INTERVIEW – Josh Harris On Being Discipled by C. J. Mahaney

INTERVIEW – Josh Harris On Being Discipled by C. J. Mahaney December 20, 2005

In January of 2008, the following post was identified as the 29th most widely read post on this blog. The 30th most-read post was “How to Use the Google Calendar.”

This is the first of several interviews that appeared in the top-30 list. In this interview I talked with Josh Harris about being discipled by C. J. Mahaney.


Welcome to the blog, Josh. In this interview I’d like to focus a bit on the important role C. J. Mahaney, who I also interviewed awhile back here on the blog, played in discipling you and how that mentoring benefited you.

Thanks, Adrian. I’m grateful to be with you. And I’m glad you’re giving space on your blog to the topic of mentoring. I think it’s important, and I hope I can add something useful to the conversation.

To start with, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be leading Covenant Life Church at such a young age. (A DVD set is available which documents the key transition that led to this.)

I think I may have stumbled upon a theme verse for my life this morning. Josh HarrisI was reading Ecclesiastes 9:11, which says, “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.” I laughed when I read it and thought, “That pretty much sums up my life!” I’m not the fastest, the strongest, the smartest, or most knowledgeable, and yet God has shown me such kindness.

I do have the joy of serving in the role of senior pastor of Covenant Life Church. And this year I’ll turn 31. I get quizzical looks from people when they find out my position. There’s a wonderful Pakistani man who works at the local grocery store who still can’t get over the fact that I’m a pastor, let alone a senior pastor. I think his picture of a pastor is an austere older gentleman with a robe and collar. So when he looks at me in my jeans and T-shirt, he’s just baffled.

But the story behind me serving in this role is more about my good friend, C. J. Mahaney, and his investment in me. He invited me into his home and family, trained me for pastoral ministry, gave me various opportunities to lead, and then eventually asked me to step in and assume his role. It was the fall of 2004 that he “passed the baton” so to speak and set me in place so that he could devote himself to leading the family of churches known as Sovereign Grace. His office is still next to mine. We meet every Tuesday for lunch. C. J. wanted to give me a chance to lead while I was young and while he was around to serve me. And that’s what he does. He’s a sounding board for ideas, and a trusted source of counsel.

How did you and C. J. meet each other?

We met ten years ago. I was publishing a small magazine for homeschool teens at the time, traveling the country doing teen conferences, and writing my first book. Things were going very well. I joke now that I was “living the evangelical American dream.” All I needed was a TV show and I’d have had it all. Thank heaven God intervened. I got a tape set from a friend called Passion for the Church that featured C. J. teaching on the importance of the local church. I tell this story in my book Stop Dating the Church. That teaching deeply influenced me and caused me to rethink the course I was on.

C. J. was aware of what I was doing. His daughters subscribed to my magazine, and one of the Sovereign Grace churches in Pennsylvania had hosted one of our conferences. C. J. had the youth pastor invite me to speak at Covenant Life, and later I came to an event the church hosted for men who felt called to ministry. That was the first time I actually spent time with C. J. and got to know him.

One night I asked him point blank, “What do you think of what I’m doing with my life?” He told me that he felt what I was doing was important and needed. But he asked if I had an exit strategy. He told me he had seen too many guys on the conference circuit who never got off of it. He asked how I was going to invest in and build my life into the local church. I remember him asking, “What are you going to build with your life?” He was directing me to think long-term and consider the importance of the local church.

How did you respond?

Basically I said, “What do you think I should do?” You see, I was beginning to understand the importance of the local church, but I didn’t see how that translated into specific decisions.C. J. Mahaney I was going to church and I was faithfully involved, but I knew I needed training and oversight and it wasn’t clear to me where I’d get that. C. J. answered by saying, “You need a Paul in your life. You’re a young man; you’re like Timothy—and you need a Paul.” I was thinking, “Thanks a lot, but that’s not super helpful.” I mean, where in the world would I find a Paul? And how would I convince him that I’m a Timothy worth investing time in?

A year or so earlier, on my 21st birthday, my father, Gregg Harris, who is a very godly, wise man, had encouraged me to find men that I wanted to be like and then to sit at their feet and learn from them. My dad’s a big believer in the apprenticeship model of learning. So I had been on the lookout for a role model.

And there I was sitting across from C. J. Mahaney, a man who at the time had been a senior pastor for twenty years—he had done the national conference circuit, he understood the issues I was facing, and he was saying, “Go find a Paul.” I was sitting there thinking, “You’re lookin’ pretty good to me!!”

So how did you ask him to mentor you?

I didn’t ask him that night. C. J. very wisely pointed me to the local church in which I was involved back in Oregon. He told me I needed to go back there and look for that relationship in my church.

This is where I need to pause and emphasize God’s providential leading in my life. I don’t want anyone reading this to think that if you just do the right things, say the right things, you’ll be able to find a mentor who can train you and disciple you. There are things people can do, but the main point of my story is that God sovereignly orchestrated it and provided for me—it had nothing to do with my worthiness or planning!

The next day two friends who are pastors approached me at the conference and basically shared that they felt I needed to be discipled. They did this totally unaware of my conversation with C. J. or the questions swirling in my mind as a result. It was an unbelievable confirmation of what I’d been praying about. They said, “We think your biggest priority should be to find a man who can train you in ministry. God is blessing your work and you’re gaining a larger audience, but you’re an idiot and know nothing!” Of course they said it all so much nicer than that, but the point was clear and I agreed with them. I told them about my growing conviction that C. J. was the man who could help me.

