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So Needed, but Why So Neglected?
I find that every church I go to is talking discipleship and disciple=making as a core value — but I somehow don't see it. It is what I call a preferred value rather than an actual value, much like evangelism is in many church situations. It's what we are supposed to do — rather than what we do, and I guess it is because our culture of individualism sees it as a program rather than a lifestyle of sacrifice and inconvenience.
The above words from my Australian pastor-friend Richard Brohier aptly describe a crisis facing the church. And they get to the heart of the problem: "Our culture of individualism sees [discipleship] as a program rather than a lifestyle of sacrifice and inconvenience."
At the start of this book, I want to present discipling as a kind of parenting. Parenting is messy and inconvenient. Many couples today opt out of parenting because of the inconvenience, stress, and disruption to life that children bring. If people are opting out of literal parenthood, it would not be surprising to find Christians opting out of being spiritual parents of people with whom they have no biological or other "essential" tie.
In this chapter and the next, I will explore the biblical model of spiritual parenthood and the challenges it brings. This may give us a clue to why so many Christians are reluctant to launch a ministry of discipling.
Introducing a Metaphor
The Bible says that people are "born again" when they are saved (John 1:12–13; 3:3–8; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23). A newborn child needs to be cared for by parents. Most basically, God is our Father (John 1:12), but God often uses people to mediate the blessings of his fatherhood in our lives. So we shouldn't be surprised to find that the Bible often refers to the nurturing of believers using the metaphor of parenthood. It fittingly describes the relationship between disciplers and disciplees.
Even though there wasn't much of an age gap between Jesus and his disciples, he sometimes referred to them as his children (Mark 10:24; John 13:33; 21:5). Paul sometimes spoke of whole congregations as his children (1 Cor. 4:14; Gal. 4:28; 1 Thess. 2:7, 11). But Paul especially named people he had personally discipled as his children. He mentioned Timothy in this way — six times (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 2:22; 1 Tim. 1:2, 18; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1) — as he did Titus (Titus 1:4) and Onesimus (Philem. 10). And Peter referred to Mark as his son (1 Pet. 5:13).
Peter used the common Greek word for son (huios) when referring to Mark. This word appears 380 times in the New Testament. But Paul, when referring to his spiritual children, used a less common word, teknon, which appears ninety-nine times in the New Testament. Teknon can be used for "a person of any age for whom there is a special relationship of endearment and association," and this seems to be the way Paul used it when alluding to those he discipled. The term conveys the affection that exists between discipler and disciplee. As William Barclay says, "Over and over again, there is affection in Paul's voice when he speaks of Timothy."
Paul's affection for Timothy is more strikingly presented in 2 Timothy, where he refers to Timothy as "my beloved child" (agapeto tekno), after which he says, "Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy" (2 Tim. 1:2, 4 NIV). Here we see both the joy and the pain of parenthood. Of the runaway slave Onesimus, Paul says, "I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. ... I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart" (Philem. 10, 12). The word translated "very heart" literally means "bowels," which were considered the seat of feelings in those days. This "word is repeatedly used by Paul to convey the sense of affection." The brilliant upper-class scholar had become "a very dear friend and intimate companion" of a slave who had run away from his Christian master; and he looked at his leaving as similar to losing his very heart!
Paul's affectionate, parent-like love is vividly described in 1 Thessalonians 2:7–8, where he uses the mother metaphor: "But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us." "Affectionately desirous" is the translation of a single Greek word (homeiromenoi) that appears only here in the New Testament and was "rare even in the literature of the era." It was "found in such contexts as a funerary inscription that tells how the parents long for their deceased son." Paul yearned for the Thessalonians and, he says, that is why he opened up his own self to them.
In this book we are looking at discipling as an affectionate relationship of caring between people who see themselves as having a parent-childrelationship. The way I generally describe a discipling relationship is to say that the discipler "looks after" the disciplee. As Paul said to the elders of the church in Ephesus, "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood" (Act 20:28). The metaphor used forleadership here is that of a shepherd. This is another very good way to describe discipling, and the idea of shepherding will appear occasionally in this book, as well. Drawing upon an intimate knowledge of the life and work of a shepherd, biblical scholar Timothy S. Laniak has brilliantly described this aspect of leadership in his book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks. The truths in Laniak's book have influenced me more than the footnotes can indicate.
The fruit of a ministry of spiritual parenting must not be underestimated. Spiritual parenting is the key to multiplying disciples. As the famous discipling text says, "What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). Four generations of Christians are mentioned here. (1) Paul teaches (2) Timothy, who in turn teaches (3) faithful men, who will be able to teach (4) others also. It is a process of multiplication rather than addition of disciples.
