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Into the Deep

Reflections on Discipleship in China


Those who serve their generation are like the sailors that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters. But it is these, not those who play in the shallows, who see the works of the Lord and the wonders in the deep. Is not that worthwhile?   --Amy Carmichael in His Father Said

Since becoming a follower of Jesus, I have been graced with brothers and sisters who have walked alongside me at various times and in diverse capacities. I can still recall the anxiety I felt as a senior in college when I led a group of sophomore women in a Bible study. Since those days, discipling others in the faith has become a passionate way of life.

Recently, while reviewing an article, I raised my eyebrows at the discovery that the Chinese word for “mentoring” had been translated 指导. I brought this to the attention of the group of ten sisters whom I have been discipling for almost two years and asked them what they thought of this word. Nan, a young believer, shook her head and crumpled her nose. “That reminds me of my uncle who’s a member of the CCP. He called me the other day and was telling me what to do to advance my career.” Susanna nodded her head in agreement and added, “Yes. This is usually a relationship in which a person with a higher rank gives instruction to a person of lower rank.” I was bemused and horrified at the same time. We unpacked the concepts of mentoring and discipleship together, looking at different Chinese words to express this relationship of mutual trust and walking together. I shared with them the fact that a mentor can learn from her mentees too. I also shared the term “peer mentoring” with them. Most of these concepts were new to them.

Some of Christ’s beloved daughters in China have given me the privilege of going “into the deep” with them. The following stories[i] are their stories of continuing spiritual formation. While many of the themes are universal, I have tried to highlight some themes that keep coming to my attention in China.

 Sylvia: “Granted all things”

Sylvia greeted me cordially when I entered the apartment she shared with Priscilla, her best friend and a prominent leader in the Christian community. Priscilla had shared with me her worries about Sylvia, who had “served fervently” in the local church for many years after she made a decision to follow Jesus in her early 20s. Now that Sylvia was almost 40 years old and still single, she had expressed bitterness and despair to Priscilla and had stopped going to fellowship altogether. We invited her to the women’s life formation group that was starting up.

Sylvia came almost every week but was silent during most of the studies. Her pixie-face, framed by waves of black hair, attentively took in the words and behavior around her. I make an effort to meet with each sister individually and pray for them. When Sylvia and I had our first conversation, she shared with me how she had decided to follow Jesus after hearing the gospel; soon after she had been asked by the leaders of her house church to lead in various ways. She threw herself into church activities and was often up front leading musical worship. With startling insight, she admitted that she had not truly understood the way of the cross but had probably wanted something from God that she had not been given (i.e. marriage). She had not felt understood by other brothers and sisters in the community and had distanced herself, eventually avoiding fellowship altogether. She also doubted that she was even a believer anymore.

In the weeks and months that ensued, Sylvia continued to participate in the women’s group. Occasionally, I met with her individually. We unpacked the gospel together, bit by bit, verse by verse. Often, she would say, “I know all this already!” I would gently challenge her, “You know in your head, but do you know in your heart?” We talked about the movement between the head and the heart and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Eventually, after several invitations, Sylvia agreed to start going with me to a local church. She still refused to go back to her previous fellowship. Each week, we met outside her apartment complex and walked there together. She would sit through the service and leave, uninterested in small groups or Sunday school. We walked and talked—and prayed too. I asked her what she had been thankful for during the week, and we often talked about the morning message.

One Sunday afternoon, we opened to 2 Peter 1:3-10. In a moment of Spirit-given insight, Sylvia realized that there was a context to verse 5. Our efforts are couched within the fact that Christ has already “granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” This phenomenal assurance was something that had been overlooked in her life as a believer, resulting in a dependence on works and performance, which eventually led to exhaustion. Sylvia sat in silence, and while I led her in a prayer of confession and repentance, she cried. She cried out her need to Jesus and came one step closer to knowing the true meaning of the gospel.

Sylvia’s story is not uncommon. So many women (and men) that  I have met do not have a clear understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and end up relying on outward performance until exhaustion and disillusionment set in. How often I have “preached the gospel” to believers here! Sylvia’s struggles with singleness, especially the shame and intense pressure from society and family, have been a unique cross for many Chinese sisters.

Carmen: “No more shame”

Shaming is a culturally appropriate way to discipline children in China. Carmen grew up in an environment where her mother would make fun of her body weight and physical appearance, even calling her “ugly.” Carmen gave her life to Jesus in 2009, responding to Jesus’ amazing love and acceptance. He removed the guilt and shame of sin from her life, and she was literally born again.

