Around the World: Disciple Making in Sub-Saharan Africa

The number of rickety, paint-worn bicycles leaning against the rough tree shouted the harsh realities of those who had traveled long, dusty distances to attend an oral Bible story training. For three heat-wilting days under a sun-scorched tin roof, we taught Scripture stories using oral methodologies and sent the participating church leaders into the community to retell the stories they had learned.

During these seminars, the participants learn and internalize a Bible story, which is followed by the presenter posing questions pertaining to the story. One question is, “What have you learned from this story?” After working through the temptation story from Matthew 4:1–11, one young man in the sweaty crowd responded, “I’ve learned from this story that Satan knows God’s Word but isn’t obedient.” Later, my husband, Jeff, posed a reflective question based on this man’s observation. “If we know God’s Word and are not obedient, who do we resemble?” This interchange powerfully imbedded into our hearts a foundational factor to discipleship: obedience.

Disciple Making Requires Obedience

Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey . . . .” (Matt. 28:18–20 NIV, emphasis mine). Obedience is a critical component of discipleship. Discipleship without obedience to Christ misses the mark of biblical knowledge that transforms us to be like Christ. Disciples obey the Master. Knowing God’s Word does not make a person a disciple. Obedience to God’s Word is a natural outflow of a disciple who has surrendered their life to the Lord. Obedience is essential to being in Christ. It is not optional. God accepts nothing less (John 3:36; Acts 5:32; Heb. 3:18–19; 5:9; John 14:15).

“Discipleship without obedience to Christ misses the mark of biblical knowledge that transforms us to be like Christ.”

We and our IMB colleagues in Kinshasa, DRC, are not interested in generating men and women who simply prayed a prayer of confession and occupy a church bench. We desire to construct a kingdom work of those who love Christ and are obediently following him, those living an obedient lifestyle of intentionally, daily sharing Christ. To this end, we engage in two styles of discipleship: pouring ourselves into those in the inner circle who will gradually replace us, and training groups who reproduce what they’ve learned.

With the inner circle, we share raw life—laughing, crying, and praying together. These precious believers participate in a Model, Assist, Watch, Lead (MAWL) mentorship. Some minister with us in training church leaders through orality-story seminars. Others lead with our IMB colleagues in training small teams of Christians from Bibleless peoples how to craft Bible stories in their own language. As expediently as possible, we missionaries melt into the background while encouraging our African partners to lead.

Using Oral Methodology

Whether discipleship takes place in a weekly, small, mentorship group or in an intensive large group setting, each context contains significant factors. The methodology is oral. Oral preference people learn best through stories. When the presenter teaches a Scripture story orally without using notes and encourages the participants’ use of other oral elements (drama, singing the story, dancing, chanting) the story affects the participants’ core being, speaks God’s truth to their worldview, and opens a pathway for life transformation to occur.

Oral people struggle to understand and retain non-oral teachings. Non-oral teaching is not internalized. They do not “hear.” Hearing is imperative for faith (Rom. 10:17). Story-based learners “hear” when taught the way they learn best, through the oral process.

The discipleship is participant response driven—learner-driven—rather than taught through lecture. The presenter simply asks the participants questions pertaining to the Bible story. The participants respond with the biblical truths God reveals to them. The presenter always asks, “What have you learned from this story that you need to repent of, and what is God’s directive that you need to obey?” The responses must begin with, “I.” Honest confession brings revival.

“We desire to construct a kingdom work of those who love Christ and are obediently following him, those living an obedient lifestyle of intentionally, daily sharing Christ.”

During an oral leaders’ conference based on the stories of David, in a paintless, dirt-floored, cinderblock church, the trainers taught the story of David and Bathsheba. Some church leaders stood and confessed hidden sin such as, “I look at pornography on my phone.” God revealed individual sin through a Bible story. Hearts were broken and repentant. Those publicly confessing decided on steps to avoid the recurring sin, and each confessor was appointed an accountability partner.

Confess and obey.

Making Disciples Who Make Disciples

The final question in our story-based training is always, “Who are you going to tell the story to?” Again, obedience. The participants name specific people with whom they intend to communicate the story. Anyone who returns to the small group or seminar without having shared the story is promptly sent out again, even if he holds a leadership position. A person must diligently keep his promise to witness or he need not participate until he does. We cannot expect others to obey to Christ if we are not obedient ourselves. We cannot train disciples if we are not obedient disciples. Christ demands obedience.

The testimonies shared by those who tell the stories they’ve learned are vibrantly exciting as people’s lives are deeply impacted by God’s stories!

In the final step, the discipled becoming the disciplers—those who go to their congregations, to family, friends, and the unreached, to reproduce this same training which expects obedient application and retelling. From the blind, to children, to market mamas, to the professionally trained, the story enables all to proclaim Jesus. In four years, the replicating nature of disciple making has resulted in thousands of people repenting of sin and proclaiming Christ as Lord.

Disciples obey the Master. If we know God’s Word and are not obedient, who do we resemble?

Barbara Singerman and her husband, Jeff, were appointed to the IMB December 12, 1989. After language school in France, they lived twenty-four years in the Republic of Benin. They served in various roles, from working with the nation’s youth, church planting among unengaged, unreached peoples and relating to French West Africa Baptist leaders. In obedience to God’s call, they moved to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2015, to reopen IMB work in central Africa. Barbara is the author of Beyond Surrender.