On a cool Sunday afternoon in early spring, I sat conversing over a glass of tea with a handful of Central Asian brothers and sisters following our worship gathering. A new believer named Alp* asked how, once we become believers, we are able to resist temptation more than before our conversion. Alp had recently confided to me his ongoing fight to resist pornography, and I sensed that struggle informing his question.
I responded by reminding him about how Jesus resisted temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4. Jesus relied on the Word of God to resist temptation. So, like Jesus, we commit to spending time hearing, reading, and meditating on God’s Word. We show our dependence on him in prayer. We rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives inside us, to strengthen us.
Alp perked up at my mention of the Holy Spirit. I explained that the Spirit lives inside us, strengthening us to do what we can’t do in our own strength—obey God and resist temptation. The Bible says in Romans 8:10, “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (ESV).
Alp’s expression transformed into one of discovery as if he had just pressed against the unlatched door of a dark vault, allowing sunlight to spill on a cache of golden treasures. I love watching that expression, the one that comes when the Spirit gives understanding.
In my conversation with Alp, several key principles of disciple making intersect, principles especially important in our Central Asian context. First, Alp realized the most fundamental truth about being a disciple and, consequently, about making disciples: it is foremost a work of transformation wrought by the Spirit of the living God.
“Christian obedience is an obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5) that issues forth from lives transformed by the gospel.”
Missionaries are often on the lookout for the latest tool that will unlock the secret to effective disciple making, but before we trust ourselves to a particular method, we must trust ourselves to the power of God’s Spirit to accomplish what only he can. The apostle Paul offered a model for Spirit-empowered disciple making, regularly requesting that churches pray for his ministry efforts (Eph. 6:19–20; Col. 4:2–4; 2 Thess. 3:1), as well as intentionally downplaying his own wisdom and ingenuity (1 Cor. 2:1–5).
Correlated with the Spirit’s empowerment, disciple making must be based on gospel realities. Believers from a Muslim background often seem programmed to understand religion as transactional. They want religion explained to them in terms of what they are to do, not who they are to be. Central Asian Muslims secure Allah’s acceptance by acquiring sevap, or “merit,” through acts of obedient submission such as almsgiving, fasting, and ritual prayer.
I remember a new believer shouting to me excitedly following his baptism, “I’m finally a Christian now!” despite having received significant teaching about the gospel prior to baptism. Though I affirmed his joyful sentiment, I gently reminded him that he became a Christian when the Spirit of God had caused him to be born again. Disciple makers in contexts like Central Asia must be careful to confront this deep-rooted propensity toward works-righteousness with the grace of God in the gospel of Christ.
Obedience of Faith
To be sure, disciple making means teaching obedience to the Word of God. The order of emphasis is crucial, however. Gospel obedience flows from gospel transformation. Rather than an obedience of duty, Christian obedience is an obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5) that issues forth from lives transformed by the gospel.
The gospel transforms the hearts of disciples as the Spirit indwells their lives. It transforms their minds as they look at the world with spiritual eyes, their affections as they trade their fleshly desires for godly ones, their wills as they live obedient to Christ’s commands, their relationships as they love and serve even their enemies, and their purpose as they live to proclaim to others the excellencies of the One who has called them out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9).
Our disciple making in Central Asia, therefore, strives for a balance with the head, the heart, and the hands—that is, with knowing, being, and doing. Paul modeled this balance in the structure of his letters when he began by expounding on the riches of the gospel, continued by explaining the transformation the gospel brings into disciples’ lives, and concluded by exhorting disciples to live in a manner congruent with gospel transformation.
All Scripture Is Profitable for Disciple Making
Simplicity in disciple making is a worthy objective but not an ultimate one. It will not do to reduce disciple making to a few biblical commands or passages. Disciple making requires taking care to teach all that Jesus commanded, meaning the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Or to paraphrase 2 Timothy 3:16–17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for” disciple making (ESV, emphasis added). Paul referenced his effort to teach this “whole counsel” in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20). Though it seems doubtful he would have had the opportunity to offer a verse-by-verse explanation of the entire Old Testament during his three years in Ephesus, Paul likely meant that he sought to teach the fullness of God’s revelation.
Emre*, a faithful Central Asian disciple maker, loves to share how God brought him to faith through the Old Testament. Though he had been reading a New Testament he received from a missionary off-and-on for several years, God used a missionary teaching him the Old Testament to open his eyes to the truth of the gospel.
Many Central Asian Muslims are familiar with the stories of prophets such as Abraham, Elijah, and David, but their understanding of these narratives is obscured by distortions introduced through the Qu’ran and the Hadith (authoritative teachings supposedly given by Muhammad). When Emre saw the true accounts of these prophets in the text of Scripture and learned how they point forward to Jesus, he professed faith in Christ. Even today, Emre uses Matthew’s genealogy as the lynchpin in his gospel explanation, showing how the prophets of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in Christ.
In my highly literate Central Asian context, complete with an accessible translation of the Bible, using all of Scripture is admittedly almost as easily done as said. Even in less literate contexts, however, disciple makers can strive to uncover what it means to make disciples using all of Scripture, whether through Bible storying, oral Scripture memorization, Scripture translations, or literacy initiatives.
The Centrality of the Local Church
Finally, disciple making occurs within the local church, the theater for the display of gospel transformation. In Ephesians 4:15–16, Paul described the role of the local church in forming disciples, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (ESV, emphasis added). According to the passage, the body serves as both the subject and the object of spiritual formation as the “whole body . . . makes the body grow.”
“The church—the community formed by the gospel—plays an especially important role in the spiritual growth of Central Asian believers, many of whom find themselves ostracized from other forms of community.”
The church—the community formed by the gospel—plays an especially important role in the spiritual growth of Central Asian believers, many of whom find themselves ostracized from other forms of community. Unless an entire network of relationships comes to faith at once, Central Asian believers can experience abandonment by friends and family, loss of employment, and even more extreme forms of persecution. A very large percentage decides the pressures are too great and return to Islam to appease family and friends. Unhealthy churches composed of believers with a weak commitment to one another offer little to compensate for this loss of community and even less to spur believers on to the spiritual maturity Paul described.
In our Central Asian context, we strive to make national disciples who live committed to one another in covenanted community and express gospel obedience by living out the New Testament’s “one another” commands. We want disciples who hold one another accountable for cultivating the spiritual disciplines. We strive to raise up believers who gather around the Word of God to teach, exhort, and correct one another in light of unique Central Asian concerns. We make disciples who make disciples as they travel throughout the region alongside more mature disciples learning to explain the gospel to others and to gather new believers into churches; and who, as they do these things, rely on the power of God’s Spirit to transform people through the gospel.