(This article was first published by The Gospel Coalition on Aug. 12th 2021)
I recommend what I call composite imitation as a path toward personal growth and ministry blessing. It’s a path I have walked for over 45 years, though I still have a long way to go.
I grew up in a vibrant Christ-centered ministry and missionary home, with parents who loved the Lord and lived his Word. Our home and Dad’s pulpit welcomed many who shared an authentic commitment to Jesus—people devoted to his Word, his love, his holiness, his witness, and his world.
That was the spiritual greenhouse in which my practice of composite imitation germinated and took root. I don’t remember if it was a conscious application of biblical texts (1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 3:17; Heb. 6:11–12; Heb. 13:7), or a more direct Spirit-given idea. Either way, it has borne fruit ever since.
Being Like Those Who Were Like Jesus
I knew I wanted to be like people who wanted to be like Jesus. So as I observed people’s words and works, and noted specific graces they manifested, I resolved to emulate them.
I didn’t say, “I want to be just like John.” It was more like “John is a distinctly humble man. I want that kind of humility in my life.” The result was a still-very-imperfect composite imitation of Christ as seen in the various virtues I observed in others.
As I observed people’s words and works, and noted specific graces they manifested, I resolved to emulate them.
Through this spiritual discipline, I sought to imitate:
- Bill and Laura S. (my parents), whose courageous commitment produced 20 years of missionary service—all without ever neglecting their children
- Bill F., whose tender pastoral and practical love touched many lives
- Ray M., who carried himself with uncommon humility
- Al M., whose faithful Bible expositions set a still unreached bar for my ministry
- Gary H., whose personal godliness was evident in word and deed
- Don and Lynn H., whose home was perpetually open to all
- Len and Ruth M., whose parenting set a tone for our parenting
- Doug D., who jumped to serve, no matter how menial the task, with a joyful eagerness I’ve rarely beheld
- The husband-wife doctor team (whose names I can’t remember), who opted for a mobile home instead of the huge house they could afford, so they could give more away
- Chuck S., whose preaching winsomeness proved that biblical fidelity doesn’t have to be cranky
- John P., whose preaching earnestness showed that the pulpit was a sacred desk
- R. C. S., who showed that profound theology can be simply and clearly taught
- Tim and Pat B., who had a way of always showing up when others were in crisis
I remember observing these men and women and then praying:
Please Lord, insofar as these reflect Christ, I want Dad and Mom’s courage, Bill’s love, Ray’s humility, Al’s expositional power, Gary’s godliness, Don and Lynn’s hospitality, Len and Ruth’s parenting grace, Doug’s servant heart, that doctor couple’s generosity, Chuck’s winsomeness, John’s earnestness, R. C.’s simple profundity, and Tim and Pat’s commitment to showing up.
I am 62 now, which means the influence of many of these started as far back as 45 years ago. And it sticks to this day. Though I’ve not achieved anything near perfection (Phil. 3:12–17), I am closer than I otherwise would’ve been if God hadn’t brought such examples into my life—and given me eyes to see and notice and imitate.
Mine is a deliberate copycat faith that has turned me into a composite imitation. Instead of seeking to be a spiritual original, I have sought to notice good examples, and then be a reflection of those who reflect the One who is no reflection at all—he who is the very image and shining radiance of God (Heb. 1:3; 1 Cor. 11:1).
Brace for Disappointment
Be advised that composite imitation sometimes leads to disappointment. Fallen human examples will often fail, sometimes badly. But there is no need to let their flaws demoralize you. Instead, do with spiritual models and mentors what Paul says about prophetic words. Cling to (and imitate) what is good, and reject what isn’t (1 Thess. 5:20–21). After all, the prophets of old were flawed, but they still suffered well as an example for us. And even though Job wasn’t always on top of his spiritual game, his steadfastness is a worthy example to imitate (James 4:10–11).
I am privileged to have wonderful examples—albeit with flaws. My guess is you have some, too. Look for models of true grace and gifting, and if possible observe them closely enough to have something rub off. But choose carefully. Make sure you are imitating Christlikeness in others, not what is cool or popular or attractive in a worldly sense. We don’t need any more world-imitating and culturally conformed “believers” running around in the church. What we need are more believers who have been transformed by Jesus—often by imitating those who have been transformed by Jesus.
We need more believers who have been transformed by Jesus—often by imitating those who have been transformed by Jesus.
Almost 40 years into ministry, I still need examples to follow. So in my life right now there’s the racial unifying courage of Robert C., the focused steadiness of Keith T., the biblical fire of Bryan D., the guileless labors of Alex C., the humble sincerity of Rick B., the persistent prayerfulness of Tim K., and the world-class encouragement of Andrew K.
I am sure there are those who would respond: “Tim, you haven’t copied that one—or any of those—very well!” They would be right. And I’m sorry. But imagine what a complete mess I would be if I hadn’t copied them at all.
And so if, like me, you want to be better, I’d recommend that you imitate those who are.