Debby Thomas, Missionary, Rwanda, Africa

Summary: This article presents a portrayal of discipleship within the Rwandan cultural in Rwanda, Africa.

Here in Rwanda we are part of a pre-modern culture. We very much like modern culture, and are striving to become more modern yet we are in many ways even now pre-modern. Nevertheless, there is also an aspect of being a Christian culture, people are very open to Christianity and speak openly about their relationship to God. So in regard to discipleship, my challenge is not one of a post modern culture but rather considering the challenges inherent in the process of discipleship within the context of a pre-modern Rwanda.

Describing the challenges

Presently, discipleship is weak in my church in Rwanda and I also observe the same difficulties in other churches. I consider there are a number of causes for this. Foremost, the model that has been used to plant churches in Rwanda is a western one. Generally, the churches here are building centered and pastor centered. Services follow the general pattern of services in the West with prayer, music, sermons and testimonies, but each part is much longer here and is done in an African way. Also, in this western church model there is not a considerable emphasis on discipleship, but rather on the pastor as a caretaker model.

Consequently, members attend church, many are involved in a choir, and some become leaders. Also, Bible studies and all night prayer meetings are very common. Yet, there is usually a need to have an apt leader for these events who really knows the Bible, and is recognized as a leader in the church. Equipped leaders are hard to come by and we always have a leadership shortage in our churches.

Acknowledging our challenges, we have tried forms of discipleship that are used in the United States and have been disappointed. We implemented one very simple discipleship method that was created for Africa. It consisted of 16 lessons, each one typed out on one piece of paper folded like a booklet. The information was exceptional, the method was outstanding yet, it didn’t take off. Primarily, the churches cannot afford to photocopy the materials. The $1.50 that it cost for one set of discipleship materials is far beyond the means of the church or the disciple in most instances. Additionally, many cannot read and many who can are reading at a very simple level that creates difficulty in understanding the written material. Lastly, is the fact that there is not much literature available in Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda) and people here are not very proficient in using written material other than the Bible.

Another challenge is that in this culture the form of learning at school is very much by rote, reflecting how and or putting into practice the materials studied is not encouraged. Therefore, most adults here in Rwanda have never been guided to think for themselves nor have they been challenged to use their knowledge to solve problems.

Therefore, classroom learning is seen as an exercise in memorization, not something that can be put to use. We have had many seminars for pastors and Christians that are extensive with useful, helpful information, but they go back to their churches and do not apply any of it. Any form of discipleship that is to be put into effect will have to implement a direct link between learning and doing.

Responses to challenges

Despite the many challenges to discipleship in Rwanda, I think the Rwandan culture is set up perfectly for discipleship. People live very open community lives. They walk to the market almost daily, go fetch water daily, and are generally always together with people. A natural form of discipleship, one that focuses on being together, having discussions together, doing ministry together, fetching water, going to market, cooking, etc. would be an easy and natural way to go about discipleship. People have time and are open to friendships through the real life actions of everyday activities. Using the natural rhythms of life for discipleship would help any teaching that is done to be applied directly to the lives of the disciples making the information more easily acted on and put to use rather than stored away as head knowledge only.

Believers who are taught to study the word together with those in their neighborhood (versus only hearing it from pastors), who reach out to non-Christians and those in need around them, who are actively involved as a Christian in the goings on of the neighborhood are more likely to show the marks of a true disciple.

Ministry solutions

What we are presently doing with our church leaders education is relating the classroom work fervently to their work in the church. They study for two weeks in the classroom and are given assignments to practice what they have learned in the church environment. They are then evaluated by the pastors on the level of success of putting the information into practice. I do not consider that we need to completely abandon classroom methods in Rwanda, but we cannot rely on them as our primary resource for forming disciples. Any classroom learning must be strongly and directly connected to ministry for the classroom teaching to have any effect on our leaders.

Cultivating discipleship in Rwanda

As disciple makers and disciples it will be most effective to be out with and among the people recognizing that our biggest impact in their lives will be through having real life experiences together. Walking through everyday occurrences with our disciples will give them a concrete example of how the Christian life is lived out. It is also a very natural way for Rwandans to disciple other Rwandans in their cultural context.

I am convinced that we will not see a healthy, growing, church that is reaching out to the lost until we are able to disciple on a deeper level. Real life transformation that takes place in the discipleship process is essential before Christians are able to truly become a new creation and lead others towards God. I believe that by bearing in mind the responses and principles put forth, we will be preparing the soil for cultivation and making way for the Holy Spirit to work freely in the lives of our Rwandan believers and church members.

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April–June, 2007

Discipleship