The church has experienced dramatic growth in the global south over the past century, in contrast to much of the Western world.
Yet there remains a challenge in terms of discipleship, as highlighted by the example of Rwanda.
The country had an estimated 90 percent of the population claiming the Christian faith in 1994, and yet went on to experience the horrors of a genocide that left nearly 1 million dead and a nation ripped apart.
Some of my good friends come from Rwanda and Burundi and carry personally the scars of this conflict in a supposedly Christian country.
Nevertheless, there are lessons for us to learn from discipleship in the global south.
It was encouraging to be able to share some of this at a recent gathering of mission leaders in the United Kingdom so that the lessons can inform us as churches move forward in refining discipleship initiatives.
A few of the lessons shared were as follows:
1. Discipleship needs to be contextual.
To be effective, it needs to relate to the local culture, rather than be imported from an alien culture. This means that it must seek to address the issues and context in which people live out their lives.
So, for example, if people live in a context of fear of evil spirits, discipleship efforts need to address that issue.
An important question for those in the West is: Does our discipleship training relate to the changing context in which we live? For example, our lack of commitment along with the materialism and individualism of our culture?
2. Discipleship needs to be intentional.
It doesn’t just happen, but rather needs to be worked through with strategic intent. Advanced planning is essential for effective discipleship.
So, for example, a church planting movement in India has established a detailed plan of teaching that is drawn into the life of new churches at various stages of growth.
When a church is first planted, the designated church planter will introduce a one-year program of teaching focused on the questions, “Who is Jesus?” “What did Jesus do?” and “What did Jesus teach?”
After the first year, another teaching program will be introduced covering other key discipleship matters.
All the discipleship is based around dialogue and not just monologue to ensure that the teaching is properly understood and applied to the specific context.
Drawing on this example, we should consider if we build discipleship efforts into the life of our Christian communities with strategic intent. What are we expecting disciples to look like and how are we going to get there?
3. Discipleship needs to be built around the community of a family or small group.
It needs to be relational in nature, as modeled by Jesus and his band of followers. This seems to happen more naturally often in other cultures, where the family and community are more closely knit.
Do Western Christians neglect the smaller expression of Christian community at the expense of focusing upon the large gathering?
More relational discipleship provides for accountability and a depth of relationship that the larger church gathering does not.
4. Discipleship needs to address the whole of life.
It cannot simply be the preserve of a Sunday morning or church-related activity, but needs to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Compartmentalization does not work for Christian disciples.
For example, a program called “Farming God’s Way” brings together faith and farming in a transformative way in many places in sub-Saharan Africa.
Started in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, the program is now reaching out to many different countries.
It bases itself around the verse, “My people perish because of a lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6) and draws together that knowledge under three main areas—biblical, management and technical (farming technique)—as a holistic approach to life in an agricultural context.
To integrate discipleship, we must help to equip people for the workplace and the whole of life. The real frontline of mission is found in the places where we live our lives day by day.
To be effective, churches must determine how discipleship programs engage the needs present in church members’ lives and in the community in which they are located.
Peter Dunn is the director of mission for BMS World Mission. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Dunn’s Dispatches, and is used with permission. You can follow BMS on Twitter @BMSWorldMission.