Unreached Network

Discipleship in Turkey

Discipleship in Turkey by Kayra Akpınar 

These notes are taken from a seminar that Kayra presented for the ‘Unreached Conference: The Peacebuilding Imperative’. You can listen to Kayra’s seminar here or watch it here

I will be sharing some observations and thoughts about discipleship in Turkey, these may not  be unique to us, but perhaps some things are more easily visible in our situation and I pray  that God will have something for you in what I share. 

I would like to first briefly mention some pitfalls in this area and ministry in general really,  that aren’t helpful and then offer some hopefully helpful thoughts in regards to our context. 

Because the Turkish church is so young-essentially around 50yrs- and because there are so  many well-meaning voices and opinions about how to go about church and discipleship  there tends to be the urge to find ‘the one right way’. Often there seems to be the notion of  trying to find the right formula to convert people, disciple, get them serving and keep them  in the church. I think this is a pretty unhelpful and unhealthy way of approaching things.  Because, ultimately there is no formula. There is no magic prayer. There is no God-ordained  amount of time or style. 

And I think tied into this problem is the issue of the pressure to produce. I think especially  for brothers and sisters from abroad, the pressure felt by them to be able to report back on  what God is doing, the pressure for ministries here to report back to those funding them  quoting numbers and results etc. create a false pressure to produce disciples quickly which  eventually backfires. It creates a hopping from technique to technique because desired  results weren’t reached quickly, or even worse people are assumed to be discipled, trained  and commissioned before real maturity is formed.  

More recently interest in training in biblical scholarship has increased which may seem  encouraging in some aspects but my fear is that knowledge is being put before character and  we will just see a new version of people being thought to be discipled when it’s actually at a  superficial level. Knowledge can happen fairly quickly but character takes time. 

So what I want to talk about today is the need for digging deep. As I was trying to organise  my thoughts about what to share the 2 parables that kept coming to mind were the one  about the wise and foolish builders and the parable of the soils. So if it’s ok, I’m going to  merge these 2 parables a bit to share what I believe are some key elements to discipleship  here. 

We all know well the parable from Matthew 7:24-27, it’s very short, a fun Sunday school  lesson, where Jesus says that those who listen and do what he says (after the sermon on the  mount) are like the wise person who digs deep, makes a firm foundation and then builds a  house. But those who don’t listen and put into practice are like the foolish person who just  builds straight onto the land without digging a foundation. 

I believe the greatest need we have in discipleship is to allow and accommodate a time of  digging deep. And this goes against all 3 of those urges/pitfalls I mentioned at the beginning. 

  • The desire to find the magic formula,  
  • the sense of urgency and  
  • the ease of staying in the realm of biblical training rather than getting into messy  character stuff. – I’d like to just take a moment here to stress that I’m not saying that  biblical training stands in opposition to character development, on the contrary good  biblical training should create character development, but so often biblical knowledge is  kept just as knowledge and doesn’t get to the ‘doing’ as Jesus expects. And by ‘doing’ I’m  not talking about preaching, leading music etc, I’m talking about sermon on the mount  stuff-loving your enemy, forgiveness, not being anxious etc. 

So the formula hopping, the pressure to produce and the illusion that biblical knowledge is  sufficient create situations where people do not have the time to dig deep to create  foundations; rather they immediately start building, serving in capacities they aren’t actually  ready for, being sent to conferences they aren’t actually mature enough to handle and then  often getting disillusioned, not being able to handle criticism or conflict, burn out, getting  puffed up, etc etc. 

So, in regards to what it means for us to allocate that time of digging I’d like to look at the  parable of the sower and especially at the part where Jesus explains the types of soils to his  disciples; and offer some thoughts of things we need to be aware of as we disciple. I will  mainly be looking at the 2nd and 3rd seed. 

The interesting thing in this parable of the sower -in regards to discipleship-is that there  actually is no discipler in the parable. It’s all between the seed and the soil. I highlight that to  take some of the pressure we put on ourselves as those who find ourselves in the role of the  discipler. It’s not all on us to find the formula to make them grow. We aren’t the fertilizer. In  fact the only other person mentioned in Jesus’ explanation is the devil who comes and steals  the seed. So it’s good to remember that this is a spiritual battle; it’s not all on us by any  means. 

