Discipling: The hard yards

So what does disciple-making really mean? To teach new believers in a weekly Bible study? Admirable, but the task of making a disciple is so, so much more, as our people in different communities can tell you.

For Daniel and Anita recently in Botswana where 80% of the population would call themselves a Christian but are not practicing, showing what the Bible actually says was an important part of the process “as many people over there are misled by false prophets, teachings and traditional beliefs.” But they say building friendships to support people long-term as they grow spiritually is also vital.

Looking to the model of Jesus himself, we see him after his baptism (John 1:35-45 ) beginning this special relationship with two of his first disciples, one of whom was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. John the Baptist had already told these two men that Jesus was the Lamb of God, and they wanted to get to know him. When Jesus said, “What do you want?” they asked him the very practical question: “Where are you staying?” He invited them to come and see, and they went, spending the day with him. Clearly, making a disciple is not simply teaching, it’s about letting the one being discipled see you up close, how you live, how you handle everyday concerns and practicalities. It’s a relationship.

Jesus asked us to make disciples. Theoretically, you can tell someone about Jesus and never see them again — you can’t do that if you are discipling them. True discipling is not easy, and what is more, it can take a high level of language and cultural insight to do these roles cross-culturally. An Asian colleague said this of a SIM partner, after observing him relating to his local friends: “What I notice is that they are never a project or an objective to you, but people you choose to love. You share your deepest things with them…”

When a SIM office in Asia was doing a country review recently, the big question was: “Should we be in this country?” Local leaders said yes, “but the role must be discipleship and leadership development — that is the need, because so many are new believers.”

This need is the same in many places where SIM works, and our people, regardless of whether they are serving as sports friends or teachers, agriculture specialists or pilots, accountants or media professionals, will not only be looking to introduce others to Jesus, but also, where they can, to embark on crucial mentoring relationships that are more than a weekly Bible study or a programme in a booklet.

How this unfolds depends on the setting. Mark has sown the gospel in many friendships in Niger over the past 11 years but until now hasn’t seen direct fruit arising from these, “though if and when I do it will be a natural thing to continue in a discipling relationship with them.” He says barriers to a good discipling relationship are many, “including our limited language and the missionaries’ relative ‘wealth’ which can muddy folks’ motivations for wanting relationship with us.”

His wife Faye  points out that it’s not so easy to draw the line between evangelism and disciple-making there. Among believers there are big gaps in Bible knowledge. Some have been church attenders for years but don’t really grasp the truth of the gospel. Also, sometimes people working with non-believers  will study the bible with them for some time and never really be sure if they have taken the definitive step to follow Jesus — it’s not uncommon for those of the local majority religion to believe but not make their belief public.

Discipling is a big part of what Meryl  is doing as a teacher at a Christian college in Korea. “Some of our students go to huge mega churches, and have little opportunity for this, whereas we have close, intentional contact with each one.” Many of these discipling relationships go beyond the course, as students leave and go out into the world.

Lynell in Thailand mentors four mission partners — disciples as much as the new believers are. This involves regular catch-ups, talking about the ministry, family life, rest and spiritual life — a wholistic approach to journeying with people intentionally. She also meets with some Buddhist/animist-background believers. “Again, this is on-going journeying alongside others that includes devotional input, prayer, Bible teaching, pastoral care and health care, including preparation for baptism and marriage counseling. Challenges include their lack of literacy, isolation of Christians from other believers due to the tiny size of the Church in Thailand and the syncretistic nature of Buddhism. Discipleship is a long journey,” Lynell says. John and Fiona (Asia) go as a family to visit the families of believing men because it helps them connect with the wives and kids. “We sit down and pray with them and sometimes read scripture with them,” John says. But being in a creative access nation, to spend lots of time or visit regularly in the homes of village believers draws too much attention to them – a big barrier. Because we run projects, it can be hard to know how authentic project staffs’ beliefs are – sometimes ‘growing in Christ’ means more job security!”

J. (Asia) thinks where possible it’s good for locals, especially new believers, to be discipled by other locals, who share same language, culture, struggles and are more likely to be around long term for ongoing discipleship/mentoring. “So I try to encourage mature believers to disciple younger ones and younger ones to look for local believers as examples to follow.” Often J’s input centres on providing advice and capacity building for the leaders who are discipling others. She also points out that discipling can be mutual, encouraging each other to grow in faith and relationship with Him, integrated into everyday life .”

To disciple is basically to be sensitive to guiding by the Holy Spirit. As he prompts people to follow Jesus, he prompts us to walk alongside them. Are we prepared to give that deep commitment?

– Zoë Cromwell