Discipleship in Turkey by Kayra Akpınar
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.