Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 11 (2020)

Ajith Fernando. Discipling in a Multicultural World. Wheaton: Crossway, 2019. 284pp. $19.99.

Ajith Fernando’s Discipling in a Multicultural World provides an opportunity to be a disciplee, to sit at the feet of a mentor, and learn how to better follow Jesus in a challenging and diverse age. The specific aim of the book, however, is to equip disciplers to effectively mentor others toward Christian maturity by gleaning wisdom from Fernando’s four decades of ministry at Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. This discipler/disciplee reciprocity is, in fact, indicative of how this wonderful book envisions discipleship through humility and mutuality. For Fernando, the goal is not having disciples of one’s own but rather becoming and making disciples of Jesus in community. This is why he prefers the terms “discipler/disciplee” to “master/disciple,” the latter of which he reserves for Jesus alone (20).

From such postures, Fernando offers an insightful and personal account of the challenges and promises of Christian discipleship. In the tradition of Robert Coleman (who penned the forward), Fernando does not promote institutional programs as much as commitment to intentional and often messy relationships. He makes clear that the book neither provides a comprehensive study on multicultural ministry nor functions as a how-to manual. Rather, Fernando selects “a few key areas that need special attention today” and “reflect[s] on them biblically and practically” (16). In an endorsement for the book, Timothy Beougher captures the result: “Fernando has a scholar’s mind, a pastor’s heart, and a practitioner’s skill—all of which have been tested and proven in the crucible of multicultural experience.”

The book is organized into two parts. Part One (“Introducing Spiritual Parenthood”) presents Fernando’s guiding metaphor for discipleship. He explores the joys and vulnerabilities of spiritual parenthood (ch. 1), some of its challenges and pitfalls (ch. 2), its context in the “family” of the church (ch. 3), the delicacies of belonging to the “two families” of church and world (ch. 4), the realities of suffering and persecution (ch. 5), and warnings and encouragements to disciplers about ambition, temptation, and leadership (ch. 6).

Part Two (“How Christians Change”) offers reflections and anecdotes on spiritual growth and cultural engagement. Fernando draws on missiological and theological insights to address how discipleship evolves (ch. 7), the roles biblical teaching, personal example, and corporate worship play (ch. 8), prayer (ch. 9), sin, forgiveness, and honor (chapters 10 and 11), liberation and power (ch. 12), and holistic healing (ch. 13). The book ends with three short appendices—a list of topics for further exploration, a general index, and a Scripture index.

My assessment follows the book’s own style by offering a few selective considerations. I limit myself to four reflections which highlight specific strengths as well as offer some constructive criticism.

First, one of the book’s great strengths is Fernando’s ability to model both unwavering conviction and nuanced humility in a world that often assumes one must choose between the two. Beyond mere attitude, Fernando demonstrates how this both/and approach might work in the practice of discipleship. For example, while he emphasizes the spiritual dimensions of all human suffering and healing—even including reports of phenomena such as demon possession (234–35)—he also encourages disciplers to carefully discern when spiritual wounds have psychological dimensions that require trained specialists (245–46). His call to such discernment and his refusal to allow his principles to morph into caricatures of spiritual healing is characteristic of his entire presentation.

Second, Fernando provides astute insight into cultural themes that pose specific challenges and opportunities to discipleship in the modern world. For example, he frequently circles back to individualism and consumerism as challenges to Christian notions of community, submission, and sacrificial service. This forms part of his multicultural focus, since individualism and consumerism, while typically associated with Western cultures, increasingly characterize global contexts in which disciplers work, including Fernando’s own Sri Lanka. He also provides an insightful treatment of the themes of honor and shame and how to engage them biblically. He notes that Western cultures are themselves shifting toward an honor-shame orientation and away from a forgiveness-guilt orientation. While this shift reflects the waning of the West’s Reformation impulses, it also presents new opportunities to engage honor-shame themes pastorally and biblically. Through these themes and others, the book earns the “multicultural” in its title.

Third and more critically, while the parenthood metaphor works well for Fernando’s identity as a Sri Lankan man who ministers primarily among Sri Lankan youth, the metaphor could prove counterproductive in other contexts. For example, my first multicultural ministry was as a young, white, American missionary in Uganda where I found myself in discipling relationships with rural Africans, many of whom were my elders with life wisdom that exceeded my own. Beyond age and cultural differences, however, Uganda’s post-colonial environment also still echoed with Kipling’s infamous call for Europeans and Americans to “take up the White Man’s burden” and enact a civilizing mission among those he described as “half devil and half child.” In such contexts, a parent/child paradigm risks feeding a deeply embedded, paternalistic framework of white superiority, which would be a discipleship disaster.

My point here is not that the notion of parenthood has no currency in such contexts. I remember one old man, in a church that I helped plant, who took delight in calling me his “younger father.” Nevertheless, even after years in Uganda, I found a more helpful metaphor in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. My Ugandan brothers and sisters were not my spiritual children, but rather my fellow travelers. We led and followed each other, challenged and submitted to each other, served and forgave each other, communed, and occasionally asked one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” In short, the notion of fellow travelers upholds Fernando’s discipler/disciplee reciprocity while challenging the universality of the parenthood metaphor.

Fourth and finally, it is noteworthy that many of Fernando’s examples and anecdotes deal with the complexities faced by those who convert to Christianity from other religious traditions. In the chapter entitled “Belonging to Two Families,” he discusses how to help young converts interact with their non-Christian communities, communicate about their conversion, honor family commitments without compromising their new faith, and navigate delicate matters such as ancestor veneration, dietary practices, weddings, funerals, and “religiously objectionable practices” (82). Fernando is at his best as he deals with on-the-ground realities and engages them realistically and biblically. In a stirring discussion of 2 Kings 5, for example, he notes that Elisha does not prohibit Naaman, a commander of the Syrian army who renounced the god Rimmon and accepted Yahweh, from continuing to go into temple worship rituals when his job required it. With typical humility and nuance, Fernando concludes that Naaman’s example “may not lead to a binding principle, but it could give some hints on how to act in different situations” (82). On the other hand, his reflections on conversion and maturation often reflect a worldview paradigm that relies on a modernist, fact/experience dualism (232–34). Such discussions would benefit from a dose of post-Cartesian holism such as those found in James K. A. Smith’s emphases on embodied knowledge, desire formation, and “cultural liturgies.”1

With all this in mind, Discipling in a Multicultural World is a wonderful resource for anyone who cares about following Jesus and serving in his name. The opportunity to sit at Fernando’s feet and glean from his experience is a gift to the reader, the church, and the discipler and disciplee in all of us.

John Barton

Director, Center for Faith and Learning

Professor of Religion

Pepperdine University

Malibu, California, USA

1 See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).