In the mid-1960s, when the ministry of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka was a few months old, its founder, Sam Sherrard, was looking at a list of all those who had committed their lives to Christ at the various evangelistic events we had conducted. He was suddenly struck by the fact that he had almost no contact with most of the scores of people who had made "decisions" for Christ. Around this time, he read two books that had a marked impact on him: Robert Coleman's The Master Plan of Evangelism and Waylon B. Moore'sNew Testament Follow-Up. Sherrard decided to start discipling a few people. Plans to move into new cities were shelved until he was able to nurture a group of leaders in Colombo. The international leaders of Youth for Christ were initially puzzled by this approach, but they wisely did not insist that he change it.
I was a member of the first group that Sherrard discipled. Gradually more and more leaders emerged, and the ministry started working increasingly with people who had no contact with churches. These were discipled and channeled to churches. Some stayed on as volunteers in the work. Because there is a shortage of leaders in the churches, we decided generally not to look for volunteers and staff from outside the movement. Today we have about eighty staff and about 450 volunteers in ministries all over the country. New ministries start when a center has leaders they can release to go to a new area. In addition to nurturing our own staff and volunteers, hundreds of people discipled in this ministry are active in leadership roles in churches. About eighty-eight are serving in pastoral roles, and a large number serve in other Christian organizations. This is significant, considering that the total Protestant population of the country is less than three hundred thousand.
I was leader of this work for thirty-five years, and since stepping down seven years ago, I have served as a kind of mentor and Bible teacher in the movement. It has not been easy to keep up this emphasis on discipling. Sometimes a local ministry would lose its discipling momentum. And if remedial steps were not taken, that would be the death of that work. We are a youth evangelistic movement. When one generation of youth graduates from that work and gets settled in churches, we have to find a new generation from outside the church — that is, through reaching the unreached. And those who are found need to be discipled till they are settled in churches. If we don't do that, the ministry will have to close up. Each division of the ministry is always one generation from closing down!
I have felt the need to preach to and teach our staff and volunteers about discipling all through my forty-two years in this work. It is so easy to let a program orientation eclipse discipling as everyone gets busy seeking to reach the lost. While programs are vital for our survival, if the discipling drops off, those who are reached through the programs will fall away. And the ministry will be left without youth to carry it through to the next generation. So each year we need to keep stressing the importance of discipling.
Commitment: The Key to Parenthood
If spiritual parenthood is so needed, why is it so neglected? In the rest of this chapter we will look at the main reason why people are reluctant to launch into a ministry of discipling, and the next chapter will take up additional reasons.
Commitment to Discipling, Deemed Too Costly
If affection is the characteristic ingredient in spiritual parenthood, the fuel that keeps it going is commitment. When I am teaching on discipling, I often ask the audience how one can nurture affection, like that of a parent toward a child, among those who are not physically related. The most popular response I hear is that the discipler needs to spend a lot of time with the disciplee. In this busy world, that takes a lot of commitment. Let's look at how can we foster such commitment.
We must first clarify that we cannot actively care for everyone in the world. Only God can do that. Even when Jesus was on earth, he needed to concentrate on a few. Similarly, we can pay the price of commitment to a few people. Parenthood is inconvenient, but most parents unhesitatingly take on the inconvenience because of their commitment to their children. We like to have our lives nicely ordered and planned. But when a child gets sick and needs to be taken to a hospital, her parent does not say, "That wasn't on my schedule." Though we cannot keep breaking our plans for everyone, we will for our children — both biological and spiritual. That calls for commitment.
Yet every culture has some features of Christianity that believers find difficult to follow. One of the key countercultural features of Christianity today is commitment. Christianity is a religion of commitment. We are committed to Christ and his cause and to the people God leads us to. But many view Christianity from the viewpoint of consumers. They choose a church based on what the church has to offer. If the church loses its attractiveness and what they consider its usefulness, they simply change churches. That is how many choose their Christian friends also. With such an attitude toward Christian community, it is difficult to muster the kind of commitment that nurturing spiritual children requires. We may do so for physical children because we must. But many Christians view discipling as an option. And many opt out.
Consequently, many people in the church today live with disappointment over leaders who abandoned or ignored them when they most needed help. Jesus talks about this in John 10:12, where he says that the hired hand abandons the sheep and runs away when he sees the wolf coming. Many sheep in the church have suffered because those they trusted abandoned them at tough times in their lives. How can one be healed of consequences of such abandonment? In the next verse, Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). Wounded sheep can be healed through the costly commitment of a shepherd. Disciplers follow Christ and adopt this kind of commitment.
Those who have grown up with rejection by family and society will tell you how hard it is for them to believe that even God is truly committed to them. But some, seeing the costly commitment of their disciplers, become open to the fact that they are worthy of somebody's commitment. That, in turn, opens the door to accepting that God is truly concerned for their welfare.
