Spirit-guided & diffusion-spread 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.

You are currently reading pt. II  of the series. If you want to revisit pt. I, please click here.


Incarnational discipleship requires the Holy Spirit for guidance. Chammah J. Kaunda says that “the ultimate basis for authentic discipleship lies in missio Spiritus, which is on the mission to renew humanity and its societies as a sign of eschatological salvation.”[1] It is wrong for the discipler to assume that her or his effort is what drives conversion in a particular society. We add nothing new. We communicate good news, but the only thing that makes it both “good” and “new” is the discovery of the Spirit already at work in that place and the realization of a potential for full humanity. Both the discipler and the disciple are becoming aware of the gospel together. Drawing from Kaunda again,

“The power of the Holy Spirit is the power to be fully human, the power to do and the power to live differently in an inhuman world. This means that the power of the Holy Spirit is power-focused and directed at humanization of individuals and society at large.”[2]

The Western tendency is to control the environment and strategize ways to quickly achieve desired results.[3] The problem with this method is that it is far too limited in the scope of the Spirit’s work. Westerners assume they can study a culture like they can a disease, and they construct a plan for conversion like a cure for culture. However, this grossly assumes the work of the gospel; it counters the movement of the Spirit. There is no “cure for culture.” Culture is not the problem. Culture is unavoidable. Culture is sacred. Culture is of the Spirit. The “cure for culture” mentality is a well-intentioned ethnocentrism—to deplete a society of all things unfamiliar to the Western culture. The Spirit is not concerned with conforming cultures to Western culture. The Spirit transforms people into full human beings, including Westerners. Thus, the Western discipler must resist control of a culture and be open to observing the Spirit’s movement within a given society.[4]

Furthermore, trusting the guidance of the Holy Spirit in discipleship will limit the work of the discipler. Trusting the Holy Spirit does not prohibit the value of human work nor the sciences; it merely removes egotistic ambitions from the primacy of discipleship.[5] Instead of thrusting into a new community of believers with a prescribed program for discipleship, the discipler observes how the Spirit is at work there and draws the attention of others to the presence of the Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus often drew others’ attention, especially that of his disciples, to the Spirit (John 3:6–8; 4:23–24; 14:16–26; 16:12–15; 20:21–22). In response, the disciples heavily relied on their awareness of the Spirit and drew others’ awareness to the Spirit throughout their own ministries (Acts 1:2; 2:1–4, 17–18, 33, 38; 4:8, 31; 5:9, 32; 6:3–5, 10, 55; 8:14–17, 29, 39; 9:17, 31; 10:19, 44-47; 11:12–16, 24, 28; 13:2–4, 9, 52; 15:8, 28; 16:6–7; 19:2–6, 21; 20:22–28; 21:4, 11). Incarnational discipleship continues the practice of Spirit-awareness.

Western culture has a shallow spirituality when compared to the rest of the world. Thus, Western disciples tend to miss the vital means of awakening other cultures to the work of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit is elevated, disciplers rightly position themselves as equals to disciples. Incarnational discipleship humbles ourselves as disciplers and relies on the guidance of the Spirit for the work of sanctification.[6] Incarnational disciples posture themselves to listen to and obey the Spirit as Helper, and they draw others’ awareness to the Spirit.


Incarnational discipleship spreads the gospel through diffusion.[7] There is no way to avoid the underlying implication of discipleship as change to a culture. The gospel judges and transforms culture to the likeness of God’s kingdom, and discipleship fosters the transformation of persons into the likeness of Christ; thus, some degree of syncretism is present.[8] Nonetheless, Jesus never says to make individual disciples in a vacuum. Jesus’ scope was larger than that—it was all-encompassing. In fact, Jesus instructs his disciples to “disciple all the nations” (“μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη;” Matthew 28:19). It was eleven persons whom Jesus gave this instruction to disciple the nations, but it was not these eleven persons who completed that task. Clearly, the task is still incomplete. This instruction continues forth “to the very end of the age,” anywhere that there are disciples seeking to carry on the task (Matthew 28:20). Jesus expects his discipleship-ministry to diffuse to all the nations through innovator-disciples.

Diffusion has been a concerning concept in regard to applied anthropology. Many are concerned that diffusion is a form of acculturation.[9] Others are concerned when diffusion happens through force.[10] When conceptualizing discipleship as diffusion, one must be careful not to cross over into these categories of mal-appropriation for cultural change. However, diffusion is inevitable as cultures interact with one another, borrow from one another, and contextualize forms and meanings to suit their needs.[11] Ultimately, this is why incarnational discipleship is vital to carrying out the “Great Commission”—i.e. the Great Diffusion—for incarnational discipleship admits that there is global consequence from the particular practices of love in communities—love spreads through the interactions within and between communities.

The church’s work of discipling the nations is not done through a hierarchy of relationships with a singular head at the top—other than Christ who is the head of the church (Colossians 1:18). The whole church is in the motion of diffusion. Thus, the discipler is not compelled to be the completing agent of discipleship. The discipler, in a sense, hands on the baton of discipleship to the next round of innovators as they take on the task of discipling their immediate community/ies more deeply as insiders and farther on to surrounding communities.[12] This practice involves a trust in the Spirit’s guidance to take the community forward in sanctification through their investment in Scripture and their obedience to Christ. Bendor-Samuel elaborates this notion:

We need to recognise [sic] that the local church, however fragile, is the primary human instrument God is using to build his Kingdom. This is not a matter of ownership. The local church in a missional context ‘owns’ mission no more than the international cross-cultural worker. It is Christ who owns the church, Christ who has paid for it and Christ who by his Spirit now owns and drives mission. The issue is not one of ownership but one of responsibility and suitability. There is plenty of evidence that disciple-making and church growth happens when local believers take responsibility for mission in their own contexts.[13]

Diffusion is the visible operation of the Spirit transposing the gospel in the world through work of incarnational discipleship, one nation, tribe, group, and community at a time.

To be continued… Now that we have recognized the issue of discipleship in a culturally diverse world and how true conversion takes place through meanings rather than behaviors, I have moved the conversation into how discipleship “moves” the gospel in the world. This movement is only possible through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the diffusion of the gospel in and through various cultures. For the last portion in this series, I will synthesize everything that has been discussed thus far in a brief conclusion. I am grateful that you have joined me on this journey for what is the essential work of the church in the world.

[1] Chammah J. Kaunda, “Making Critically Conscious Disciples: A Zambian Pentecostal Pneumato-Discipleship Missiology,” International Review of Mission, vol. 106, issue 2, (December 2017), 327.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Paul Bendor-Samuel, “Challenge and Realignment in the Protestant Cross-cultural Mission Movement,” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies, vol. 34, issue 4 (October 2017), 269.

[4] Louis J. Luzbetak, The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology (Maryknol, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 1-2.

[5] Ibid, 8-10.

[6] Horton, 119.

[7] Brooks St. Clair Morton, The Great CoMission: Making Sense of Making Disciples (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 2013), 89-90.

[8] Luzbetak, 345, 360.

[9] Ibid, 308.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 347 ff.

[12] Ibid. 352-353.

[13] Bendor-Samuel, 277.