That being said I believe there are ways we can be instrumental in this seed-soil relationship.  Luke 8:13 says that some seed falls in the rocky places and this is those who accept with joy  but can’t put down roots, so when trials come they can’t stand. In Turkey, we see oh so  many people touched by prayer, loving Jesus, accepting with joy but then just disappearing  from the scene. What happens? What are these stones and rocks which are barriers to  roots? There is no simple answer of course but I think there are 2 things, 2 categories that  could help us understand these rocks and stones. One is lies and the other is wounds and  these are of course all intertwined with eachother.  

By lies I mean the years and years of lies people have believed about who God is and who  they are.

When we think of Turkish Christians we need to remember that these are people coming to  know Christ in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s… they have had decades of untruth shaping them and  their belief about God. How can we expect them to replace all those lies with truth with a  year or 2 of bible study? Their hearts and minds are full of lies about who God is, his love, his  generosity, his view of people. Lies about Jesus, lies about the Bible, lies about the power of  sin, lies about what is strength and what is weakness, lies about shame and honour, lies  about relationships and so much more. And it isn’t as though we all show up with a list of  the lies we believe in, it takes experiences in the community, journeying with God to  unearth these lies we believe and for God to replace them with his truth- once again,  generally in community. These lies are major rocks that stop people from putting down  roots, so in our context a major part of discipleship must be walking with people-closely-to  help them confront these lies and learn the truth. This takes time. This takes deep  conversation. This takes prayer. This takes vulnerability. This takes learning to listen to the  guidance of the Holy Spirit. And it’s never completely done. True discipleship must take the  time to help people see that there are lies they’ve believed which have shaped their  decisions and their lives and they need to start opening up their hearts and minds to the  Holy Spirit for the lies to be replaced by God’s truth about Himself, about themselves and  about the world. 

Like I said this is tightly intertwined with the other rocks of brokenness and wounds. The  older I get I realise how broken we all are-and that’s me speaking from a relatively healthy  upbringing. If I have stuff to deal with, what about those with an abusive past, neglect,  broken families, hardships, poverty, rejection…people are so broken, so wounded, so  desperate to be loved. And this is probably why we do see so many people accept quickly  with joy because they are greeted and treated with love when they meet Christians, and I’m  not saying this is false, but it only carries them so far. Because with the slightest conflict  they feel once again that in fact they aren’t loved, when God doesn’t answer a prayer he is  no longer considered good, he is the enemy. Because those wounds are just too deep and  big, the initial joy can only take them so far. They need healing. The more I am in ministry,  the more I am convinced that this is key for discipleship in our context. As those in discipling  roles we need to help our brothers and sisters see that accepting Christ into their hearts is  not going to solve all their problems on earth. The gospel is good news but it’s not easy  news, it’s not a magic pill or reset button. We need to be honest with them that healing is  going to take time, it’s going to be difficult but God is a good and gentle healer and won’t  rush us, nor will he abandon us half way. We need to help people see that conflict,  unanswered prayer and difficulties are opportunities for God to heal us. Again this takes  time, so much time, prayer, vulnerability, sharing our own stories, and again it’s never  completely done. But I can tell you, that when I consider the many Christians over the years,  the ones who have grown are the ones who have taken their healing seriously, they are the ones who have seen and acknowledged their brokenness. Their need for God. Their need  to be loved. Their sinfulness, weakness, and need for repentance. We need to learn the true  humility of not relying on our own strength. Having the perspective of the blind, the leper,  the tax collector who called out to Jesus for mercy, knowing they had nothing to offer or rely  on. 

This is really really difficult. And I think that’s why we try to avoid it all costs. It’s easier to  learn about the books of the bible and go to conferences. So often charisma or bible  learnedness is confused with maturity and people are rushed into roles where they need to  be loving Christ’s flock. But how can they love well if they aren’t yet secure in Gods love for  themselves? 

