Multiplying Discipleship in Cross-cultural Contexts

After my cross-cultural experiences of fifteen years on African mission fields, my research on successful cross-cultural discipleship stretched further. Like other missionaries in their first terms, my early years of missionary work in Kenya had a series of disappointments and discouragements.

My greatest struggle was to identify a practical methodology of cross-cultural discipleship. After experiencing frustrating results in church planting and cross-cultural mission while working with a traditional Bible school in Nairobi, we changed our strategy to a discipleship-based Bible training center. This experience has convinced me that cross-cultural discipleship should focus more on people than on any other issue.

Charles Kraft has plainly pointed this out: “As cross-cultural workers, our aim is first to understand the people to whom we go” (emphasis mine).1 The Great Commission is about making local disciples of different nationals by reaching out to them. In other words, the disciple-making effort holds an integral part of any type of missionary work. It also assumes that making disciples in cross-cultural settings may be one of the most critical ministries that the Church of Jesus Christ faces today.

I came to believe that a missionary’s disciple-making efforts must be duplicated and multiplied no matter what types of work he or she may be involved in on the field. The Old Testament is about perversion and preservation of God’s will, plan, and message. The New Testament is about provision and propagation of the same. For the methodology of that propagation, God chose a channel of discipleship that multiplied and grew as shown in Jesus’ model of discipling the Twelve.

Second Timothy 2:2 demonstrates that this biblical chain of discipleship propagates by giving birth to spiritual children, grandchildren, and beyond: “And the things you [Timothy] have heard me [Paul] say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men [Timothy’s disciples] who will also be qualified to teach others [disciples of Timothy’s disciples].” It also lies at the very heart of Great Commission: “… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you …” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Three Rules in Producing Local Disciples
I have observed that this multiplicative practice requires that missionaries follow three fundamental rules in order to effectively produce local disciples in a reproduction cycle. Before anything, a missionary has to be localized while still imitating Christ’s lifestyle in perseverance. Only then can the missionary produce sound local leaders. This produces local leaders converting and guiding other local people.

Cross-cultural disciple-makers should consider the following elements in their attempt to carry out this imperative task of discipleship.

  1. The incarnate ministry style must be embraced by the missionary. Cross-cultural workers should experience the homogenization in their perception of local concepts, in their interpersonal relationships with local people and fellow missionaries, and in their effort to adapt to the local economy and standard of living. They will need to try to become one of them not just by theory but in lifestyle.
  2. Missionaries should consider the ministry foundation of the person being discipled. The parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-9 exemplifies four different kinds of ministry foundations of gospel workers. The text defines those foundations as “soils.” A farmer (representing the Lord) goes out to sow his seed (representing the word). All of God’s works begin with the word. Therefore, the instructions of God’s word and teachable ears to take heed of them are crucial factors to make genuine disciples in a cross-cultural environment. A disciple without the foundation of the word of encouragement and exhortation may deteriorate to the first three categories: seeds fallen along the path (no decency), on rocky places (no maturity), or among thorns (no wholesomeness).

    Only local disciples nurtured well in exemplary teachings of God’s word can produce other disciples who are likewise grounded on “good” soil in the long run. Although an equal training opportunity may be given to all, only the ones with fit foundations will excel. Hence, it is a missionary mentor’s obligation to pray for God’s blessings and wisdom to find and discern those with good soil on the mission field.

  3. An effective administrative system for indigenous expansions should be prepared. My research confirms that an effective administration for natural, indigenous expansion is needed for successful multiplication of cross-cultural discipleship. In fact, we’ve witnessed it penetrating deeper and further when the cross-cultural discipling effort is backed by a sensible administration for self-propaganda and indigenous expansions.

Building a Network of Impact-makers
At the Evangelical Alliance for Preacher Training & Commission (EAPTC), we’ve seen these principles at work. Because they work, we have seen a giant family tree of disciples (and their churches, schools, and projects) built. A missionary teaches a group of local leaders who then duplicate the same propaganda elsewhere. The missionary works with a number of growing, interdependent, local disciples—most of whom have their own disciples (and their churches, schools, and projects)—and a network of disciples (and their churches, schools, and projects) eventually covers Africa.

There is not just one central point giving life to the rest or controlling all, but a network of interdependent hubs, each linked to Christ and loosely to one another, each giving birth to its own new daughters that in turn give birth to their own granddaughters.2 In case any link fails or a missionary withdraws from the field, the network will still recover and continue to move onward.

Thus, a close observer of our mission once commented, “EAPTC in Africa is like the Alpha movement in the U.K.…opening more churches and schools of their own mothers, daughters, and granddaughters.” Thanks to this biblical, administrative system for indigenous expansions, our work in Africa is envisioning ten thousand new churches and Bible training schools across the continent, and we trust we are well on the way by God’s grace.

Same Kind, Less Friction
Application of this principle also gave us the advantage by avoiding unnecessary mistakes in dealing with unfamiliar African cultures. In the process, I also learned another great principle of what I call, “same kind, less friction.” Over the years in my disciple-making efforts of Kenyan church leaders, I found that the same kind causes less friction in every areas of life, including cross-cultural ministry.

Oftentimes, I had to encounter situations whereby I had to challenge ungodly practices that existed in certain African customs. I confronted them again and again, yet the response was considerably low. Later, I happened to notice that when the same challenge was given by one of my disciples who originated from the same tribal background as those practicing the unsound rituals, his remarks were taken more seriously and ultimately helped them replace such rituals with godly practices. I experienced similar situations time and time again. Simply put, homogeneity causes less friction when confronting the local people.

Let me give an analogy. Skillful carpenters know how not to leave ugly hammer marks on a timber when they are nailing. When a nail is almost inserted in the timber, they place a piece of extra timber on the top of the nail and hammer on that instead of hitting the nail directly. Carpenters know that the timber absorbs a shock and therefore leaves no mark. Our Lord Jesus, once a carpenter himself, knew this and probably wanted to teach us the same principle so we might be more prudent witnesses to the ends of the earth.

This leads us to another significant reason why a missionary must try to make disciples in whatever type of work he or she may do on the field. Disciples made among the local people can, and will, penetrate their own cultures and influence the lives and communities more efficiently than missionaries.

After all, a missionary should expect to see God’s glory through the maturity and success of his or her local disciples. No wonder Jesus, the greatest missionary of all times, gave this peerless mission strategy to his body that is following his footsteps: “…make disciples of all nations…” He knew what he was talking about. Isn’t it time that we go back to and seriously consider in our missionary endeavors the multiplicative example of discipleship that our Lord himself, the best cross-cultural disciple-maker, has personally set for us?


1. Kraft, Charles. 1996. Anthropology for Christian Witness. New York: Orbis Books.

2. For related discussions on this topic, see “More Time with Les and Pilar.” Accessed August 31, 2010 from

Rev. Paul Sungro Lee, a Korean American missionary to Kenya, is Africa director of the Evangelical Alliance for Preacher Training & Commission, overseeing numerous Bible training centers, kindergartens, and local churches in seven African countries. He has served as a pastor and written a number of articles for different mission magazines.