ. For the next twenty years or so this man, and the second one I chose a few years later, were my “pure” role models. In time both of these men invited me into their homes and pulpits. Initially I felt built up by the approval they gave to me. I did poke my head out of the clouds to ask questions these other two role models did not answer. In time my youthful role models became my critics. The pain of these experiences is still quite real but I have learned from them powerful lessons about how to not do Christian theology and ministry. As I discovered the lack of emotional and spiritual congruence in the lives of these two other men I saw my own incongruence and emotional immaturity. You can thus see why my time with Stuart and Jill was especially precious to me.
After a visit with Stuart in his office at the church (they continue to support his teaching ministry around the world) we went to lunch at a Panera Bread store. I felt like I was hanging out with a pop star. From the moment we opened the door, to the order of our meal, to the time at the table and then on the way out the door to the car, one person after another recognized Stuart and Jill and stopped to say hello. Each one thanked them for their labors and shared some personal story. Some were people from their church days but many were people from the community. Being a careful people watcher I carefully observed Stuart and Jill talking with each person. Not once did they seem weary or bothered. They were kind, gracious and energetic in their response to each person. They were there, living “in the moment” by grace. I have spent a lot of time with well known evangelical leaders over the years. Sadly, many respond very differently in these same circumstances. They have little or no real interest in people as people. I will say no more.
Stuart and Jill were deeply interested to talk to me about my journey, my wife, my children and my grandchildren. Jill gave me material for Anita to read and Stuart gave me his memoir. Before I left Stuart asked if he could pray for me. He then reached over to close the door of his office and said, “I had better close the door lest someone get the idea that I have begun to pray about things.” If you know Stuart you will smile at that line. (By the way, he is one of the most genuinely humorous ministers I have ever known. This is a great evidence of health and reverence in balance.)
I also observed two people, married for forty-nine years, truly loving each other. Stuart and Jill teased one another, spoke about their love for God and each other and then shared stories about family and friends. These stories spoke profoundly of their deep love in the most natural way. Jill even asked me questions about ministering to college students and whether she should still be doing it. (I encouraged her to do it all the more.)
Stuart and Jill are wonderful role models! I regret that I did not see them in this light more clearly when I was in their home for three days in 1972. I am glad that by God’s grace I can now see the qualities that make them such congruent and attractive people with a winsome lifestyle that gives me two great role models. I now have a great picture of what I hope I will like be over the next twenty-plus years, assuming God grants me that much time to live for his glory in this life. Who knows, maybe when I am Stuart’s age (78) I can actually be a role model for some sixty year old young guy like me.