Discipling Nations: A Kenyan’s Perspective

by Nebert Mtange

Informal and formal groups are fertile grounds for disciple-making in Africa if utilized well. Discipleship, clearly defined, must find its home in groups.

Three o’clock Sunday afternoon is a traditional time of fellowship in many parts of Kenya, and by extension, Africa. Many relatives and friends gather in churches, homes, parks, and restaurants for fellowship and to catch up on events of the previous week. It is also a time to visit the sick either in hospitals or in homes. Many of the visits are informal; good friends do not require appointments, but simply show up. A newborn baby is a sure reason for generous visits and a time to celebrate. The guests carry gifts such as milk, sugar, tea leaves, and peanuts to the host families. Such fellowships include both talking and sharing a meal or tea. During the visits, friends encourage, criticize, and even talk about other people. The meetings or fellowships are referred to as lisanga, chamas, or jumuias. These meetings play an important role in encouraging and uplifting each other. Members even contribute money to assist one of their own when in need.

From the onset, it is important to recognize the significance of community and hospitality in an African setting. It is one aspect of building relationships and trust, which are fundamental in mobilizing a community for a purpose—be it health, a water project, or evangelism. The aspect of I am because we are is a great motivation for living life among many communities in Africa. A village surrounded by a common boundary draws its own identity and security from shared values.   

Fellowships and Disciple-making
Going back to the three o’clock hour in Africa, are the activities of the hour not coherent with disciple-making? Active love and care for others define what Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda (2002, 67) calls moral agency; that is, the “power to live toward social structures, relationships, policies, and lifestyles that build communities…,” and I want to add, God-fearing communities. This, in essence, is disciple-making. The Great Commission emphasizes care and love for each other that enables people to live harmoniously.

Many of the fellowships start and end with a word of prayer—a sure indication of the embedded Christian values. Fellowships, or groups, are the pivotal points of social cohesion in many parts of Africa. But how can this social aspect be translated into missions? Nothing else comes to mind apart from disciple-making or discipleship. Most of the groups have a defined Christian membership, and therefore planting and nurturing scripture in these groups is likely to add value and enhance, deepen, and nurture Christian faith in members. However, this seems not to be the case due to a number of reasons.

It is estimated that out of ten churches in urban areas in Africa, seven have a disciple-making program. It is a program in the sense that the church leadership does not emphasize disciple-making as an important ingredient in the Christian life. However, the fact that it is listed is good in itself because it means it is considered. But does its meaning and fundamental role impact the Church as a whole? In Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (where I have been involved in disciple-making for over five years), the trend in rural areas changes radically. Indeed, many Christians are involved in disciple-making, but it is not clear what exactly it means to them. Many view disciple-making as part of Christian education or preliminary classes for baptism. This runs contrary to the Great Commission. Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded them. According to the Great Commission, teaching (disciple-making) was not a precondition for baptism; neither was it an after-service activity. Instead, it was a continuous process for Christian growth.

Defining Discipleship
I agree with Allen Hadidian (1979, 19) that the term discipleship comes loaded with many meanings. It is a problematic word to define because it does not occur in the Bible. The two terms disciple-making and discipleship tend to be used interchangeably when they actually mean different things. I use the term discipleship to mean the process of transformation to Christlikeness, while disciple-making is the activity geared toward enlisting one into the process of transformation.

The Old Testament does not present discipleship as vividly as we see it in the New Testament, but the fact that there were schools of prophets makes it evident that there existed some form of disciple-making. In the New Testament disciples were those who were attached and committed to Jesus. They learned from him and had a deep abiding relationship with him. The apostles are good examples of disciples. The relationship with Jesus Christ means redeeming value that is reflected in how much we love each other, bearing one’s own cross, and being fruitful. Disciple-making is a measure of how much Christians are leading the world to embrace the love of Christ. In missions, and with good intentions, disciple-making is linked to evangelism, church planting, relief work, water projects, community socialization, and even to school curricula. The bottom line is not to make people feel comfortable, but to awaken them to love one another as Jesus exemplified it to the world.

The human crises that have hit many parts of the world, and even more the recent political skirmishes experienced in Kenya in early 2008, are where we can look for discipleship examples. Some of the areas where crises continue to bedevil human existence are places with active discipleship programs. Are Christians in these areas well discipled to embrace the love of Christ? Do they understand that the love of Christ transcends all differences? What is the contribution of the Christian community toward harmonious living? These and many other questions beg answers and present a case to ministry and mission leaders to evaluate parameters of Christian disciple-making and make them responsive to everyday challenges.

It is a paradox, though, that many communities in Africa have a strong mechanism of instilling values in their members of society, yet when crises strike they shake the very foundation of human existence. Values in Africa take precedent; one does not need to go to a formal school to learn that an elder in a society symbolizes wisdom. Most of the values are shared while walking to the market centers, when fetching firewood or water, and when going to barazas (public forums). All these activities take place in a group context to ensure that the intended targets of instruction are reached and “educated.” Again, it is in groups that values are actualized and tested in individuals and as a collective society. However, the extent to which the value formation impacts life requires some in-depth finding.

