I was struck several months ago, while reading about Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14, that we have a very clear example of discipleship from these two missionaries. There are certainly other models and patterns in Scripture, but this simple approach has been continually coming to mind and affirming me as I prepare for this next village trip. As you may remember reading, I’m leaving later this week to spend about 5 weeks in Sivauna village, most of which will be devoted to running the first level of the Translator’s Training Course (TTC1). This course is usually held here in Ukarumpa for several dozen students representing multiple language communities across Papua New Guinea. We will be running it in Sivauna for 12 new Mamusi translation candidates that the communities around us have appointed to share in the work of Bible translation. This is a unique and exciting opportunity to invest in the development of this program, and in discipling local believers who are chronically underequipped to be students of the Word.
The first aspect of this model of discipleship in Acts 14 is in verse 21, when “Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia.” They returned! Their first trip through the area (earlier in the chapter) was not a short-term, one-and-done seed-casting experience; it was the initial investment that they knew needed to be followed up on. Like us, Paul and Barnabas couldn’t live permanently in this area of ministry, but they prioritized re-connecting with the believers there at every opportunity. We also think it’s critically important that we maintain a consistent connection with the Mamusi people, even while living hundreds of miles away.
Secondly, the purpose of the return visit was that “they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith…” (v. 22) I don’t think they went back to get an updated head count to report against their church growth projections; they went back to be an encouragement and inspire the believers to persevere in the faith. I don’t know exactly what that looked like for them, but for us, when we ask the Mamusi community how we can help and equip them, they continually come back to training. Very few ever get the chance to learn the Word in depth, or even learn how to study it for themselves. Not to mention the fact that if they have access to a Bible at all it isn’t written in their heart language. So our particular platform of Bible translation ministry provides a great avenue to equip local believers to dig into the Word for themselves, discover its meaning, and work out how to communicate it clearly in the language of their own people. This is how we get to ‘strengthen the believers.’
In verse 23 we see that “Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in every church.” A church cannot be run by remote control. We have no intention or desire to meddle in official church leadership, but identifying and equipping local leaders who will take responsibility for the day-to-day work and moving the vision forward is very much within our purview. We’ve been so encouraged to see Mamusi believers step up, cast vision, develop strategy, and work diligently to see God’s Word speak clearly. As hard as it has been for us to move farther away from them and spend less time there, we’ve seen God use the increased separation to raise up local ownership of the translation work in a way we never saw before.
Finally, and maybe the hardest part of this discipleship model: as they left, Paul and Barnabas “turned the elders over to the care of the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” They trusted the Spirit of God to continue working in their absence. They knew the Lord had other work for them in other areas. As much as I’m sure their hearts longed to stay and walk with their friends a little while longer, they needed to entrust them to the Lord’s care. God has not called us to do all the work of discipleship, training, equipping, and translation. Much of that work is in the hands of the local community. So we obey the Spirit, we return, we do our part, we give everything that we are led to give, serve in every way we can serve, but then when it’s time to leave, we commit them and the continued work to the Holy Spirit, in whom alone we put our trust.
I hope these brief observations have encouraged you in your area of ministry. I hope that this will also give you a pattern for how to pray with us:
- that the logistics of returning would enable me to re-engage and get to work quickly
- that God would strengthen the believers through this medium of translator training
- that local leaders would emerge and carry the mantle of responsibility in the Church
- that we would all trust these leaders to the Lord’s care
Rebekah and I just wrapped up a really exciting weekend leading worship for high school students who were on a spiritual retreat, themed “No Excuses.” Many of you prayed over this event, thank you! We believe God is working wonders in the hearts of many of the high schoolers here. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity for our family. Would you please pray for rest, good health, and emotional and spiritual well-being for each of us in the days to come? We will be separated for 5 weeks, and while we know this is what we need to do, it’s hard on all of us to be apart for so long. Pray for our hearts to rejoice as we experience God’s faithfulness and rest in His provision.