Life on life discipleship

“Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” – Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:1

“Only a disciple can make a disciple.” – A. W. Tozer

When I was a freshman in college, a staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ named Tom, challenged me to start meeting  with him for discipleship. He said he wanted to work with me personally to help me grow as a Christ follower. At first I felt special that this 25 year old, married guy, that I really looked up to,  would want to spend time investing in an 18 year old single guy. But I soon felt otherwise. He was a constant challenge to me, to be more disciplined and to move out of my comfort zone. He didn’t let up.

He asked if I had signed up to go on the Campus Crusade Fall Retreat. I told him I didn’t plan on it. He pressed, insisting that if I really wanted to grow, I would be there. So, I went.  The first night at the retreat they taught us how to do a “quiet time” with God, finding a quiet place to read the Bible, pray and journal. Tom asked if we could do ours together the next morning before breakfast. I hadn’t even planned on getting up that early. I usually didn’t even eat breakfast, preferring to sleep in. But I reluctantly agreed.

The next morning as the sun came up, Tom and I went for a walk in the woods, carrying Bibles and notebooks in hand. We sat down under a tree and opened the Scriptures. He shared with me how he was reading through the book of Acts and perhaps we could do that together. We read together, prayed together and journaled. It was life changing. I really sensed the Lord speaking to me through His Word in a fresh new way. Tom encouraged me to make having a daily quiet time a part of my morning routine.

After the retreat, I started meeting with Tom weekly. He came to our campus on Wednesdays. He would spend an hour with myself and two other freshmen guys going through discipleship lessons, like “How to be sure you’re a Christian,” and “How to experience God’s love and forgiveness.” Then, he would have individual appointments with each of us, showing us how to study the Bible, how to pray, how to share the gospel and other Christian disciplines. He insisted that these individual times were done in a public place, like the campus sandwich shop, or next to the fountain at center campus, where other students would hang out on pretty days.

“Look and listen to those around us, Gary.” He would say. “Ask the Lord to show you who He wants us to talk to about Him.”

I didn’t like this advice. I enjoyed being with Tom studying the Bible, but I really didn’t want to start talking to people around us that I didn’t know. That just wasn’t cool.

But he would insist. “Let’s talk to that guy sitting over on the bench by himself. I’ll do the talking and you do the praying.”

So, there we’d go. I would die a little inside the first few times we did this. It was so out of my comfort zone. But Tom was really good at striking up a conversation with others. He was a self-acknowledged introvert, but he had decided that Christ’s command to be a witness overruled his own hesitancy.

“Hey, my name is Tom and this is my friend Gary. We’ve been talking about spiritual things and we noticed you sitting over here alone and wondered if you’d be interested in joining our discussion.”

“Hmm… sure I guess so.” The guy would usually say.

And that’s how it would go, week after week. At first, Tom did the talking and I did the watching and praying. But then after a few weeks, he changed his approach.

“You know Gary, you’ve been watching me share the gospel with people for several weeks now. I think you’re ready to do the sharing and let me do the praying. What do you think?”

“Ah… I don’t know. I don’t feel as confident as you. I’m not sure I’m ready.” I mumbled in response.

I had been a Christian for over 10 years, but I had never learned to share the gospel. I knew the gospel, but I didn’t know how to talk about it with others. I think this long period of silence had created a real fear and barrier in my heart. It took a lot of courage to finally say, “Yes,” to Tom’s challenge.

Over the next two years, Tom and I continued to meet weekly, studying the Bible, sharing the gospel, and praying together. He was my Paul and I was his Timothy. He challenged me to start my own Bible study of three guys and to start discipling them, just as he had discipled me. I did. He challenged me to start leading worship at the weekly Crusade worship gathering. I did. He challenged me to start having breakfast at his house every Saturday morning to study the Bible and memorize Scripture. I did. He challenged me to go on a Summer Project with Campus Crusade, spending my Summer break sharing the gospel. I did.

Then, one day, Tom told me that he was leaving. He had been accepted at a seminary in Dallas. He would be leaving to prepare for the next phase in the calling God had on his life. He had always loved studying the Greek language of the New Testament on his own and he really wanted to learn it from the experts. He had inspired a similar love for the original languages of the Bible in me.  So, I understood. But I also was greatly grieved. I loved this man. And I would miss him dearly.

The last time he met with me and his other guys, we stood on the roof of my 13-story dorm together. We goofed off and laughed (Tom did a great Bob Dylan impression) and told each other how much those two years together had meant. I had grown more in two years being discipled “life on life” by Tom, than I had in the previous 10 years of my Christian life attending church.

“I think you’re going to be a very influential pastor or evangelist some day.” Tom told me with a serious tone to his voice.

“But you know I just changed my major to music. I’m spending the Summer playing in a Christian band with Crusade. I don’t see myself as a preacher.” I responded with a smile and a shake of my head.

“You’re a good musician, Gary. But you’re a better communicator. We’ll see what God does in the future with you, but I see a preacher in you.” He  said while putting his hand on my shoulder.

I’ve never seen Tom again since that day in 1978. Yet, 13 years later, in 1991, I quit my corporate job and started seminary. Before that year was out, the Lord had called me to plant a church in Wilson, North Carolina.

And so, another 25 years later, I’ve been preaching the gospel every Sunday at Wilson Community Church. It’s amazing what can happen when one disciple of Jesus takes seriously Christ’s command to make disciples.

Life on life discipleship changed my life. I wonder, will you let someone disciple you to disciple others, and let it change yours?


3 comments on “Life on life discipleship

  1. Judi Walton

    WOW and yes I will pray for God to give me someone to disciple me, this is something that I’ve been struggling with, your words are such an encouragement to me. Praise the Lord for you & Tom.

  2. Laura Lewellen

    Praise God Gary for where the Lord took you on your life journey with HIM! What an encouraging post about Tom. God has continued to use this man in amazing ways at GRACE CHURCH in White Lake Mi for the past 32 years!
    We have ministered together since those days at VPI. GRATEFUL for you and your words.
    Laura Lewellen

  3. Joan

    It has been a privilege to learn about life with God with the guidance of Tom. Both Tom and Laura are very dear to my heart. Thank you for sharing some history about this gifted man.


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