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Review: Walking together on the Jesus Road

Hibbert, Evelyn and Richard, Walking Together on the Jesus Road: Discipling in Intercultural Contexts. William Carey Press. Littleton, USA. 2018.

Review by Gordon Cheng
Editor at CMS Australia

Evelyn and Richard Hibbert are long-term missionaries who pioneered church plants amongst Turkish speakers in Bulgaria. Richard now lectures at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, and together with his wife Evelyn they bring a wonderful depth of experience and biblical wisdom to bear on the subject of intercultural discipling.

What is involved in ‘intercultural discipling’?

The Hibberts’ book defines and sets out in four sections what is involved in ‘intercultural discipling’. There is a brief final section headed ‘Prepare to Leave’, that nicely epitomises their  message that the intercultural discipler is never indispensable. The true discipler in all cases is God’s Holy Spirit, and we human disciplers are secondary to his work. Discipling is done by ‘walking together along the Jesus road’—admitting that we as disciplers are weak and will often be taught and strengthened by the faith of disciples from the other cultures we minister in.

The four main sections of the book are entitled (1) Share your life (2) Listen to disciples (3) Focus on relationships and (4) Contextualize, followed by the previously mentioned conclusion ‘Prepare to Leave’. These sections are logically and simply ordered, and readers wanting to absorb the whole message of the book will be helped by sensible and brief summaries at the end of each chapter.

In addition, along with numerous diagrams and summary tables of the major points, cross-cultural stories scattered through the text assist easy reading. So the somewhat abstract principle—‘Let go of culturally driven agendas and biases’—is simply but challengingly highlighted with the following example from women’s equality. A Fijian discipler in Chad says:

I discovered that my Fijian concept was wrong… It was so easy to say ‘love your wife’ and then tell the men to help their wives clean the house or hang the clothes up. But that’s a Western concept. The wives themselves didn’t want it because they feel it tells the other women ‘I am a lazy wife’. (page 75)

The Hibberts resist easy ‘correct’ solutions to dilemmas they raise, and so themselves demonstrate the humility and flexible thinking they encourage in intercultural disciplers.

Some examples are deeply challenging, relating not only to seemingly small matters like punctuality and body language, but to matters of genuine life and death. The Hibberts recall taking their 3-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old (Turkish) boy to a hospital, both children suffering from accidental overdoses. They recount the story:

The Turkish parents knew the system well and willingly handed over their son. But we were faced with a heart-rending choice. Should we hand over our daughter to the local medical staff without being able to see how they were looking after her… (as we were medical doctors ourselves)? Being vulnerable in this situation for the sake of identifying with these local believers meant handing our daughter over to the unknown. (page 25)

Each principle given is tied to practical examples. On page 121, the Hibberts suggest that “one of the greatest mistakes an intercultural discipler can make is to insist that new disciples from another culture must reject their own culture and adopt the discipler’s…”, giving a number of examples of the negative impact this can have on both the disciple and their witness in the community. There is a long process of transformation going on. We must trust God to work out the consequences of ‘walking the Jesus road’ within their own culture, aided but not dominated by the intercultural discipler.

Engaging with unseen powers

One interesting chapter for Western readers, although not a major emphasis of the book, is titled ‘Engage with unseen powers’. The chapter gives a practical and challenging example of how a theological principle—the importance of recognising what the Bible says about the spirit world—is worked out both at the level of world view, and in application. The Hibberts observe that many Western cultures are secularist in nature and so tend to dismiss or downplay the spiritual forces that are at work in mission contexts. Yet spiritual beings are explicitly spoken of in the gospels and elsewhere, and Jesus and the apostles confront such powers in their ministries.

The Hibberts discuss a number of instances from their own experiences—spiritual ‘power objects’ such as blue beads amongst Turkish speakers; the consulting of spiritual practitioners for problems of infertility, and so on. They then show from both Scripture and experience how to work alongside believers in such a way that unseen spiritual powers are neither overestimated nor ignored, yet dealt with in ways that are both biblical and sensitive to pressures of family and community. One wise piece of advice comes directly from the example of Scripture. The Hibberts say

It is important that the disciples remove and dispose of the power object themselves. Just as in Ephesus it was the sorcerers (not the apostles) who burnt their own scrolls, so it is disciples who should deal with their objects in a way that seems best to them (cf. Acts 19:19)

This advice comes not only from a single example, but also from reflecting carefully throughout the book about humility in discipling others.

Biblical basis

The Hibberts have worked hard to anchor their principles in the example of Christ and the teaching of the Bible. Their definition of disciple as ‘learner’ comes from their view of Jesus as the expert disciple-maker. This leads them to encourage intercultural disciplers to themselves be learners,  sharing not only ideas but (like Jesus and Paul did), their lives as well.

There is room here for asking to what extent Jesus’ specific methods with his own disciples should be imitated. Sometimes the applications suggested are not completely convincing. While it is true that Jesus loved his disciples by “investing almost every waking hour in them for about three years” (p. 26), there is surely room for caution in imitating this approach in our own discipling, especially if we have families. Nevertheless, the underlying principle of asking first how Jesus discipled is both wise and fruitful.

Not all readers will persuaded by a significant chapter headed ‘Contextualize the gospel’. There are many strong insights here about thinking broadly, deeply and prayerfully about both the gospel itself and the needs of those being addressed. The Hibberts observe that the biblical gospel is multifaceted in character, as are the Bible’s insights on the nature of sin and human need. But some will have questions about claims such as these:

The first step to help disciples see how the gospel “scratches where they itch” is to research the needs felt by people in the disciples’ culture. The next step is to search the Bible to find out how the gospel addresses their particular felt needs. We will then be able to communicate how Jesus is good news for people from that culture. …In order to contextualize the gospel, we will often need to temporarily let go of those aspects of the gospel which we most cherish and instead emphasize other aspects of the good news that are more meaningful for listeners. (page 145)

The challenge of felt needs is one that confronts every evangelist. But for those who are persuaded by that justification by faith alone is the very heart of the gospel, the article by which (according to the Reformer Martin Luther) ‘the church stands or falls’, there will be a reluctance to even “temporarily let go” (to use the Hibberts’ expression) of such a foundational notion in the interests of a more appealing presentation.

A book worth reading

Walking Together on the Jesus Road is an excellent read for those who share Evelyn and Richard Hibberts’ obvious and lifelong commitment to reaching those who do not know Jesus as Lord.

Let Simon Gillham, head of the Department of Mission at Moore Theological College, have the last word. He says of the Hibbert’s book “It is new and Australian and a great resource for CMS supporters to be introduced to.” Recommended.