Meanings-based discipleship

Series disclaimer… This series is taken from a paper written for a course in seminary structured around cross-cultural evangelism. I have divided this work into three parts for ease of reading (with some minor edits to fit this context). In this series I hope to express how the limited scope of the Western Christian perspective actually reveals that what Christ accomplishes is transcendent to the concerns of an English-speaking missionary; and yet Christ’s work is ever near—incarnate—to all cultures of humanity. It is the incarnational nature of Christ that directs our incarnational attitude in sharing the good news.

By sending out the disciples to be witnesses of the good news in the Gospels and in Acts, Jesus intends for the church to be a people who go out and proclaim the gospel. Not only is the church to proclaim a message of good news, but this proclamation is to be taught in such a way that it brings about the conversion of its hearers to faithfulness in Jesus Christ and ongoing sanctification. This proclamation is no simple act of persuasion, coercing an audience to accept facts and appropriate their behavior.

Rather, this proclamation is the communication of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial act for the forgiveness of sins and the justification for humanity before God, which leads to life transformation in the direction of Christ-likeness and an awareness of God’s presence for those whose reality has been altered by the good news.

From the anthropological perspective of A.H. Matthias Zahniser in his treatise Symbol and Ceremony: Making Disciples across Cultures, one finds that the true hope of cross cultural discipleship “involves helping all believers see that the ultimate Creator wants to be their Companion—wants to be involved in the intimate issues of their individual and communal lives.”[1] The ongoing transformational work of being made into the likeness of Christ and growing in awareness of God’s presence belongs to the realm of discipleship; it cannot be separated from the act of proclamation, for discipleship is the continued direction of the proclamation.

Thus, as a going-people, a proclaiming-people, and a discipling-people, the church is faced with the issue of engaging many cultures and contextualizing the gospel for a diverse world. The challenge takes place in communicating good news with people of different languages, behaviors, systems of living, motivations, myths, rituals, worldviews, etc. Due to the proclivity of ethnocentrism, the American disciple-maker might, with good intention, make disciples in the likeness of an American Christian rather than in the likeness of Christ. As a result, the gospel remains un-contextualized and incomplete in the culture that it has been introduced, for the focus was placed on behavior instead of meaning.

Holistic discipleship addresses the mentality of the culture. The outsider as disciple-maker must be careful to address biblical meanings rather than forms, trust the Spirit’s guidance, and embrace diffusion as the transposition of the gospel. We must humbly accept that the only good we offer others is the good news of Jesus, who is already at work in their world. We must strive to understand the worldview of the other culture, discover with them the direction that points to Christ, and allow the Holy Spirit to guide true conversion.

Ultimately, cross-cultural discipleship must be incarnational discipleship.

It is a noble effort to devote oneself to making disciples of other nations. After all, this is the command that Jesus gives to his disciples as a final word in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28:16–20). Similarly, Jesus sends out his disciples to be witnesses to the end of the earth in Acts (Acts 1:8). However, this is easier said than done. The concept is simple—tell people about the good news of the Savior and help them develop into maturing Christ-followers. The naiveté of missionaries is to assume that telling and teaching is all that will be needed to fulfill that commission from Jesus. All the while, there are several issues that hinder that work from being accomplished.

Western missionaries are interacting with people completely new to Christian faith; they are interacting with people of entirely different languages; they might be making converts, but they are not always addressing the full humanity within conversion.[2] The tendency toward ethnocentrism, to subsume the task of the Holy Spirit as one’s own, and to prolong one’s own efforts before handing over the work of discipleship to the local church has long overwhelmed the missionary field, resulting in crippling repercussions to cultures around the world. Please understand that I do not wish to bash the work done by missionaries of past, present, or future. Much of the work done through missionaries is honorable and has accomplished good things. However, I sincerely believe that our approach can and should be better, more authentic, and less ethnocentric.

A more holistic approach to discipleship must be meanings-based, Spirit-guided, diffusion-spread—i.e. incarnational discipleship.

To achieve incarnational discipleship across cultures, the discipler must focus her or his practice on meanings. The hope of discipleship is to communicate ideas that address the mentality of a culture. However, addressing mentality requires an effort to understand the reality of people within the new culture, as it is perceived by those within it—people who have grown up in it, people who have adapted to a successful social system in it, and people who have attributed meaning and purpose to themselves and to the world through it.

