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09 February 2022

Checkpoint Autumn 2022: Following Christ across cultures


Wei-Han Kuan is the Executive Director of CMS Victoria. Here he explores the question of what it means to be a disciple of Christ across cultures—and the implications for every person in the CMS fellowship.

‘Disciple’ is a Christian word that occurs some 260 times in the New Testament. A disciple is a follower: the student of a teacher, the apprentice to a master. A disciple is someone whose entire life is centred on the teaching, leadership and direction of another. Every Christian is a disciple of Christ. Together as the body of Christ, and in the words of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) we are called to go and make disciples of all nations. This work of cross-cultural disciple-making is a focus of the Church Missionary Society as we seek a world that knows Jesus.

Historically, missions agencies have focussed on the work of evangelism and church planting in fulfilment of the Great Commission. However, we now live in a time when the church in the Global South or Majority World is growing faster than through the work of Minority World missionaries. By contrast the church in Australia and throughout the Minority World is in serious decline. What does the Great Commission mean in such a time as this?

This is not the first time such a major shift in the balance of world Christianity has happened. [1] In the first millennium the church was centred in the Middle East and North Africa. That was where the world’s major seminaries and theological libraries were located. That was where missionaries came from. Then, with the rise of Islam and the push of missionaries into northern Europe, that all changed. What would have been a faithful response to the Great Commission in Jerusalem or Carthage or Alexandria in those times?

Maturing faith, hope and love all around the world

As we reflect on such momentous changes in our time, Colossians 1 is instructive. Paul recognises the Colossians’ faith in Christ, their love for all the saints, and their hope in heaven. Because of these marks of true disciples of Christ, Paul the missionary always has reason to thank God (verses 3-5).

In the same way, CMS missionaries work towards increasing depth of faith, love and hope in the people we work amongst all around the world. We are not simply interested in bringing people to faith for the first time and then leaving them there. Indeed many of the challenges of the Majority World church have to do with increasing depth of faith, love and hope as marks of maturing discipleship.

As the balance of world Christianity shifts, we have a part to play in transferring theological and pastoral resources for the benefit and maturing of the growing church in other parts of the world. I often hear aspiring missionaries say, “I come from a well-resourced church. There are so many people here with my experience and training and skills. The needs are so much greater over there. Why shouldn’t I go? Indeed, why should I stay?”

How might you and your church play your part in maturing faith, hope and love in the parts of the world where the church has comparatively fewer resources for this work?

I often challenge our larger and healthier churches to give of their best people to missionary service. In such giving we may expect to see a blessing revert to our churches from God, who teaches us that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Hearing and understanding the word of truth

Paul reminds the Colossians that their faith has come from the word of truth, the gospel (Colossians 1:5), and that this gospel is moving throughout the whole world bearing fruit and increasing. This happens as the recipients of the word of truth hear and understand the grace of God–in the Colossians’ case, as the missionary Epaphras has served them by teaching and explaining it to them (verses 6-7).

This ministry of serving cross-culturally, by teaching and explaining the Scriptures, continues today. Following in the footsteps of Epaphras, we aim to equip ourselves to teach and explain the gospel and the grace of God cross-culturally so that people actually hear and truly understand. Mishearing and misunderstanding can easily occur when we don’t share the same cultural assumptions and settings.

CMS invests heavily in training and preparation through St Andrew’s Hall. We do this so that our missionaries may teach and explain in a way that leads to actual hearing and understanding, that in turn leads to the bearing of fruit and gospel increase. CMS branches do this work as well, through mission education and the MENTAC cross-cultural apprenticeship program. We aim to equip Australian Christians to make disciples of the nations who have come to Australia.

John* came to Melbourne from a majority-Muslim country. He wandered into St Paul’s Cathedral where a CMS partnership runs a Bible-storytelling ministry focussed on explaining the stories in the stained-glass windows to visiting tourists. He heard the gospel message and was given a New Testament in his heart-language. Through the careful instruction and encouragement of part of the CMS fellowship, he became a Christian and has since trained for vocational gospel ministry. Now in turn, John seeks to teach and explain the word of truth to others cross-culturally.

Making mature disciples

Colossians 1:9-14 is a striking description of what maturity in following Jesus looks like. Paul prayed for such maturity in the believers, as he no doubt also worked for it among the churches. Here are some descriptors from the passage:

“…filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding…”

“…fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good
work and increasing in the knowledge of God…”

“…all endurance and patience with joy…”

The picture of mature discipleship is one of a settled, wise, robust, fruitful, ever-growing, enduring, patient and joyful walk with Christ. Maturity does not mean having arrived at some elevated level of sainthood. No, it looks more like a humble and confident faith founded on a Spirit-enabled knowledge of God (verse 9).

I am known to dish out ‘Wei-Han’s definition of maturity’ as ‘learning to operate outside your preferences.’ As a raging introvert, I have to learn to be more social and spend time with people. As a fast-paced decision maker who sees conflict as a positive opportunity for change and progress, I have to learn to slow down, bring people with me and speak gently when potential conflict is in the room. I have lots of maturing left to do.

In the same way, our missionaries are trained to go as humble learners and careful readers of culture. We select gospel-hearted people who already have a firm foundation of faith. But they also need to have a willingness to work for maturity in themselves and in the people they are called to serve. They have preferences and presuppositions that need to be subordinated to the cause of loving people and helping them mature as disciples of Christ. This often involves personal transformation for our missionaries. They too have maturing left to do. That’s part of the adventure of missionary life.

Every worker would have a similar story to tell. I* is currently the longest-serving CMS missionary. She departed for South East Asia in 1985 and is still there working to mature disciples in a very challenging context. During a pastoral visit I asked her about her retirement plans. Sitting in her tiny village house, with the packed earth lane on one side and an open sewer drain on the other, she exclaimed, “Retirement? I’m staying here for as long as God gives me strength!” Her love for the local people and her passion to see them mature in Christ has inspired many others to serve in the Muslim world. She inspires me!

Recommitting to disciple-making

We live in a pivotal time in church history when the balance of global Christianity is shifting. There remains great strength in the Australian Church, despite the prevailing secularising trends. It’s a season of re-committing to make mature disciples of Christ wherever God is growing his church. Jesus commanded his followers to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). What part will you play?

*Name changed for privacy reasons.

[1] See Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, (HarperOne, 2009)

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How or where is God calling you to be a disciple-maker? Contact your CMS branch to discover the possibilities.

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How would you fare in a seminary where the main graduation requirement was that those you had discipled were themselves able to lead others to Christ? Read how Wei-Han addresses this question by clicking here.