One story is told of a medical missionary who went to reach a tribal people in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1912. After seventeen years of laboring in the mission field, he went home utterly discouraged thinking he had failed. Several decades after he died, much to their amazement, a team of missionaries discovered a network of reproducing churches where he was stationed. At the moment, some of our brothers and sisters among the least reached people groups are hit by the harsh realities of following Christ, being stripped of their dignities, and flogged for the sake of the gospel. But they are embracing suffering in the cause of making disciples (Col. 1: 24). Remembering those who are persecuted for the sake of the gospel ignites my faith to persevere in our context (Heb. 13: 3, Phils. 1: 14). How about you? What are the daily challenges you face in making disciples in your context?
Every Cultural Soil Is Hard Without the Spirit
Our context in Japan presents itself with a unique set of challenges. The Japanese are the second largest unreached people group. And discipleship is costly! Jesus left the comfort of his vast heavenly home and entered our small world to live a perfect life we could not live and died the death we should have died. Because of him, we can enter into cultures—and bring lost people into his vast Kingdom with the gospel.
If you’re called to go and make disciples in a poverty stricken area in Africa, you give up the comforts of a developed country to live according to the standards of the people. Likewise, to live as a missionary in Japan and make disciples is costly, spiritually and culturally. The cost of living also goes higher up. Some missiologists have even called it the missionary graveyard because many missionaries go home discouraged after years of sacrifice (sometimes with little to no fruit).
But when Jesus calls us to leave everything behind and follow him, he's calling us to better things than the things he has called us to leave behind. He has called us to himself first, and then to a people group—wherever that may be.
Many Unreached Places in Our Hearts
Many places are still unreached by the gospel in our hearts. Personally, my greatest struggle as a disciple maker is that I want people to believe in the gospel and grow quickly so that they can make other disciples and multiply (2 Tim. 2: 2). In this process, I often forget how slow my sanctification is. When I first came to Christ, my life changed dramatically. In a matter of few months, everything in my life turned around. Because of the unique nature of my conversion experience, I tend to expect (by default) that same kind of progress in others. But I often forget, momentarily, that I am what I am today only by God’s grace (1 Cor. 15: 10). I forget that trying to make disciples without the power of the Spirit is like trying to drive a speedboat without the engine. I cannot disciple a person, much less disciple myself, apart from prayerful reliance on the power of the Spirit (Jn 15: 5). I’ve come to realize that making disciples is more like getting into a sail boat and letting the sails up, so that when the wind (the Spirit) blows we are blown further into the sea—by the power of the wind (Jn 3: 8, Rom. 8: 14).
In our disciple-making journey, the most crucial thing to remember is that we are being discipled ourselves. We are disciple-learners before we are disciple-makers. We are constantly in need of someone to teach us. And the Spirit of Christ who lives in us teaches us about all things (Jn 14: 26). In this disciple-making journey, we must stay teachable, as the Holy Spirit has come to conform us to the image of Christ (I Cor. 3, Rom. 8: 29). Who we are becoming is as important (if not more important) as what we do. And we can rest in our hearts knowing that only Jesus can truly be Jesus to people. He must live his life in and through us (Gal. 2: 20).
As Bonhoeffer puts it:
“[Jesus] stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality. Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1:3; 1st Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2), he is the sole Mediator in the world.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In this sense, only Jesus can be Jesus to others—working in and through us.
Planting And Watering Gospel Seeds
All we can do is to plant gospel seeds in the soil of a culture and prayerfully rest in God’s Spirit to raise up disciples who look like Jesus. Take, for example, the parable of the sower of the seed (Mk 4: 1-20). The parable has no focus on the strength or skill of the sower. Surely, the sower needs some basic knowledge to cultivate the soil, plant seeds, and water it. In some cultures, it takes time to cultivate the soil. Language must be learned; relationships must be built, and communities must be formed.
Moreover, Christians must have a good reputation with outsiders (I Tim. 3:7). We must stay in the community for the long haul, becoming all things to all men to save some (I Cor. 9: 22). People’s stories must be learned well before we bring the gospel to bear on them. Spiritual strongholds must be broken down (Eph. 6, 2 Cor. 10: 4). And people need to see the gospel changing us for them to believe in the credibility of our message (I Tim. 4: 16). So disciple-making has a lot to do with faithfulness, joy, and patience—all of which are also the work of the Spirit in us (Gal. 5: 22).
But if we look carefully, it doesn’t say that the soil wasn’t producing because the sower was performing poorly. What the sower was dealing with was the type of soil in which the seeds fell into. Although some fell on the rocky ground, along the path and thorns, the parable shows us the hope of the gospel:
“Those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” — Mark 4: 20 (emphasis mine)
It doesn’t tell us how long it took, and he does not know how the seeds grew.
All the sower does is what every farmer does: “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (Mk 4: 27 emphasis mine). All of them heard the gospel, but these are hearts that have been prepared by the Spirit. The sower can improve in what he or she does, but the Spirit prepares the “good soil” and multiplies disciples. Didn’t the greatest church planter say the same thing?
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” – I Corinthians 3: 6, 7 (emphasis mine)
Therefore, we are joyful even when people take an interest in us and start to trust us. Like parents, we enjoy seeing small steps taken by our people. It's like observing a baby taking his or her first steps. We take great delight in the little progress our people make even in their attitudes, as one missionary puts it:
"Ministry joys come whenever a person moves a step closer to Jesus, whether it is learning to trust us, becoming curious about why we are here or who Jesus is, showing an openness to change, seeking after God, or actually entering the kingdom. But it takes time. And this is the challenge" – Send Missionary
Jesus said that if “a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies. . . . It bears much fruit” (Jn 12: 24). Be encouraged. Keep tilling. Sometimes, the soil must be cultivated before gospel seeds can be sown, take root, and grow. It often takes time!
Remember, the growth of the disciple is not dependent on the skill of the disciple-maker, in the same way as the growth of the seed does not depend on the ability of the farmer, but on the seed and the condition of the soil. The power is in the seed (Matt. 13: 31) and the “good soil” prepared by the Spirit. Jesus is discipling all of us by the power of the Spirit. He has commanded us to do that which only he alone can do (Matt. 28: 18, 19), so that in our disciple-making we might rely on him and he might receive the glory.
In the end, we have great hopes that just as Jesus fell to the ground, died and produced many disciples, his Spirit will work through us, and in the lives of those he has called us to disciple (Jn 15: 16).
Joey Zorina is a church planter with The Bridge Fellowship in an artistic neighborhood in Tokyo, Japan. He writes articles, essays and devotionals for Living Life, and blogs occasionally @outsidecampers and @regeneration). He asks that you please pray for them and the Japanese. You can connect with him at https://twitter.com/JoeyZorina