Learning to be an effective disciple maker while serving in Latin America has been a process of trial and error—a privilege and a challenge. Though the majority of Latinos are Catholics, many only attend Mass sporadically and have rarely, if ever, read the Bible. They may participate in religious festivals, but these festivals often contain elements foreign to biblical Christianity. It is difficult to gain a biblical understanding of Jesus and salvation within this religious context.
I have found that teaching the truths about Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the most helpful way to begin making disciples among Latin Americans.
Concentrate Early Discipleship on the Gospels
When I first started out in missions, my disciple making efforts centered on teaching doctrine, but I found that this method was not the best way to start making disciples. The issue was not the teaching of doctrine but how I taught doctrine. Making multiple propositional statements about doctrinal issues did not prove to be effective because the statements were divorced from the biblical context.
Latin Americans do not connect with statements; they connect with stories. So I began teaching them the stories of Jesus in the four gospels. Through this, I realized that I was, indirectly, teaching them doctrine as well.
“I have found that teaching the truths about Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the most helpful way to begin making disciples among Latin Americans.”
One aspect of Jesus’s call to make disciples in Matthew 28:18–20 is to teach all people to observe everything he commanded. If you teach others what Scripture says, they will know what he commands. Furthermore, by starting with the four gospels, Latin American Catholics will better grasp the true meaning of Jesus’s birth, life, and resurrection.
The Gospels also speak to common fears and superstitions among Latin Americans. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John illustrate Jesus’s dominion over the elements, providing relief to peoples who fear the effects of floods, hailstorms, or earthquakes. Jesus, having conquered death, gives hope to Latinos that are obsessed with and terrified of death. The gospels help them understand that if they repent and believe in Jesus, they, too, will conquer death.
Many in Latin America are prone to devotional pluralism, placing their faith in Jesus, Mary, the saints, or whatever else works for them. But if you immerse them in the Gospels, they will discover that God himself cried out, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7 CSB), and that Jesus’s mother, Mary, told others, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5 CSB). In this way, the Holy Spirit can empower them to see that Jesus alone is wholly satisfying and sufficient to meet every spiritual need.
Tailor Discipleship Methods to Your Audience
If you are convinced to begin discipleship by teaching the Gospels, you must then decide the method you will use. The knowledge you pass on to others in the process of discipleship has the potential to transform individuals, villages, cities, and whole societies. Therefore, communicating this transformative knowledge must be taken up with the utmost care and seriousness.
Those who make disciples must ensure that what the hearers receive is immediately understandable and applicable. Jesus modified the way he discipled and taught others based on context. In the synagogue, he taught from scrolls (Luke 4:17). On other occasions, he taught using parables and stories (Mark 4:34). He discipled in ways that made the most sense to his hearers. As people called to make disciples, we must teach in ways that are most appropriate to the ones receiving teaching, not in ways that we enjoy most.
One of my first errors early on was to teach in ways that best suited my own gifts and preferences rather than a way that would penetrate the hearts of the people I was teaching. The indigenous group I worked with did not read or write well. I knew they would benefit from oral methods of Bible teaching, but since I was uncomfortable with these methods, I chose the path of least resistance and was less effective for it.
“One of my first errors early on was to teach in ways that best suited my own gifts and preferences rather than a way that would penetrate the hearts of the people I was teaching.”
I finally invited an IMB missionary couple to train our team in Bible storying and decided to give it a try as we worked to make disciples in Latin America. Our people group loved it and were much more enthusiastic about learning and even sharing God’s Word to others.
Commit to Long-Term Discipleship
In Latin America, nothing happens very quickly. This is true whether you are trying to renew your driver’s license or you are waiting in line at the bank to pay a bill. All of life flows at a much slower rhythm and pace than you find in the States. In all things, you must be patient—including discipleship efforts.
In an ideal situation, the worldview of those we disciple would quickly be replaced by a biblical worldview. But Jesus’s command to follow him is not so easily obeyed when the people have spent centuries following religious tradition, family, and even the world. If the disciples who walked with Jesus didn’t quite get it after three years of learning directly from the Master, how much longer might it take the people with whom we work? The missionary must be patient and extend copious amounts of grace to those he disciples.
It is important to realize the people you disciple should not be viewed as a means to accomplish your goals or strategies. If you view them in this way, you will not take the necessary amount of time needed to lead people from where they are to where the Lord wishes them to be. The goal of discipleship is first to see people come to know Christ and then to lead them to increasingly become like Christ. Through this heart change, God will work through them, using them in his mission. This takes time and patience.
In the megacity where I serve, on average it is taking upwards of two years to truly see a significant change in the people I am discipling. At first, I was frustrated with this pace, but what a joy it has been to see God tangibly at work changing lives. Seeing lives changed has been worth the wait.