“Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.” Psalm 71:18

When we recently surveyed a group of university students who were part of a church – what would be the most important thing the church could do for them – they responded overwhelmingly with one main request. They didn’t ask for better music. Or for a video venue to be closer to the campus. Or for more social activities. They said the biggest thing the church could do for them would be to provide for them spiritual mentors.

This wasn’t surprising for me to hear, as I could relate and the most growth I have ever had as a Christian has been through meeting with an older Christian.

For me, it was Stuart Allen, 83, the pastor of a small church in England, was the first to ever take me under his wing. He never used the term “discipleship” with me, but that is exactly what it was.

I was brand-new in the faith and wanted to find out more about what it meant to be a Christian, so I asked him if we could meet together. We didn’t go through a formal curriculum; we simply had lunch, and he shared what he was learning from Scripture and encouraged my questions. I watched how he modeled being a husband, and I even got to see him praying in the early hours of the morning one time when I stayed at his home.

Because of Stuart Allen, I understood that you could be intelligent and still be a Christian. And because he discipled me, I grew in my love for Scripture.

Lessons from a Layman

When I returned from England, I asked 68-year-old Rod Clendenen if we could meet once a week. He was a retired school teacher—and a worshiper and pray-without-ceasing type of a person.

We’d meet at his farmhouse every Wednesday night, and he would have a pot of coffee ready for me. We didn’t have a curriculum or formal study, though we did go through books of the Bible, and I would write down questions that we would discuss. Rod taught me that we could worship all day long, not just when music was playing or we were in a church meeting. I also learned a lot from how Rod interacted with his wife, and, in fact, I ended up marrying his daughter Becky.

Insights to Live By

Because of Multnomah University’s John Mitchell, 92, whom I met with every two weeks, I learned to never forget about those who don’t know Jesus. Bill Hybels and Rick Warren discipled me vicariously through their writings about the mission of the church. My mother and father discipled me on what it means to be a parent. Fellow church staffer Phil Comer discipled me about maintaining dependency upon God when teaching as a pastor or when leading worship—and the subtle danger of doing it for self-importance instead of all for Jesus.

Still Learning Daily

Although I have been a Christian now for more than 20 years, I feel as though I am being discipled every day by someone. It might be directly from the teachings of Jesus, or the writings of Paul or John. It might be Kristin Jensen, a young woman on our church staff who challenges me never to forget the importance of personal rest and soul care. It might be the writings of a theologian, or a book on pastoral leadership. We are all on this adventure in life as followers of Jesus, and we are always in need of learning and growing.

As hobbits Frodo and Bilbo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings trilogy had Gandalf to help them along, stretch them in their learning, ease them when they had fears and help them on their adventures—we all need Gandalfs. And the older I get, the more strongly I feel that we must model for next generations this sense of discipleship as a lifelong journey. Whether you are in your 40’s, 50’s or older – you can be coming alongside as a Gandalf to someone in their 20’s. If you are a college-age or in your 20’s, you can be a “Gandalf” to a teenager. May we never think we have “graduated”—that we have become Jesus-like enough to no longer need to be disciple. As you grow in the faith and have an older Gandalf you learn from, you also have the amazing opportunity to then be a Gandalf to someone else.

This article originally appeared in Outreach Magazine.