There is a crisis in many churches today because many members are not committed to the church and its program. People are unwilling to pay the price of costly involvement. Often churches organize mobilizing campaigns and seminars to resolve this problem. While these can be helpful, they do not strike at the root of the problem. We need a culture of commitment, and leaders must model that. The key then is leaders who will lay down their lives for the sheep. If the leaders die for the people, the people will die for the church! Paul said, "Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all" (Phil. 2:17). He was willing to die for the faith of the Philippian Christians and even happy to do so. Jesussaid, "For [the disciples'] sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth" (John 17:19). The context shows that the consecration Jesuswas taking about was his death.
The Strain of Caring for Both Family and Disciplees
There is another problem that causes people today to shun costly commitment to people in the church. Many children of Christian leaders say that their parents cared for so many other people that they didn't have time for them. Often these children have abandoned the church because of this. Such neglect of family is clearly wrong. Caring for our family members is a primary responsibility of church leaders. One older translation of 1 Corinthians 14:1 says, "Make love your aim" (RSV). My great ambition in life should be to serve my wife and children and do all I can to see that they are satisfied and happy. But I also have a call to serve others. We must attempt to do both.
But we are not messiahs. We have physical and emotional limitations. Therefore, as I will show below, we must keep our responsibilities at a manageable level. We must make sure we do not take on too many people to disciple. We must make sure we do not take on too many public assignments and committee responsibilities. If we have too much on our plates, our disciplees, our families, and we ourselves suffer.
Even if we have been wise in taking on responsibilities, the balance may be difficult to maintain. A principle I have found helpful is that the balanced life is our cross. When I speak of the balanced life, I don't mean doing everything in moderation. Rather, the balanced life is found in obedience in all areas of life. We are to care for our families and our disciplees and do a lot of other things. That is not easy. It could be quite tiring. It is our cross. But if we know that the cross is an essential part of the Christian life, we will pay the price of our commitments without being upset about it.
When my children were youths, they would sometimes ask me whether I could pick them up late at night from a party. Sometimes I was very tired and was looking forward to going to bed early. But, to my knowledge, I never refused such a request. Why? Because I know that it is God's will for me to cheerfully serve my children. It was a cross for me in that I was tired. But the Bible says that the cross is an essential aspect of a Christian's life; it is God's will for us. Because the will of God is perfect, we will not only do it; we will also be happy doing it.
That kind of approach should help to avert the impression that children are neglected because their parents are committed to ministry. And because we have a place for such difficulty in our theology, we won't be disillusioned by the inconvenience it brings on us.
The Vulnerability and Strain of Being Parents
Openhearted Ministry Can Be Painful
Discipling also makes one vulnerable to hurt and stress. Caring for people can be emotionally strenuous. Today we find much good advice on how to avoid stress. Given the competitiveness of our society and the drivenness it has produced in people, we should heed this advice. The driven, competitive kind of stress harms us and often leads to burnout. But discipling produces a different kind of stress — the stress of love. Speaking of his ministry in general, Paul says, "And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?" (2 Cor. 11:28–29). He addressed the Galatians as "my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!" (Gal. 4:19). When you love people, you yearn for their welfare, and you hurt when they are hurt or have failed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Discipling in a Multicultural World"
Copyright © 2019 Ajith Fernando.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Robert E. Coleman 13
Bible Versions Used 21
Part 1 Introducing Spiritual Parenthood
1 Spiritual Parenthood: So Needed, but Why So Neglected? 25
Introducing a Metaphor
Commitment: The Key to Parenthood
The Vulnerability and Strain of Being Parents
2 Objections and Pitfalls 41
A Countercultural Activity
The Danger of Insecure Disciplers
Can We Care for Both the Many and the Few?
Some Examples from History
3 Born into a Family, Incorporated into a Body 59
Discipling and Body Life
Extending Solidarity to the Wider Body
Life in a Covenant Community
4 Belonging to Two Families 73
Honoring Family Commitments
Baptism: When? Where?
Making Peace with One's Relationship with Family Members
Involvements in the Wider Community
5 Facing Suffering, Persecution, and Loss of Honor 95
It Goes with Being Like Jesus
Strength for Suffering
Present Loss of Honor and the Coming Honor
Taking Action against Persecutors, Especially within the Family
Following Christ as Insiders within Pre-Christian Religious Communities?