Carmen and I met weekly for basic follow-up studies on what it meant to be a newborn in Christ. Like a sponge, she eagerly soaked up the word of God. After almost a year of meeting individually, when the women’s group was set up, I invited Carmen to join.

In the challenges of relating to her parents as an adult, first as a single woman and then as a married one, Carmen realized that her growth as a believer resembled more of an upward spiral than a rocket launch. Since she and I also work together, there have been many opportunities to pour into her life professionally as well. One day, when I challenged her to take a new responsibility, her automatic response was an emphatic, “I can’t! (我不行!)” Later on, when I had an opportunity to ask her about her response, she shared that she struggled with a deep-seated fear of failure. If given a new challenge, she feared that she would not be able to successfully complete the task, thereby evoking disappointment from others. She began to realize that her fears were rooted in the parent-child relationship as well as in the culture. We prayed together and committed these fears to the Lord.

When Priscilla asked me to lead a small women’s group focused on life transformation, I refused to be called the “small group leader.” Instead, I shared with these sisters that I would mentor them as we each took turns leading the discussions. Immediately, there were exclamations echoing what Carmen had said: “No way! I can’t lead!” “I don’t know enough!” “I’m not trained!” Voices of protest paired up with fearful faces to confront me, and I was tempted to back down. I was also tempted to go down the alluring path of pride and ego-stroking as they looked to me to offer the “expert” first or last word during a study. By God’s grace, I avoided that path as much as possible. Culturally, the “expert mentality” has permeated every sector of society, including, sadly, the church. Mentors are rare, but those who want to form disciples of Christ, not disciples of themselves, are even more uncommon. Mentors who open up their lives and homes to young believers as a “school for discipleship” rather than relying on mass meetings or “trainings” are uncommon.

Beatrice: “All of me”

Beatrice is an accomplished teacher, wife, and mother. She has a sparkling personality and energetic persona that hide the scars of a past marred by abuse, suicide attempts, addictions, and violent conflicts at home. Since meeting Jesus, Beatrice’s life has been changed, and she is now in the process of discovering what it means to go deeper with Jesus. I marveled the first time I saw her lead a small group at her home. Miracles were evident in her home in the very fact that her husband (with whom she had almost gotten a divorce) and mother (with whom she had had so many conflicts in the past) were both present and participating in the study!

As she walked with me down the street and I guided my bike around potholes, we would debrief the evening, and I would start by encouraging her with all the positive areas that I had observed. She nodded, and then somewhat impatiently asked, “But what can I do better?”

Carmen and Beatrice, as well as so many of the women I meet, want to skip the positives and get to the “areas of improvement.” Carmen once said that she was not used to hearing praise and thought there was not much to learn from it. Beatrice had not realized that she was not even really listening to the positives—they seemed to just roll over her.

The more Beatrice starts to disciple others in their walk with the Lord, the more she realizes that she too is called to go deeper with Jesus. She is starting to recognize her fears of intimacy with Jesus, that she feels safer to be doing things for him, rather than just being with him. As we engage in the disciplines of solitude and silence, Beatrice (and Sylvia and Carmen too) are starting to understand that he wants all of us.

A Long Obedience

I love Eugene Peterson’s description of a life of following Jesus: a long obedience in the same direction. On this journey with Chinese sisters, I find myself leaning heavily on our master, who lived out true humility. More often than not, my attempts have been blundering ones rather than smooth “best practices.” In order to challenge the “expert mentality,” I pray for appropriate self-disclosure, sharing examples from my inner struggles. I also continue to refuse the spotlight as much as possible, choosing to take someone with me when I teach or mentor to teach them as well. In order to avoid individualism in the faith journey and decrease dependence on the foreigner, I try to bring each sister into relationships with others and meet with them together. In order to challenge the “I’m not good enough/able” mentality, I pepper these ladies with encouragement but also just sit with them as they cry. Together we come into his presence with feelings of inadequacy and shame, allowing him to speak and soothe. Leading by example, inviting others into my home, and noticing how my behavior is observed in the workplace are all reminders for me that our very lives reveal much more than our words. Whether the journey of discipleship is likened to an arduous hike or a foray into great waters, may mentors who are willing to go into the deep with others continue to be called and enabled by the Lord of the harvest to see his great works and wonders in China and all over the world.

 

[i] While the stories related in this article are true, all names are fictional to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned.

Photo Credit: Conversation between women by Matteo Damiani, on Flickr