Emulation is the first principle of formation and transformation. Children imitate parents and siblings, students emulate their teachers and peers. How did you learn to write? Throw and catch and bat? Relate to friends? Prepare for exams? Form successful habits at work? How did you learn to bake bread or make an omelet? You learned some things by reading or hearing, but mostly you learned by watching, by imitating, by emulating. More people learn how to do something by watching YouTube than by reading the instructions on the box.
God taught Israel to learn by emulation. Consider the Bible’s original instruction for education:
These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:1-9)
This is how Mary the mother of Jesus learned from her parents. This is how Jesus learned from his parents. This is how Paul learned from his parents. This is how John and James and Junia and Priscilla . . . you get the point. This is how everyone learned in the ancient world.
As Paul instructed the Philippians, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice” (Philippians 4:9). This theme of emulation goes deeper than “follow me.” Paul also wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Emulation is the first mode of formation and transformation.
Paul reminded Timothy of this very thing in words we may easily overlook: “As for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:14-15, italics added). Paul also said something similar at the beginning of his letter: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5). Timothy learned the faith through the example of his mother and grandmother. This explains why sociologists sometimes call our home life primary socialization, while what we learn from everyone else—teachers, friends, coworkers, what we read—is called secondary socialization.
When Jesus called Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and when he called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, he instructed them, “Come, follow me” (Matthew 4:19). Disciples of Jesus followed him (Matthew 4:22). We need to look beyond the simplicities that sometimes pop up around common words and phrases such as disciple and “follow Jesus” to realize that these were real people following a real Messiah. Following in this context means:
being with Jesus,
listening to him,
being instructed by him,
doing what he said, and
doing what he did.
After Matthew finishes outlining Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healing ministries (Matthew 5–9), he says that Jesus “called his twelve disciples to him” and made them apostles by sending them out to do what he had been doing, because they had seen him doing those very things (Matthew 10:1-10). Followers of Jesus follow Jesus. Emulation is at the heart of formation.
Though we can make too much of “What would Jesus do?” we can also make too little of it. We are called Christians (a diminutive of Christ) because we are to be “little Christs”—to emulate him. We are little Christs when we do and say what Jesus would do and say. Jesus is our first example, and those who follow Jesus are second examples. Which is why we cited the apostle Paul’s words: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
We learn more by emulation than by information, which means exactly what the pastor told me at breakfast: Transformation will happen only through emulation. This means we need tov people to emulate. Our churches need more and more examples of Jesus. The greatest cultural transformation occurs when a band of Christians begins to walk in the way of Jesus so well that other people see Jesus in how the community of faith lives.
More particularly, the culture shift you want to see in your church requires people who are already doing what you want others to do, so that those you want to enlist in the culture shift can see what they are to do themselves. Let’s ramp this up one level.
A pastor friend who is involved in an eight-year culture shift in a church described one of the most important realizations he and his people had: “Who we are becoming is more important than where we are headed.” Which is to say, it isn’t just what we do but who we are.
It all comes down to character.
Let’s dig in here a bit. In our churches we measure numbers. We assess success through quantitative measurements. We measure butts in seats, bills in plates, baptisms in water, and buildings on the rise. When attendance grows, when the budget swells, when conversions increase, and when buildings take up space on our property, we see ourselves as doing the Lord’s work well.
What we’re saying instead is that we need to pivot. We need to measure character formation more than number enhancements. Why? The thing that matters most—pick the term you prefer—is spiritual formation, character development, Christlikeness, tov. Someone once said, “If you can’t count what matters, then make what you can count matter.” John Rosensteel, a former student of mine at Northern Seminary and now pastor of New Hope Church in Portland, Oregon, said it this way:
For most of my ministry career, I was taught to determine success through the matrix of business principles. I was told that healthy things grow. But I came to realize that numerical growth can be a misleading indicator of a flourishing church. There are some inherent tensions between selling out to attract crowds and a devotion to making disciples. Large, numerically growing churches can certainly flourish and make disciples. Yet that is not necessarily the case. Healthy things do grow, but the growth that matters is difficult to capture in a spreadsheet. It is difficult to track. It is slow, messy, and eludes simple measurements, but you know it when you see it.
Instead of measuring character in our US churches, we chose to measure numbers. And it’s killing us. The church is only fully the church when it lives in the way of Jesus; when through emulation of the Master himself, it is transformed.
- Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor, 1967), 120–121.
- Our friend Steve Carter said something to this effect.
- John Rosensteel, personal account of the transformation of New Hope Church, Portland, Oregon.
Adapted from Pivot: The Priorities, Practices, and Powers That Can Transform Your Church into a Tov Culture by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.
Scot McKnight is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. He is the author of more than ninety books, including the award-winning The Jesus Creed as well as A Church Called Tov, The King Jesus Gospel, A Fellowship of Differents, The Blue Parakeet, and Kingdom Conspiracy. He maintains an active Substack newsletter at https://scotmcknight.substack.com. He and his wife, Kristen, live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where they enjoy long walks, gardening, and cooking.
Laura Barringer is a teacher and the coauthor of A Church Called Tov. She is also a children's ministry curriculum writer for Grow Kids and coauthored the children's version of The Jesus Creed. A graduate of Wheaton College, Laura resides in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with her husband, Mark, and three beagles.