6 Mission, Ambition, and Exhortation 115
Discipling within a Mission Team
Part 2 How Christians Change
7 The Change Process 139
The Need for Change
Three Agents of Change
Three Kinds of Transformation
The Role of the Discipler
8 Learning the Truth 147
Personal Reading of the Word
Leading Means Feeding
Culturally Appropriate Teaching Methods
Learning through Corporate Worship
Bible Christians: An Alien Idea
9 Praying 169
Praying for Disciplees
The Content of Paul's Prayers for His Spiritual Children
Helping Others Become People of Prayer
10 Confronting Guilt and Receiving Forgiveness 183
Guilt and Forgiveness: Illustrating a Strange Idea
Confession of Guilt, and Grace That Forgives
Disciplining for Sin
11 Understanding Biblical Honor and Shame 197
How These Values Operate
The Death of Christ and Shame
Conversion Can Result in Loss of Honor
The Biblical Community Is a Covenant Community
Biblical Motivations Using Honor and Shame
Applying the Principles to Lying and Taking Revenge
From Community Solidarity to Spiritual Accountability
12 Experiencing Liberation and Power 219
Fear/Bondage and Power/Liberation in Society
Fear and Liberation in the Gospel
Victory over Temptation
The Fear of Judgment
Ministering God's Freedom
The Importance of Experience to Belief and Growth
13 Healing for Wounds 243
Not All Christians Experience Joy
Our Aim in Looking for Healing
Being with God and Realizing What the Scriptures Say about Us
Recognizing Experiences Which Show That God Loves Us
Healing Mediated by the Community of Believers
Forgiving the Persons Who Caused the Hurt
Specific Acts That Enhance Healing
The Need for Patience
Appendix 1 What We Aim for in Discipling 259
Appendix 2 Other issues to Talk about During Meetings 261
Appendix 3 Ingredients Needed in a Follow-Up Course 263
General Index 267
Scripture Index 277
What People are Saying About This
“A gifted teacher, communicator, and evangelist, Ajith Fernando has produced a most timely resource to equip today’s generation. In recent decades the church in the West has struggled to develop mature disciples. We have retreated into our dwindling communities with the occasional foray outside in the attempt to make converts. Fernando calls us to the task of developing mature disciples, and through the deepening of our faith we are better equipped to engage in the wider world.”
Stephen Skuce, Director of Global Relationships, The Methodist Church in Britain
“Grounded in Scripture, rooted in decades of ministry, and colorfully illustrated from Sri Lanka and around the world, Ajith Fernando’s Discipling in a Multicultural World will enrich God’s people as we seek to make disciples among all nations. Much more than a classroom guide, it will motivate us to follow Fernando’s example, pouring our lives into others just as others poured their lives into his.”
David Greenlee, Director of Missiological Research and Evaluation, Operation Mobilization
“How do we make disciples of Jesus in contexts of increasing ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity? Few people are as qualified to answer this question as the global Christian statesman Ajith Fernando. Drawing upon four decades of ministry worldwide and a seasoned scholar’s understanding of Scripture, Fernando provides us with a rich and wise guide to forming disciples among those from various cultural backgrounds. Essential insights for effective ministry today!”
Harold Netland, Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“In Discipling in a Multicultural World, Ajith Fernando moves beyond techniques and programs to the life-on-life realities of discipleship in the emerging context of multiculturalism. This book is a gem for those who are prepared to come face-to-face with the real cost of discipleship. Filled with practical examples, the book is a real-life tutorial from one of the great giants of discipleship in our day. A truly formational book!”
Timothy C. Tennent, President and Professor of World Christianity, Asbury Theological Seminary
“Ajith Fernando has been living the message of this book for more than four decades, and now he shares his insights in this comprehensive work. Integrating thorough biblical study, extensive experience, deep understanding of cultural dynamics, and vulnerable story-telling, Discipling in a Multicultural World is essential reading for any leader wholike Paul the apostleaspires to ‘present everyone mature in Christ’ (Col. 1:28).”
Paul Borthwick, Senior Consultant, Development Associates International; coauthor, The Fellowship of the Suffering
“If I were selecting someone to write a book titled Discipling in a Multicultural World, Ajith Fernando would be my first choice. I know of no one more qualified to address this topic. Fernando has a scholar’s mind, a pastor’s heart, and a practitioner’s skillall of which have been tested and proven in the crucible of multicultural experience. These chapters reflect not an ivory-tower author but one who knows the joys and heartaches of real life in the trenches. I heartily commend this book to all who want a deeper understanding of and motivation for ‘making disciples of all nations.’”
Timothy K. Beougher, Associate Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, Overcoming Walls to Witnessing
“Ajith Fernando has written a very helpful, deep, mature, and biblical book on disciple making in real life from a multicultural perspective. He draws from his many years of ministry experience in preaching and teaching, evangelism, discipling, and mentoring, especially with Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. I highly recommend Discipling in a Multicultural World as essential reading for all Christians!”
Siang-Yang Tan, Professor of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary; Senior Pastor, First Evangelical Church, Glendale, California; author, Counseling and Psychotherapy