We are called by Jesus to become disciples and are commanded by Jesus to make disciples. Every Christian needs to become a disciple, and every disciple needs to make other disciples. This process of becoming a disciple and making disciples is the core of our Christian mission. Since I first decided to follow Christ, I have been discipled by many and have been used to disciple others. However, I would like to focus this article on one particular “teacher-student” relationship: the relationship I had with, and training I received from Bill Brown.
Bill is a Presbyterian minister who has never fit the stereotype of a Presbyterian or a minister. He is clearly, in my opinion, one of the most genuine, humble, and committed disciples of Jesus I have ever known. During the decade of the 1980’s and into the 1990’s I spent a lot of time with Bill. Some of that time was spent as an associate pastor of a church he planted (though he’d probably never admit he “planted” a church), some of that time was spent as a “co-minister” of sorts (serving as an elder and youth leader under his unofficial, yet very real guidance), but most of the time was spent as a friend who wanted to draw from the wisdom and experience of a true man of God.
I would often call him to meet for morning coffee at the neighborhood McDonalds. I can’t remember one time he refused. We’d sit and drink coffee while I’d pour out my complex theological life dilemmas and concerns. Bill would listen, and then share some simple, yet profound concept from his experience, or from his understanding of scripture. His words didn’t always comfort me, but they always humbled me. I’m not sure how he was with everyone, but at least with me, Bill didn’t teach doctrine; he taught Jesus. Jesus humbles me.
One of the first things he taught me was that God values all people equally. This he taught without saying a word. His respect for every person he met was evident. There wasn’t even a hint of partiality regarding an individual’s social or economic status. Unlike so many other ministers I’ve met, Bill was not impressed by the “high-and-mighty” of this world, nor was he condescending toward the “weak-and-lowly” of society. I couldn’t tell by his demeanor whether he was relating to a well known political figure, a highly-esteemed religious personality, or a “down-and-out” homeless drug addict. He valued all people equally.
He also taught me to be real. He said that people, especially the poor of the inner-city, would “tap” you to see if you “rang phony” or real. He said they could always tell a phony ring, and you had no chance of reaching them if you didn’t ring true. Bill always rang true.
In many ways, Bill also helped shape my priorities. While he didn’t rule out the value of church or denomination affiliations, he surely taught that God transcends them all. He would fellowship with Christians from many different denominations and diverse backgrounds. Bill’s idea of unity surpassed all ecumenical efforts I’ve ever seen. He didn’t compromise areas of differences, but accentuated areas of accord. He did this, in part, through a citywide prayer movement he called “Shalom.” He would often say of other ministers and priests, “If they won’t pray together, they’ll never work together.” Bill taught me that all Christians are my brothers and sisters, whether I agree with them or not. He taught me that the Spirit of God was the unifying factor, not the understanding of doctrines.
My understanding of poverty was altered through Bill’s teachings. He helped me to understand “poverty” as a spiritual condition, not a physical one. I would often hear him explain that some of the “richest” people according to this world’s standards were actually impoverished, and that many of the “poorest” people were rich in grace and blessings from God. That’s why Bill’s ministry to the poor crossed economic lines. He was able to see poverty in some who were respected for their wealth; and, at the same time, he was able to rejoice in the true riches of many who were discarded by this world.
Bill also helped shape my understanding of “teaching” itself. He would often describe “teaching” as the process of giving someone the intellectual tools needed to find the truth. He would describe what many churches pass off as “teaching” to be nothing more than indoctrination: telling people what to believe and then telling them how to defend it. Bill was a “teacher” in the truest sense of the word.
I think one of the most powerful lessons I’ve ever received from Bill was at McDonalds (of course) when I was struggling with my “call to ministry” (for lack of better description). I had resigned my position as associate pastor at the church Bill planted and subsequently left that church. A few months later, Bill had stepped down as pastor. Several people wanted me to go back to the church, and I was beginning to believe that my wife and I should. The problem was that the church had undergone many changes, such as hiring a new pastor and appointing new youth leadership. I was afraid that my coming back would make some feel uncomfortable and that others would misunderstand our motives.
After sharing my concerns with Bill, he simply said, “I heard you say what you think, and what you fear others may think, but I haven’t heard you say what God thinks. Find out what God wants you to do and don’t even give a second thought to what you or others may think about it.” It’s so simple, yet so profound. We sought God, heard Him clearly, and went back to the church. There we had several great years of ministry and growth. That same principle was recently applied to our decision to become a part of the organic church movement. We sought what God wanted, and haven’t given a second thought to what others may think.
There are many, many other things I could share that Bill Brown has taught me over the years. In fact, I visited him several weeks ago and he was still teaching me. I thank God for bringing us together and I encourage all Christians to seek to have at least one Bill Brown in their lives.