After nearly three years at their church, Katie told me she wondered if she’d ever fit in.
“When we first came to the church, Jeff and I knew that my job put me in the minority among the stay-at-home moms, but the pastor assured us it shouldn’t matter, as we were all seeking Jesus together. We appreciated his emphasis on discipleship. As the years have passed, however, I’m noticing that most of the women seem to be copying each other in terms of lifestyle, convictions, and calling. It feels more like a clique than a church,” Katie said sadly. She and Jeff were considering leaving the congregation.
Scripture portrays discipleship as the way in which a mature believer lives out faith in the everyday and ongoing companionship of a younger student. This maturity references age, experience, and faithfulness. It’s a description of the ongoing process of spiritual growth, not the arrival at some state of spiritual perfection (Deut. 6:4-9). The late Dallas Willard called this whole-life learning model apprenticeship, a word that is helpful in translating an ancient concept into our modern context.
Like my friend Katie, I’ve found that sometimes a Christianized form of peer pressure takes the place of true apprenticeship. If your church culture implies that all real believers end up looking, acting, voting, or talking the same, pay close attention. It’s possible you’re seeing peer pressure at work. And though it’s simply a more sophisticated version of what you may have experienced in middle school, the social push to conform to a group’s standards can be just as powerful. Some examples:
- We tell new believers (or inquirers) that they need to learn to “act like a Christian” in order to fit in at church.
- We subtly (or not so subtly) discourage young believers from pursuing careers in academia or the arts because those vocational paths are “too secular.”
- We shun or shame people who, on a theological non-essential—such as politics—may not share the prevailing opinion of our congregation.
The challenge for the more mature in an apprenticeship relationship is to remember that learning happens in different ways at different stages of our spiritual development. There is a time and a season in our spiritual life for imitation. Just as young children parrot sounds and words as they’re learning to communicate for themselves, we learn how to walk with Jesus by patterning our lives after those who’ve gone before us. Imitation serves an instructional purpose.
Peer pressure has “fear of missing out” at its root, and not fitting into the group is viewed as a cardinal sin. If you sense everyone around you competing in an unspoken contest to conform to the group’s standards, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re noticing the effects of peer pressure. The imitation of godly women and men, on the other hand, teaches us essential patterns and practices while honoring individual calling and giftedness.
First-century rabbis would assess a potential apprentice via a long period of living and learning together: They would look for someone who had the capacity and desire to mold himself to be like his teacher. Author Doug Greenwold explained, “Throughout the Gospels, the phrase ‘follow me’ is a Jewish idiom used by the rabbis to mean, ‘Come and be with me as my disciple, and submit to my authoritative teaching.’” Jesus’ words “follow Me” mean far more than “join my team.” They are words that tell us He believes we will seek to pattern every aspect of our life after His.
However, His goal isn’t that we remain perpetual infants, repeating basic lessons over and over again as though we’re in an endlessly looping game of Simon Says. Instead, wanting us to move toward maturity, He empowers us to then apprentice others who will delight in imitating Him as we’re learning to do (Matt. 28:18-20). The writer of Hebrews expressed frustration with his readers’ seemingly plateaued spiritual growth: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12).
We see this pattern in action in Paul’s counsel to the church at Corinth. He urges the young church to imitate him while learning to navigate their lives as immature followers of Jesus: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). However, in the personal greetings he uses to conclude the first letter to the Corinthians—those words we tend to zip past because they seem like personal bits of housekeeping—we see how Paul celebrates the diversity of gifts and ministries among those who’ve been mature leaders among those believers.
He asks the Christians in Corinth to treat his protégé Timothy with respect, because though a different person than Paul, the younger man was carrying on a similar, complementary ministry to the apostle’s (1 Corinthians 16:10-11). Without denigrating Apollos, Paul noted that this co-laborer in Christ didn’t initially want to visit the church but then reconsidered—a recognition that Apollos was his own man, with his own mind and faith (1 Corinthians 16:12). Paul then offers a shout-out to Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. Their ministry to him came in the form of practical financial assistance (1 Corinthians 16:15-18). Finally, he mentions mature church leaders Priscilla and Aquila, who led a congregation in their home, apprenticing young believers in the faith (1 Corinthians 16:19; Acts 18:24-26).
The pattern of follow-the-leader was formalized in the early decades of the church. The Didache, a document that dates from perhaps as early as A.D. 100, is an example of an early catechism—a set of questions and answers new believers had to learn or memorize as part of their membership process in the local congregation. The Didache and eventually other forms of catechesis were Discipleship 101 for the early church, focusing on both the essential teachings of Jesus and the baseline practices of corporate confession, communion, and the authority structure God has ordained for life together. Young Christians learned to follow Jesus by following their leaders.
However, imitation should never result in uniformity. Musician Steve Taylor’s 1983 satirical song entitled “I Want to Be a Clone” named the fear driving Christian peer pressure: “They told me that I’d fall away / unless I followed what they say.” Aping the beliefs and behaviors of the influencers in their church may seem to promise a sort of spiritual insurance policy that will seal their salvation—or at least their place in the group. But a life shaped by a healthy fear of God will produce very different fruit than one shaped by fear of being excluded by the in-crowd. Fear of God offers us freedom. Fear of others enslaves.
A better “discipleship program” will not fix this problem, because it runs as deep in each one of us as our fear of being abandoned or left behind. That unexposed, un-discipled fear leaves us vulnerable to peer pressure whether we’re a young Christian or a seasoned leader. As my friend Katie and her husband assessed their experience at the church, they asked God first to reveal their own fears of being left out or forgotten, and then to confirm that they were being obedient in the ways their family was serving Him through work, parenting, and lifestyle decisions.
Jeff and Katie were asking good questions. Those questions led to them seeking the prayer and counsel of other mature believers—their pastor, a friend at church, and other friends in their social network, including my husband and me. The process clarified for them their own calling at this stage of their lives. It also helped them to better recognize the unhealthy peer-dependent dynamics among many of the young families at church. Instead of feeling excluded or judged by them, Katie told me she found new compassion for them. They decided to stay and brought their concerns to the pastor, who told them he was noticing the same issues as they were.
J. Oswald Sanders said, “No living thing comes to maturity instantaneously. In the attainment of intellectual maturity, there is no alternative to the student painfully working through the prescribed courses. Nor is it any different in the spiritual life. Growth toward spiritual maturity will of necessity involve moral effort, discipline, renunciation, and perseverance in pursuit of the goal. There are no shortcuts.”
Christian peer pressure is a counterproductive shortcut. And recognizing it for what it is becomes a powerful step in an apprentice’s journey toward maturity.
Illustrations by Jack Richardson