The dangerous tendency is for the discipler to limit one’s focus on the forms and behaviors of a culture and to teach behavior modification rather than whole-life transformation. Commenting on the movement toward a more holistic approach to discipleship, Jaclyn S. Parrish from the International Mission Board wrote about the problem of behavior-based discipleship an in article for Christianity Today, stating:

This is a welcome antidote to the semantically fraught debate in discipleship-training circles that pits a knowledge-based approach against an obedience-based discipleship. The Word of God (along with the work of the Spirit and the fellowship of believers) is the means by which Christians change, and obedience to God is evidence of that change. To hold the two in opposition is to misunderstand both the process and the purpose of discipleship.[3]

Essentially, as Parrish is pointing out, missionaries who have struggled with completing the task of discipleship in new cultures have often simplified their work to teaching a sort of Christian behavior, which happens to look very American—i.e. ethnocentrism.

The incarnational goal takes a different approach to discipleship than just teaching behavior or even just teaching knowledge. This way of discipleship requires the discipler to “give up [her or his] cultural compulsives and preferences, and… not insist that the cultural expression of the gospel in another culture be the same as [one’s] own.”[4] Disciplers function incarnationally in the same manner as Christ. We must humble ourselves to the context of the people we are reaching with the gospel and appreciate their culture fully (John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8).[5] Then, through an understanding of the mentality within the culture, we can appropriately teach everything Christ commanded in a language that can be understood and embraced (Matthew 28:20).

When considering the role of teaching in discipleship, the discipler must carefully treat the conveyance of biblical revelation to the context of the new culture. The first consideration will include language. Before teaching new disciples, we have to be diligent in learning the language and manner of communication by those within the culture. Second, we have to exegete the culture to create a proper hermeneutic of biblical concepts.[6] Rather than trying to read Scripture verbatim to new disciples, we (or preferably an insider of the culture) must interpret and contextualize the meanings of biblical concepts to “establish meaningful contact” with the mentality of a different culture.[7] It is important to note that not all of Scripture can be taught by the discipler. We will not have enough time to exegete and interpret every word of the Bible. We have to focus specifically on the teachings of Christ as the foundation for interpreting the rest of Scripture within the new community of disciples. Third, we need to foster the transformation of existing meaningful symbols and ceremonies for new believers to holistically embrace their new faith.

To elaborate on the last consideration for meanings-based discipleship, Zahniser explains the importance of religious awareness in other cultures in this way:

Religion helps believers feel they are entering into something real, not just learning about something true. Put another way, religion persistently tunes a people’s ethos, or way of life, so that it runs in harmony with their world view, or picture of the way the world really is.[8]

Zahniser is not advocating that the goal of the discipler is to replace the religion of new disciples. The aim should be, rather, to convert the religion through a redirected faithfulness to Christ and his word. This is perhaps the hardest area to surrender in mission efforts. But what we must realise is that the religious experiences of other cultures are the only working manners in which people experience God. We should not pull the rug from under the feet of new disciples and call it “obedience,” for we have our own rugs, too! In other words, we are not to shape the religion of new disciples to look like our own, for they are fully capable of worshiping God through careful attention to Scripture and guidance by the Holy Spirit.

Taking this further than mere religious practices, even discipleship as a function is already at work within the context of other cultures, and disciplers should consider how to implement those manners of teaching in order to connect with the mentality of the other culture.[9] The hope is to learn from the religious perspective that is already succeeding within that culture and cultivate a worship of God that is transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To be continued… So far I have constructed the platform for the issue of sharing good news with people of differing languages, felt needs, and perceived realities. I have also dived into the first proposition of incarnational discipleship for careful treatment and contextualization of meanings. In the next post, I will present the need for practical application regarding the Holy Spirit’s role in discipleship and the way by which the gospel of Christ is spread throughout all creation. Then, I’ll wrap it up in the end with some final considerations and a conclusion. Thanks for joining me in this important conversation!

Pt. II is now published, and you can go there immediately by clicking here.

[1] A.H. Matthias Zahniser, Symbol and Ceremony: Making Disciples across Cultures (Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1997), 33.
[2] Ibid, 17-22.
[3] Jaclyn S. Parrish, “Discipleship That Travels: How believers can cross cultural lines with the gospel.” Christianity Today (April 2019), 68. Biography In Context, Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.
[4] Darrell L. Whiteman, “Anthropology and Mission: The Incarnational Connection,” Missiology: An International Review, vol. 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 409.
[5] Michael Horton, The Gospel Commission (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 119.
[6] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 88-89.
[7] Stanley Skreslet, Picturing Christian Witness: New Testament Images of Disciples in Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2006), 154.
[8] Zahniser, 61.
[9] Ibid, 26, 68 ff.