That was a holy moment. Ray Randolph and Bill Houghery from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were the two men sharing with me. They told me I should talk to C. J. about my desire, and then we prayed. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so powerful in that room. We were all weeping as we prayed. I look back now and understand the significance of that moment. But at that time I couldn’t grasp the full significance of what God was doing.

Before I left the conference for home, I shared my desire with C. J. Unbeknownst to me, God had already been laying on his heart a burden to train young men for the future. So again, you see the quiet providence of God. My asking C. J. was almost like a confirmation from God of what the next season of C. J.’s life was supposed to be devoted to. He and the leadership team of Sovereign Grace had just decided to launch the Pastor’s College. So God timed it perfectly. He showed me that I needed mentoring, and he showed C. J. that he needed to give himself to mentoring. About seven months later I moved from Oregon to Maryland. Two months after I arrived, I Kissed Dating Goodbye was released. A year later I was engaged to my wife Shannon. Seven years later I became senior pastor. It’s been an amazing adventure.

There has been a lot of interest in the blogosphere recently in your relationship with C. J. following Tim Challies’ admission that he is jealous of you for having such a mentor, or indeed, for having any kind of mentor. Can you tell us about how this worked out in practice?

(UPDATE: Challies has posted again about this today independently of this interview!)

First, C. J. brought me into his life. So many things can’t be passed on through a book or a sermon. They have to be observed. They have to be modeled. Living with C. J.’s family for over a year gave me an up-close look at his faithfulness as a husband and father. I witnessed his purposefulness in every situation. I learned from him the importance of taking the initiative. I learned how leading is serving, and that it requires a willingness to expend energy and set direction for others to follow. C. J. spent time with me. He brought me into his thinking. He trained me about the importance of sound doctrine centered in the gospel. He talked with me about issues and concerns he had. He directed me to books and tapes to study.

He also took risks and gave me opportunities to lead. The New Attitude conference (an annual conference for singles that I ran for six years and which is now being restarted under new leadership) was a way for me to learn how to lead with C. J. by my side. I remember so many sessions at the conference where he would whisper in my ear about how to transition between worship and preaching, how to lead in times of ministry, how to close the meetings.

There was no text book, no class. It was on-the-job training. And after every meeting, every session, every Sunday—he always took time first to give me purposeful encouragement. Sometimes I would do the right things, but not completely understand why they were right. C. J. would say, “Great job when you said, such and such. You were pastoring people through that statement. That was a leadership moment. Well done! Keep it up.” C. J. always started with evidence of grace in what I was doing before he moved to critique. He taught me to evaluate everything at all times and look for ways to make things better.

And, of course, he always managed to make this fun and memorable. I remember the many Sunday mornings when, in the midst of the meeting, he would lean over and whisper, “A good leader would notice what just happened that was wrong.” I have to admit—I hated it when he did that! But it helped me to keep my eyes always open.

But it was his friendship and care that meant the most to me. We spent hours together. We confessed sin to each other. We experienced fellowship. That was a big investment of C. J.’s time. He could have been doing something else. But he invested in me. And he continues to do so.

What advice would you give to people who are not currently being discipled? I urge people to do anything they can to position themselves in the right place—to enable them to have such an experience. Would you agree? Do you have any other advice?

I do agree. I think that the starting point is an attitude of humility (and I don’t pretend to be a model for this by any means) that acknowledges that you need help. I think my relationship with C. J. can sound very glamorous from a distance. The reality is that being mentored requires that you believe and embrace the reality that you don’t know everything, that you need to learn. Let’s be honest, our pride, our sin, opposes this. My question for a person who desires to be mentored would be, “How are you learning from those God has already placed in your life? Are you humbly asking them questions? Are you studying people you respect?” And then, are you gleaning what you can from them, even if you don’t have an “official” mentoring relationship with them? I wish I could clone C. J. so that 5,000 young guys like me could have their own private Mahaney mentor. But it’s not possible. What is possible is to read his books. Start with Humility: True Greatness. And today, with the web, you can listen to dozens of his sermons. And hopefully, if I can convince him, C. J. will have his own blog so his influence can be more frequent. There are many godly older men like C. J. from whom we can learn and benefit. In some cases, that will be in a close relationship; at other times it will be from a distance.

Next, it’s vital that you be in a strong local church headed by men that you want to emulate. Whether or not you feel called to ministry, you should be in a place where there are men whose character and teaching, whose life and doctrine, provide you with a compelling example. A church led by such men should be well-stocked with godly men, many of whom are not pastors, who can mentor and disciple.

Finally, I’d encourage men to cry out to God for this good gift. And even if that prayer isn’t answered in the fashion or time that you’d like, don’t forget how important this is. Because one day you’re going to be the older generation that can invest in others. I think a big part of the reason C. J. has been so faithful in training younger men like me is because he never had that benefit in his own life. So much of what he learned he had to learn through books and through trial and error. He wanted a mentor, but though he learned from different older men, he never truly had that. I think it spurred him to be that mentor so that men like me could have what he missed.

Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have. Many, many thanks for joining us today and sharing so personally about your relationship with C. J. I pray that this conversation will have a massive impact on young guys who are desperately seeking discipleship. I’m sure that for some of them the New Year may be a time of difficult decisions, even leading to church moves. I, for one, am delighted to be a part of a church which is headed by a godly man who I want to spend the rest of my life following as he follows Christ.

One last thing for my readers. If you want C. J. Mahaney to start a blog, please let him know in the comments section of this blog and in a post on your own—let’s see if we can’t call him out!

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