The Integrative Potential of Scripturally-based Discipleship

Between 2003 and 2008, I returned repeatedly to Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation on the southern borders of the Sahara desert. On each occasion, I was invited to present a series of missional, discipleship seminars, to two Burkinabé constituencies.

  • Rural-based, Pentecostal missionary-pastors and bible-school trainees associated with church-planting movement, Assemblée Evangélique de Pentecôte
  • Urban-based university students and young office workers associated with national youth movement, Mouvement des Jeunes Serviteurs de Dieu

On each occasion, informal feedback from participants suggested that a significant spiritual dynamic was taking place among participants during the seminars.

Between 2009 and 2013, building upon my experience of contextual leadership training, in conjunction with Fuller School of Intercultural Studies, I completed a programme doctoral research, exploring the missiological dynamics underlying my interactions with Burkinabé leaders and learners.

My research employed the perspective of contextual missiology to address theological education and discipleship in the context of Burkina Faso. My conclusions were based upon a qualitative analysis and evaluation of Burkinabé leaders’ and learners’ insights, attitudes, perspectives and hopes regarding incumbent forms of training and praxis.

In this précis, I present two of the most significant threads that emerged strongly from data analysis and literature review findings.

  1. The integrative potential of scripturally-based discipleship
  2. The characteristics of an appropriate discipleship resource

The Integrative Potential of Scripturally-Based Discipleship

The authentic, biblical purpose of leadership training, discipleship and, or theological education is nothing less than the equipping of the whole church for its participation in serving the God’s eternal purpose (the missio Dei). This challenges systems that tend to result in the preparation of an elite group of individuals (clergy, or leaders), separated from their communities (laity) by forms of education that are difficult to present or translate outside of theological classrooms and forums (Winter 2005).

Such a separation is typically heightened in African contexts, wherein a literacy culture dominates the classroom, whilst an orality culture dominates outside of it and where leadership training is dominated by an essentially western form of theological education that is not merely anachronistic — having typically been implemented during the colonial period — but which is also essentially philosophically alien to the encompassing culture.

My research drew upon qualitative data findings and missiological literature to identify how biblically-based discipleship has the potential to bridge between, or integrate six significant divides that are practically innate to modern, western theological education.

It is this integrative capacity that suggests discipleship is capable of embodying a holistic form of scripturally-based education and training that is particularly suited to African cultural contexts, which John V. Taylor describes as being “bound up in the bundle of life” (1958, 259–60).

Integrating Theology and Spirituality

The potential to integrate theology and spirituality is probably the most significant aspect of all. Discipleship is, by definition, rooted in practical, lifestyle disciplines — yet it is also rooted in a devotional, hermeneutical, theological relationship with Scripture. Together these two tensions provide a capacity for uniquely-Christian spiritual formation and a dialectical combination of experience and reflection, praxis and theoria, discussion and prayer, orthodoxy and orthopraxis…each reliant upon the other (cf. Bosch 1991, 425), in a way that has rarely, if at all, been characteristic of modern, western theological education.

Theological education — typically represented in Africa by the Bible School system — innately tends to incorporate Euro-centric standards of achievement and methods of learning, including a reliance upon theological textbooks that do not transition easily beyond the classroom (due to a range of factors that include: physical size and length; purchase cost; theological density; literacy level; European language; lack of suitability for oral communication; philosophical foundations, etc.). Furthermore, bible schools, almost invariably require long-term residency, with concomitant financial cost, family upheaval and a lack of contextual continuity, due to students’ removal from their vocational contexts.

Leadership training that is centered around the development of discipleship praxis and generational formation, by contrast, bears a significantly greater potential to move beyond classrooms into informal contexts: such as homes, congregations and small groups — as well as workplaces and other communal spaces. The Hindustani Bible Institute’s hybrid model (see Gupta and Lingenfelter 2006) provides a profound example of how non-traditional, alternative models, such as those incorporating very short periods of residency and intensive learning, combined with mobile educational schools that operate regionally, are not only feasible, but manifestly suited to majority world contexts.

