“Who’s the most influential Christian woman in your life?” That was the question on the table.

I was sitting with a bunch of other women, and as I listened to their answers (some well-known, many not), I felt a little silly about mine—Elisabeth Elliot. I never met her. Sure, I’ve read nearly everything she wrote, but I only know her in the context of her books. Beyond that, I’m in the dark.

Like many others in the internet age, I’ve been discipled by women and men I don’t actually know. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice, but as I’ve grown into adulthood I’ve sensed it has left me malnourished in certain ways.

While I’ve received countless bits of counsel and truth from flesh-and-blood people over the years, I haven’t always fully appreciated it. In many instances, I’ve missed the blessing of deeper wisdom because I failed to seek a deeper relationship. Instead, I settled for the ease and comfort of a book or podcast.

Podcasts Aren’t Pastors

In books and podcasts, everyone’s on their best behavior. It’s polished. Yesterday’s fight with her husband isn’t shining through. Her irritability over too little sleep isn’t affecting how she talks to you, because she isn’t talking to you personally. While you might get personal tidbits here and there, you aren’t seeing anything close to full scope of her response to life’s hardships and joys. And she isn’t seeing yours. You aren’t getting the highs, middles, and lows; you’re getting the edited version.

The New Testament model of ministry is one of flesh-and-blood discipleship, not discipleship by proxy. In 1 Corinthians 4:16, and again in 11:1, Paul urges the Corinthian believers to imitate him, to follow his example. As he ministered to various churches, he saw himself as a model for them to follow. He’s not the only one. The writer to the Hebrews also urges us to imitate our leaders—pastors and elders—who are called by God to shepherd us (Heb. 13:7). The pattern of Scripture is that we know our leaders, study our leaders, and follow our leaders.

Of course, this call to imitation isn’t blind, and it doesn’t assume perfection in our leaders. But even the way they handle their imperfections can encourage and spur us on. When we primarily outsource our discipleship to books or podcasts, we lose the flesh-and-blood example meant for the local church.

Learn from Those Above You

I’ve seen this opportunity for discipleship in our women’s ministry. Since our congregation is a pretty young, there are few experienced women to go around. I hosted a panel with some of our older women to begin fostering relationships across generations. I asked about how they take in Scripture (and how it’s changed over the years), and how they balance the various spheres of their lives (work, family, church, and so on). We talked about marriage and children, suffering and God’s faithfulness, and what they wish they’d known 20 years ago. It was an incredibly encouraging night as we learned from women we’ve known for a number of years—we’d never taken the time to ask these questions.

As we listened to women a little farther ahead of us share about their devotional habits, we were reminded that ordinary acts of faithfulness will bear fruit. We were encouraged that perseverance is possible. We were reassured that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” way to commune with God. As we heard women speak about what they would tell their younger selves, we were freshly exhorted in our own seasons of life.

We were encouraged, but what made it even more encouraging is that we know them. We worship alongside them every week. We’ve covenanted with them, done Bible studies with them, served in nursery with them, had dinner with them, and watched God work in them. All of this gave weight to their words.

In our increasingly connected age, the availability of resources and opportunities to be discipled via smartphone and laptop isn’t going anywhere. There’s a place for those things, but let’s be sure we don’t let them supplant real-life relationships in our own contexts. In many of our churches there are treasure troves of wisdom and experience simply waiting to be heard—if we would just ask.