The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20) commands Christ’s followers to “make disciples of all nations.” That discipleship has at least two basic components:conversion, symbolized by baptism, and change, realized through ever-increasing obedience to Christ’s commandments. Notice also its multicultural shape. Christ commands His followers to disciple “all nations,” which means “people groups,” not “nation-states.”
In Discipling in a Multicultural World, Ajith Fernando outlines “biblical principles about discipling” and presents “examples about how they apply in daily life and ministry.” Fernando is the former national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, which he now continues to serve as teaching director, and the author of seventeen books. This book is the fruit of mature biblical reflection and decades of practical ministry experience.
Fernando divides the book into two parts: “Introducing Spiritual Parenthood” and “How People Change.”
Part 1 uses the metaphor of spiritual parenting to describe discipleship, which he defines as “an affectionate relationship of caring between people who see themselves as having a parent-child relationship.”
Part of the genius of this metaphor is that it’s multiplicative. Consider what Paul wrote to Timothy: “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). As Fernando notes, “Four generations of Christians are mentioned here”: Paul, Timothy, reliable people, and others.
“Disciplers are servants of disciplees, doing all we can to help them grow and be fruitful.” –Ajith Fernando
The parenting metaphor also jibes well with the New Testament understanding of the community of believers as a spiritual family. This understanding cuts against the grain of both Western individualism and the familism of the developing World. “Many church communities [in the West] have diluted the biblical idea of the solidarity of the community and its importance in the life of a Christian,” Fernando writes. The challenge of discipleship in Western contexts involves, in part, incorporating individuals into the body of Christ.
By the same token, however, the familism pervasive in most traditional cultures, including that of the Bible, presents a different challenge. For many converts in Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim contexts especially, to become a Christian is a lonely experience because one is immediately cut off from one’s family and extended community. Fernando wisely notes that converts belong to “two families—their earthly family and the family of God.” Discipleship in such contexts requires a delicate balance between honoring one’s earthly family and ongoing membership in one’s spiritual family. Disciples in these contexts often experience suffering, persecution, and loss of honor — a pattern we also see in the New Testament. Fernando offers wise advice about how disciplers can help disciples navigate these negative experiences.
Drawing on the work of missiologist Paul Hiebert, Fernando identifies three kinds of transformation in Part 2, “How People Change”:
- cognitive transformation, where a person’s belief system changes;
- affective transformation, where we personally experience God; and
- evaluative transformation, where we evaluate the beliefs and practices of the prevailing culture.
He devotes the bulk of this part of the book to describing what the Bible says about these three kinds of transformation, highlighting the role of Scripture, prayer, the discernment of right and wrong, and the experience of healing in the discipleship process.
Three chapters — 10, 11, and 12 — focus on right and wrong. “In the Bible and in today’s culture,” Fernando writes, “people respond to issues of right and wrong along three lines: (1) guilt and forgiveness, (2) honor and shame, and (3) fear/bondage and power/liberation. Although all three lines are present in every culture to a degree, Western culture typically follows the guilt/forgiveness line, while traditional cultures follow the other two.
In a multicultural world, disciplers must understand all three so they can help disciples make sense of Christian faith and practice in culturally adequate ways. While the entire book contains mature biblical reflection seasoned with practical ministry experience, these three chapters are the best part, in my opinion.
I close this review with two sentences from Fernando’s concluding paragraph. First, “Disciplers are servants of disciplees, doing all we can to help them grow and be fruitful.” This mindset is crucial, both to avoid authoritarian forms of discipling and to count discipling’s costs. Spiritual parenting, like parenting, isn’t easy.
Second, in light of that cost, Fernando prays: “In this busy world, may many Christians rise to pay the price of investing in people in this comprehensive way.”
Amen to that!
Ajith Fernando, Discipling in a Multicultural World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019).
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P.P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.