Integrating Orality and Literacy

The integration of formal and informal learning is closely linked to tensions between cultures of orality and literacy. Jerry Camery-Hoggart’s research, focused amongst Pentecostal communities, demonstrates how both orality and literacy empower communities-of-learning in different ways:

  • Orality strengthening the function and role of memory, testimony, apprenticeship and ethnicity;
  • Literacy facilitating codification, study, categorisation, curricula and concentration of power.

Simply put, the tension cannot be eased by a decision in favour of either literacy or orality: both are necessary and appropriate. Camery-Hoggart’s conclusion is to identify the need for “a sort of bilingual education that prepares pastors to function within both worlds…and to translate between them” (2005, 226; emphasis added).

Integrating Lingua Franca and Vernacular

A lifestyle of authentic discipleship expresses what I would call a language of the heart. Simply put, true discipleship implies whole-hearted allegiance. It is no great leap of imagination, therefore, to identify that discipleship resources need to gravitate towards mother-tongue languages — which are ‘the vernacular of the heart,’ as well as of every-day speech, thought and praxis. Whereas modern, western theological education is almost invariably conducted in the European languages of English, German and French, scripturally-based discipleship tends to innately narrow linguistic divides by embracing resources that are readily translatable into vernacular languages — with the effect of increasing accessibility, as well as dignifying the use of vernacular, mother-tongue languages for the work of discipleship and education.

Bridging Vocational Divides

Discipleship has the potential to narrow vocational divides, integrating tensions between the training of leadership, lay and intercultural missionaries, as well as dignifying people in other life vocations — something my research findings affirmed as especially important to younger generations in particular. As those in various vocations identify their shared status as ‘fellow disciples’ of the Messiah, with appropriate standards of discipleship understood to apply equally to all, it dignifies everyone’s spiritual journey: bridging the divide with church leaders, without undermining their credibility or opportunity to ‘be in the lead’ when it comes to embodying disciplined Christian living and forming disciples.

Bridging the Gender Divide

Similarly, although gender issues were not significantly probed by my study, it is germane to identify the potential of discipleship to bridge the gender divide so common to spheres of Christian ministry and leadership — especially within patriarchal societies — by recognising how women are equally-called, alongside men, to become disciples of the Messiah. This does not imply that cultural mores can be ignored, but rather that a conception of ‘discipleship-for-all,’ strengthens the Christian identity of both men and women, “in the Messiah” (see Galatians 3:28).

Intercultural Integration

Finally, scripturally-based discipleship has the potential to narrow intercultural divides by casting both cultural insiders and outsiders (e.g. missionaries) as co-labourers of God and of one another, in their mutual pursuit of active, practical, covenantal faithfulness, worked-out in a dialectic relationship with both Scripture and community.

Confronting Idolatry and Transforming Cultural Strongholds

Finally, because of its primary focus upon allegiance and faithfulness towards Christ, authentic biblically-based discipleship deals with spiritual transformation and praxis in a way that has historically proven elusive to modes of modern, western theological education, which have tended to focus upon rational, rather than relational knowledge (Bosch 1991, 424). In this process, personal and cultural idols are confronted and challenged as an integral part of the discipling process (Song 2006, 258).

My research suggested that this kind of reality has been elusive in Burkinabé contexts (where leadership training has been dominated by western theological education), nevertheless findings revealed a widespread confidence that biblically-based discipleship bears significant potential to effect transformative social and cultural influence.