This is an area where I so wish there was a formula, and of course there are various tools  available but it’s complex, not every tool works in every context etc. it takes time to figure  out what works. But however complex as it may be, we can’t afford to neglect this season of  digging. And again this never finishes, so it isn’t exactly 1 season that is over and done with,  but there are different seasons where it needs special attention before moving into other  things. 

So, we can’t make the seed take root, but we can come alongside and help our brothers and  sisters clear out some of the rocks that prevent the roots in the hope that when trials  come-because they will, that’s for sure- the seed will not wither away and die. 

The 3rd seed that Jesus talks about falls amongst the thorns and Jesus says that this seed is  suffocated by the cares and wealth of the world. The interesting thing with this seed is that it  doesn’t necessarily die, it just doesn’t bare fruit. So this is a different aspect of discipleship  we see where people don’t lose their faith, they’re still around, but meh, in a way they may  as well not be because they don’t make much difference. It’s really sad actually, and a really  tricky one because the cares of this world is a very real, ongoing thing. I can’t claim that we  in Turkey have the worse lot in life compared to everyone else in the world, I think  everywhere in the world people are exhausted just trying to survive. However in our context  I can say that with the economic and political situation people’s anxiety is just sky high. Add  to that the stress of the big city, children, education, pressures because of faith. Life is not  easy for people. Coupled with that is our desire as humans for the better, the bigger…or  maybe it’s the other way round, it’s because we want more that we have the anxiety..either  way the pull of the world is huge and in a country where the political and economic  instability is such a huge part of life it’s really really hard. So basically we can’t really get rid  of the thistles and so we have people hanging in there, but not fruitful, not hugely  different from anyone else facing those struggles. But what I would love to imagine, is  wheat that can grow above the thistles. In Istanbul I’ll often see flower pots on window sills  where a geranium has this really long stem and then flowers at the top. I’m pretty sure it’s  because the plant is reaching up to find the sun, it’s having to grow taller to bloom. 

Rather than giving up on the seed that doesn’t bare fruit or trying to cut down the thistles because basically they will just grow again, that is the world we live in- I wonder if it’s  possible to invite people to grow and rise above the thistles, to set their eyes on life eternal, to turn their eyes toward Jesus and find hope there learning as adults to be  children of God who takes care of us. This is an area where I think we need to grow in our  teaching and discipling. Giving people hope despite everything else going on, true hope,  eternal hope, truly being able to come to the point where Paul says: I know what it is to be in  need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any  and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do  all this through him who gives me strength (Phlp 4:11-13). What freedom, what fruit. Our  role as disciplers must go far beyond moralistic teachings and memorising verses, it’s got to  get our eyes on Jesus and find our hope in him in this world that seems to get increasingly  difficult. I’m not sure we’ve done a good job of this so far. 

The seed which falls on the good soil bears much fruit. This is the house with the deep  foundation on the rock. This is the one who hears Jesus’ words about anger, forgiveness,  anxiety, trust in God, heavenly treasures, love, prayer, judgement…they live out these words,  these truths. That is the fruit we’re looking for and it takes time. 

In sum, the more I face my own battles in growing in Christ-likeness and the more I try to  walk alongside others who are trying to grow or at times even just stay in Christ -often  finding myself frustrated, disappointed by the lack of apparent progress and then finding  nuggets of encouragement, I’m more and more convinced that growing in Christ is in fact a  journey of healing. 

  • Healing takes time.  
  • Healing needs the truth of God’s word to replace the lies we’ve been taught all our  lives  
  • Healing means discovering the deep wounds that need the Holy Spirits comfort and  God’s truth in a deep way.  
  • Healing means learning to be loved and to love.  
  • Healing means our eyes being opened to the reality that we were not created for  this exhausting, consuming and consumerist broken world where we have to take  care of ourselves, but a world where we look to our heavenly Father to take care of  us. 

This is the kind of discipleship I want to grow in and model to those I’m trying to walk with.  There is no formula, it’s messy, it’s long and arduous, but I think quick and easy is trying to  build a house on the sand, and we know how that ends.