The influence that drives local people to embrace foreign lifestyles, coupled with a lack of enough resources to share (especially in urban areas), complicates the dynamics and functioning of a traditional group. This, by extension, affects evangelism and disciple-making approaches. However, it does not erase the consciousness of communal living in groups. Many people residing in urban areas have ancestral homes in rural areas where they return to traditional groups whenever they visit members of the extended family. During my postgraduate studies I carried out research to determine the level of understanding of disciple-making of a community in Kenya. I extended the same study to seven other communities in Uganda and Tanzania in East Africa. My findings were astounding. No single community had an equivalent term in their native language for disciple-making or discipleship. While terms like Christian and church had been contextualized, disciple-making or discipleship is still problematic. Disciple-making or discipleship is foreign to many communities. In Africa, if something has no term or name, then its meaning becomes distant. Great names identify great people or places. It is with this in mind that kwirwatsa (evangelism) among the Luhya people of western Kenya is an action-oriented term, honored and holy.

Finding Local Equivalents for Discipleship and Disciple-making
The fact that the local dialects do not have the equivalent of either discipleship or disciple-making creates a challenge; as a result, the significance of discipleship in Christian growth is relegated to the periphery because it lacks an effective vehicle to carry and nurture it. The meaning of something is pronounced when thought about, talked about, sung about, and even written about in a language. Although Bible translators have made admirable attempts in doing something about this, grounding of the meaning of discipleship and disciple-making by using the local languages is still a challenge and, therefore, better understanding of the terms is yet to be attained.

Superficial understanding of discipleship or disciple-making cannot be solely blamed upon a lack of language equivalent. The use of models is another challenge when it comes to disciple-making. Many ministry and mission workers are concerned with wanting to apply and implement their own models. While some models have worked in some areas, in the African context many of the models haven’t borne fruit. Some were actually created and developed in a different context than those they are supposed to serve, and others even go against the social grain of those to be discipled.
For instance, the most cherished one-on-one model is built on dialectic accountability, but it lacks the capacity to create and nurture togetherness in group-oriented communities. I have been involved in disciple-making for more than ten years and the one-on-one model has proved difficult to implement. The one-on-one model tends to split families and groups into pairs. Again, the method appears to be unpopular because it heightens gender feelings. Men are supposed to disciple men and women are supposed to disciple women. This creates a social dichotomy rather than integration; it also questions the role of pastors, who are predominantly male. Are they meant to minister to men only? Not so, since pastors are shepherds of the entire flock, inclusive of both men and women. However, the seating arrangement in many rural churches in Africa has women and men sitting in different pews. Therefore, disciple-making should correct this social dichotomy and harmonize integration, subsequently creating gender equity.

Community and Disciple-making
Most communities in Kenya do things in groups: attending school, going to church, attending weddings, mourning, going for water, and going shopping. This is echoed in these proverbs: “One thumb cannot kill a louse” or “When spider webs unite they can tie up a lion.” Therefore, any attempt to restructure or reorganize social patterns through disciple-making may have little impact.

Informal and formal groups are fertile grounds for disciple-making if utilized well. In fact, disciple-making should enhance the group spirit and togetherness, creating an environment for Christians to share their concerns and encourage and enrich each other spiritually. Mathias Zahniser (1995) captures well how some African cultures crystallize their value formation and instillation by use of forms and meanings. He clearly articulates why symbols and ceremonies play a significant role in the process of transferring values in an African context and suggests that these could also be vehicles for disciple-making. The basic values reside in forms and meanings and any process that aims at adding value or instigating change in disregard of the same is bound to have minimum or superficial effects. The love of Christ therefore makes sense if people can see it reflected in their day-to-day life. Otherwise, they look for alternative answers somewhere else.

Christians like Dawson Trotman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robert Coleman, and others had brilliant ideas on how to make disciple-making effective. They laid a foundation upon which to build sound disciple-making structures. The Christians believed that discipleship was a transformation process to Christlikeness. Bonhoeffer’s ideas continue to impact the Christian community on how to carry out discipleship not only in the West, but also in a rural village in Kenya. As ministry workers, have we diverged or veered off the path of our forerunners?

