July 13, 2020

Misconceptions About Discipleship in Poor Communities

I’ve served in the schemes for four years now. During that time, many men and women have come and gone—from short-term mission trips to two-year ministry interns. Most have come from blue collar/working-class environments, but there are the odd few who’ve come from a seminary setting or another academic environment. 

No matter where people visit us from, one of the things we stress in our context is the importance of discipleship. Now, this is true universally, in that every Christian must be discipled. But life on a scheme necessitates a level of intentional discipleship that is, in many ways, unique to doing ministry here. Same goes for poor communities across the world.

Head, Heart, Hands?

Obviously, those who visit us from academic backgrounds are quite theologically rigorous. Therefore, they tend to view and apply discipleship through a predominantly academic lens. This has been put succinctly by many pastors as the ‘trickle down economy of information’—the idea that information goes first to the head and then subsequently flows to the heart and the hands.

If we took this approach to discipleship in the schemes, then I can tell you that young believers would suffer from information overload. I know this because I’ve seen it happen and have been guilty of it myself. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying—I’m convinced that studying deep theology is crucial for any Christian. The Doctrines of Grace fuel worship. We should encourage people to read books like Desiring God and listen to sermons by the likes of Martyn Lloyd Jones.

But Christian discipleship is more than just ‘mind food’; it concerns all of life. And in the schemes, people tend to think and learn differently than those who come from a middle-class background. Therefore, the question naturally arises: How do we approach discipleship holistically in the schemes? In other words: How do we make sure it’s more than mere ‘head information transfer’?

I’ll show how by using the classic ‘head, heart, hands’ analogy, except I’ll go through it in reverse.

Hands 

There’s a famous phrase in the schemes of Edinburgh: “It is not what you say, it is what you dae.” Here’s a simple translation: Talk is cheap. This accurately summarises the pervasive mindset here.

What does this have to do with discipleship? Well, many in our context learn by doing. If we assume that what people need most is information, then perhaps we’d give them a good book or point them to a series of lectures on a certain topic. But if we understand that people in the schemes are more likely to learn with their hands, then our approach to discipleship needs to be adjusted accordingly.

For example, if we want to disciple new believers to have a godly marriage, we show them what that looks like. Again, this doesn’t mean that a good book on marriage won’t help them (it almost certainly will). But it does mean that a good book on marriage alone won’t cut it. So we want young men to spend time watching a mature husband lovingly lead his family. And we want young women to observe wives loving and serving their husbands and children.

Another example: Let’s say we’re looking to teach a single man in his twenties about the importance of working hard and serving the Lord in all aspects of life. No surprises here, we’ll get him to muck in with us—cleaning the toilets, helping in the church café, and volunteering in church ministries.

As a young man sees the example of mature believers serving the Lord, it will speak volumes to him. We’ve had countless men and women point to the example of a mature believer as being more of an influence and encouragement than anything those people said to them. Simply put, seeing faith in action, not just hearing about it, has a huge impact on people in the schemes.

Heart

When we think of the heart, we tend to think of ‘love’ (and the many different conceptions of that word). In ministry, we speak of ‘having a heart for people’, or even for a place or particular issue. But what does the heart have to do with discipleship? Well, everything.

Biblically speaking, the heart is the centre of our desires. So when we think about the heart in Christian discipleship, one crucial thing to evaluate is the love that believers have for God, one another, and the lost in their communities. While there are many ways to evaluate this, two good—and perhaps unexpected—areas to examine are prayer and singing.

Praying and singing together are vital components of discipleship in the schemes. When people come to faith in the schemes, they’ve often only ever prayed the Lord’s Prayer or sung ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ at a funeral. But through seeing the church praying together, speaking with one another in fellowship, and even singing together, we are teaching and catechising those we are discipling.

Many indigenous converts have told me the encouragement they’ve drawn from experiencing the church praying together. There’s something special about the unity forged when a church family regularly approaches the throne of grace corporately. One local guy who came to faith recently told me that seeing this helped him grasp the love that other believers have for the Lord, and also spurred him on to love God more and to share in the joys and the sorrows of the Christian walk.

Regularly praying and singing together as the church body motivates and stirs the hearts of those we disciple, drawing them onwards in the spiritual battle and pilgrimage through this weary land.

Head

In ministry in deprived communities, one temptation is to ‘dumb down’ the teaching. This is because people equate lack of formal education with the inability to learn. But this is simply not the case. I’ve heard many say that all we need to do for the poor is get them to ‘love Jesus’ but not complicate things with theology. Such thinking is nonsense. 

The schemes are littered with false teaching, and it is our responsibility to teach people the enduring truths found in God’s Word. A vital part of discipleship is regular, deep study of the Scriptures. At 20schemes, we seek to equip new believers through teaching them biblical truth and giving them a good understanding of solid theology. We do this in many ways, from simple Bible study to reading books together on certain topics. We also have a more formal option in The Ragged School of Theology. 

Information transfer is important. If we want our churches to stand the test of time and minister to our communities for generations to come, then we need to teach the next generation of believers to stand on the Word of God. They need to know what they believe and why they believe it (1 Pet. 3:15).

We’re not anti-academia. But we are convinced that the ‘trickle down economy of information’ is not effective in the schemes. Information transfer isn’t just books and biblical teaching. It is all of life. So let’s build healthy churches that aim at more than mere ‘head transformation’, understanding that the Lord is after every aspect of our lives—head, heart, hands and all.

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