This link between idolatry, discipleship and social transformation is crystallised in the words of one participants’ response to one of the prototypical seminars that formed part of my research. Their observation illustrated how a profound appreciation for the church’s calling to serve God’s eternal purpose (the missio Dei) has the capacity to confront idols of selfishness and to propel us towards becoming a blessing to others, in the name of Christ:

“It is opening up minds concerning the purpose that God has for our lives: to be blessed and become a source of blessing for others. And when you understand (this, when) you are able to understand that teaching, you are freed from every spirit of egotism (and) selfishness. You are free from every kind of spirit of selfishness. And every type of effort that you are (making), every kind of struggling that you are (encountering) in your life, you are doing it having in mind that purpose (for which) you are doing it: to be a blessing to others.” (Clements 2012, 78)

Characteristics of an Appropriate Discipleship Resource

Shoki Coe conceived contextualisation as a human process within which theological concerns are appropriately incorporated, based upon a missiological discernment of “the signs of the times” (Coe 1973, 1974; also Wheeler 2002). In other words: contextualisation is a spiritual participation in and response to the life and history of an actual historical and cultural context, through which a living community of the church learns to appropriate the living message of the gospel within and on behalf of that social, historical context. As such, contextualisation can never be reduced to the mere adaption of pre-existing theology. It is always a concrete, historical, social process; never a mere theological abstraction.

Accordingly, the development of theological resources therefore can only ever aim at facilitating human movement towards contextualisation, towards a more-effective equipping of a particular church, in a particular social context, as its proceeds onwards upon its journey of missional faithfulness and cultural encounter. This underlying conviction bears emphasising as I set out a series of key characteristics — categorised as practical, relevant or accessible — which I discerned to be applicable to a contextually-appropriate training resource capable of facilitating the equipping of Burkinabé leaders and learners for a life of scripturally based Christian discipleship.

Practical

To be practical implies a primacy of praxis: of action, disciplines, skills and drills and of practical outcomes, in terms of observable transformation. Accordingly, a discipleship resource appropriate to Burkinabé leaders and learners should:

  1. Awaken and, or strengthen Burkinabé ownership of both the opportunity and responsibility to serve God’s eternal purpose (missio Dei), within their context;
  2. Espouse practical discipleship and missional faithfulness;
  3. Be orientated towards personal, communal and cultural transformation;
  4. Facilitate training patterns that transition beyond classroom contexts, into non-formal environs, such as those of congregation, home and, or workplace;
  5. Motivate and direct the generational formation of disciples.

Relevant

To be relevant implies being appropriate in theological content, pedagogical form and literary substance. Accordingly, a discipleship resource appropriate to Burkinabé leaders and learners should:

  1. Establish a missional hermeneutic: teaching students to read Scripture missionally and missiologically;
  2. Integrate biblical theology with Pentecostal spirituality (below);
  3. Encourage contextual adaption, especially oral communication;
  4. Facilitate group discussion, reflection and Scripture memorisation;
  5. Be highly illustrated and illustrative: incorporating metaphors, diagrams, testimonies and other visual aids, wherever possible.

Accessible

To be accessible implies removing or lowering barriers that hinder practical or pedagogical access. Accordingly a discipleship resource appropriate to Burkinabé leaders and learners should:

  1. Incorporate a regulated, contextually-integrated training component;
  2. Incorporate publication of a modular series of short textbooks;
  3. Favour the economic poor, in terms of distribution and cost;
  4. Be linguistically and conceptually accessible to Burkinabé readers;
  5. Lend itself to use with oral-learners;
  6. Facilitate vernacular translation;
  7. Be free to publish under license.

Appropriate Theological Content

Within my research, qualitative data findings regarding contextually appropriate theological content harmonised significantly with inferences drawn during a review of missiological literature, leading to my conclusion that a biblically faithful, missional theology, integrated with Pentecostal spirituality and appropriate to Burkinabé contexts, should encompass not less than the following missiological content or characteristics:

  1. A holistic worldview
  2. A communal orientation
  3. A historical, missionary theology, based upon a missional hermeneutic
  4. A Hebraic, covenantal hermeneutic
  5. Theologies of biblical discipleship; suffering and overcoming; spiritual revival; intercessory prayer and spiritual power; poverty and prosperity; vocation; Christ-centred servant-leadership; cultural transformation.

Maize Plant Discipleship has been intentionally formulated to incorporate these theological and pedagogical imperatives. It is hoped to pilot the resource, during 2015, by publishing French translations of three of the seventeen handbooks that will constitute the syllabus.

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