Missionaries, especially in Africa, were quick to notice the thirst for academic achievement, and in turn used it as a way of contextualizing disciple-making. Again, with good intentions their aim was to provide some kind of education to the people as they discipled them. It was a good strategy, but it had some limitations. Certificates and degrees in disciple-making limit the extent of discipleship. In many African societies the idea of offering grades and certificates means one has attained a certain level, which in disciple-making should not be the case. It creates an impression that there are lowest and highest levels. Discipleship is a continuous process and the degree to which we exemplify Jesus’ love is by how much we impact lives.
The Philosophy behind Disciple-making

So what should be the driving force in disciple-making? Before delving into the how of disciple-making, it is important to highlight its fundamental and biblical role in deepening the Christian faith. Barry Sneed and Roy Edgemon correctly say that discipleship (in this case, disciple-making) is a process that transforms a person’s values and behavior, and results in ministry in one’s home, church, and the world: “Knowing Christ, instead of just knowing about him, results in spiritual transformation in life and heart that reflects Christ to all we encounter” (1999, 96). This reminds me of the process of socialization among many communities in Africa. For instance, the Avalogoli people of Kenya use traditional socialization as a process of value formation. This co-relation is key when it comes to contextualizing aspects of disciple-making in Africa.  

Bryant Myers, who has worked in Africa for many years, gets it right by cautioning us from making discipleship a spiritual activity only: “When discipleship is treated solely as a spiritual activity, we tend to locate discipleship in the church as a spiritual exercise. While it is this, it is also much more” (1999, 159). He argues that discipleship is about receiving and developing spiritual gifts that equip one to serve as an agent of God, and appropriating those spiritual disciplines that are essential for responsible obedience to the joys of the Kingdom of God. The bottom line of this argument is that discipleship in a broad sense includes sociological process and ministry service rather than a restricted process of spiritual growth. Myers’ view raises a yellow flag to many mission and ministry workers in Africa. While disciple-making has been spiritualized, it fails to filter down into the daily life of people. It becomes a church program and it has nothing to do with life at home or in school.

There must be a philosophy that drives disciple-making. In other words, a theology of disciple-making is in order. I am hesitant to use the term theology here because it elicits different meanings, especially in an African context. Some think that theology is a product of denominational thinking, while others have the view that theology drives sects. This is not what I mean. I am of the idea that strong convictions are well expressed when they are encapsulated in clear statements. In Africa, for example, wisdom is expressed in proverbs, which form philosophies of working, taking care of the weak in society, and many others. For instance, a hunter does not come back home empty-handed. This is quite motivating, while at the same time demanding, because of high expectations from a hunter who returns home. The family is aware that when the man of the home returns after a bad day, he will be carrying a rabbit or a quail.

Philosophies are not built in a vacuum, but thrive in a context they serve. This brings me back to form and meaning. If we are to use symbols and ceremonies from different cultures to contextualize disciple-making, then we have to go the extra mile and create philosophies that speak to the people’s aspirations and needs. These also must be rooted in scripture, and at the same time sensitive and challenging the host culture. It should answer questions like What does it mean to be a disciple? What are my responsibilities as a disciple-maker? and What good do I derive from disciple-making? These questions create a sense of concern and commitment to serve others.

In Africa, philosophies are rooted in simple expressions like proverbs. In Niger, for instance, proverbs are the horses of conversation: when a conversation lags, a proverb revives it. In essence, daily expressions are the vehicles of love, which is ideal for disciple-making. For instance, a question like “Where are you from?” does not necessarily mean the person from a Kalenjin community in Kenya wants to know where you are coming from; instead, it is driven by the philosophy to never bypass a friend without saying something. He or she may actually know where you are coming from, but just wants to make contact using seemingly simple questions. The responses to these questions will determine the trend of conversation. Therefore, for disciple-making there has to be a simple phrase that captures the activity instead of an explanation. While I am not opposed to the models and materials currently in use, most create a system or framework of disciple-making and are sometimes referred to as curricula. Unless we are talking about formal disciple-making, discipleship must provoke one into self-evaluation that results into transformed lives which bear testimony to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Discipleship must find its home in groups, just as Jesus nurtured a group of twelve apostles for ministry. An African, who exercises love in a group by greetings, a visit, hospitality, and even prayer, needs to be encouraged and helped to anchor all the good actions in scripture. While scripture is a primary benchmark for all that we do cross-culturally, the context remains vital in providing the needed environment for scripture to thrive. A Chinese poem which reads, “Go to the people, live among them, learn from them, and love them. Start with what they know, build on what they have,” is an articulation of missions and sums up our approach to cross-cultural work, and especially disciple-making.

Hadidian, Allen. 1979. Successful Discipling. Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.

Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia D. 2002. Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.

Myers, Bryant L. 1999. Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Sneed, Barry and Roy Edgemon. 1999. Transformational Discipleship: Your Church Helping People Be Like Jesus. Nashville, Tenn.: LifeWay Press.

Zahniser, A. H. Mathias. 1995. Symbol and Ceremony: Making Disciples across Cultures. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.


Nebert Mtange is a mission director with African Leaders in Missions (ALM) and a college professor in Kenya. He is married to Jane and they have three daughters and a son. They live in Nairobi.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 200-204. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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