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Discipleship in a Foreign Culture




Discipleship in a Foreign Culture

Jessalyn Hutto

Recently, I shared an interview with my high school mentor, Chelle Stire, which focused on the topic of discipleship. In it she shared some incredibly challenging thoughts on making sure our discipleship relationships center on the life-altering truths of the gospel rather than outward signs of obedience or disobedience. Chelle had so much wisdom to share on the topic of mentoring that I felt compelled to break the interview into several sections, which I very much want to share with you. This section of the interview focuses on the difficulty of discipling women in a foreign culture, but not surprisingly, much of what Chelle shared can be applied to any discipleship relationship. I pray that you will find it encouraging, especially as Chelle encourages women to pursue honest and open relationships fueled by the gospel. Enjoy!

For the past 6 years you’ve lived in Albania serving in a drastically different culture. Does the culture in which you live affect the way you disciple other women? Can you give some examples?

The Albanian culture has greatly impacted the way I disciple.  There are so many aspects of discipleship that are born out of a church culture or maturity level of a body of believers.  Here are just a few aspects of the Albanian culture and church that have made me rethink or adjust the way I disciple (let me say, from the start, that this is a generalization of Albanian culture and churches and does not represent all Albanians. Thank the Lord that there are some Albanians and bodies of believers here that are vigorously and lovingly discipling one another and impacting their communities for Christ):

A First Generation Church

We are just now entering into a second generation of believers and in large part the format of mentoring and discipleship has been on the back burner while the evangelism, church planting, and leadership training has been taking place.  When atheistic, communistic Albania opened up in the early 1990’s a flood of missionaries from every denomination and cult poured into the country.  Many missionaries were not really prepared or trained to provide these new believers with one-on-one relationships to help them grow to maturity.  Discipleship was not a foundational part of many churches and now the first generation of leaders is not equipped to pass that on to the next generation.  Some para-church organizations that focus on ministering to students have been effectively discipling new believers but that has not made a significant impact in local churches yet.

This aspect affects my discipleship because there is not a framework of mentoring/discipleship in place.  Many women or youth don’t know what this kind of relationship is like, the biblical examples or mandate for them, or the immense benefits for their spiritual life.  It has taken a long time to even build the foundation for the relationships to be established whereas in the states you could just jump into a relationship with another woman with the understanding of what level of interaction that would entail.

A Shame-Based Culture

The traditional way to “encourage” someone to excel is to shame them by comparing them to someone else or pointing out (publically) their ineptitudes.  Harsh words, raised voices, and sharp criticism are more characteristic of the learning/teaching culture than loving encouragement, gentle reprimands, or humble exhortations.  It is also very inappropriate to bring shame or a bad name to your family so any action/sin that could reflect badly on you or your family is not discussed.  This carries over into the church culture by a general lack of vulnerability about specific or significant sin issues.  When a sin issue does come to light or is shared, the tendency of shaming to reform behavior only leads to temporary change and does not engender loving healthy relationships.  There is great fear among many Albanians that if they share their weaknesses/struggles their sins will be shared to others (gossip is a HUGE issue here) and so they only reveal what is acceptable or common and not shameful.

[Tweet "When the gospel is brought to bear in a discipleship relationship... there is freedom to be real..."]

Of course, this wreaks havoc in terms of discipleship.  Fear, pride, and people pleasing drive relationships when shame is the motivator.  When the gospel is brought to bear in a discipleship relationship and there is no fear of rejection, shame, or condemnation by Christ or your fellow believer there is freedom to be real with one another.  I John 4:18 describes a perfect love that drives out fear because it is founded in the source of love, God Himself.  God’s love does not just turn a blind eye to sin but reveals it to bring restoration, not condemnation (Rom. 8:1).  Relationships between believers that are characterized by this kind of love will not be shallow relationships that hide behind what is culturally (national or in the church) acceptable or taboo.  Instead, they will be honest and real with a view to bring the glory of God and the transformational magnificence of the gospel to light.  In many of my relationships with Albanian women and youth it has taken years to build a level of trust and a biblical perspective of acceptance by God to get to the point where we could delve into a real, honest discussion about sin.  Being real and transparent about my own sin struggles has been a major factor in breaking down the barrier of shallow relationships and fear of transparency.  Modeling the Biblical mandate to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) has also challenged the thinking of women I have interacted with about how to go about confronting sin or foolish thinking in fellow sisters-in-Christ.

A Post-Communistic Culture

For over 50 years the indoctrination of communism (and atheism) shaped the thinking of the Albanian people.  They were taught to blindly accept as truth what the government told them.  They were taught to distrust others and to inform their officials of those who spoke negatively against the government.  They were taught that there was no God and that their savior was Enver Hoxha.  The effect that communism has had on the Albanian culture pervades every strata of life.  In relation to discipleship I have experienced the vestiges of this indoctrination still lingering.  What has been taught as truth (evolution, abortion, national pride as a form of religion, self-preservation, greed, and corruption) is so deeply rooted in the culture that is has taken missionaries and Albanian believers over 2 decades to begin to open the minds of the Albanian people to the lies that they were told for so many years.  Biblical truth must trump culture and this has been a hard pill to swallow.  Distrust of others and self-reliance gives many Albanian Christians a basic distrust of “western” methods, even if they are grounded in Biblical truth.

In some of my relationships it has taken months to undo unbiblical thinking and beliefs about marriage, parenting, finances, family duties, work ethic, the sufficiency of Scripture, theology, etc to even begin to start dealing with the application of Biblical mandates in those areas of life.  It is an arduous and oftentimes discouraging work. I don’t really comprehend the premise of distrust and cynicism that the Albanian Christians must fight against.  Coming from a basically trusting and open culture, I have to learn to be patient and gentle in instruction and not become personally offended when a fellow believer says to me, “You just don’t understand because you are rich American.” Coming back to the veracity and primacy of Scripture over ALL cultures is my only valid defense.

Albanian women, as a rule, work outside the home.  Albania is just rising out of the status of a third world country.  The economy is tenuous at best and the unemployment rate is very high (especially among men).  During communism every adult worked and the state raised and educated the children.  The idea that a woman would be “homemaker” by profession is regarded with incredulity.  In the Albanian culture homes are multi-generational and when a woman is married she moves into the home of her husband’s family and becomes the bride of the house.  This is a nice term for servant of all.  Her work is largely unappreciated and is very rigorous.  She has few rights and even in her marriage and parenting the mother-in-law has more authority than she does.  Leaving the house to go to work can become a relief.  Once she has children, the children are left to the care of her in-laws and she works long hours to provide for her extended family.  Often, men spend the majority of their days in coffee bars or on the streets drinking alcohol and playing dominoes or chess.  Women feel the heavy burden of financial provision for their families.  Coming from years of bare existence under communism they have bought into the lie that material things will bring happiness.

The church and discipleship relationships are not immune to this influence.  The reality that many families live on under $300 a month and can barely feed their children is a sobering fact.  Women feel obligated to work and then they come home after 7 or 8 p.m. to cook dinner, shop for groceries, clean house, and help children with schooling.  Trying to fit in a discipleship meeting during the day is nigh unto impossible.  Women’s Bible studies or even mid-week church meetings are difficult for women to attend due to their work schedules.  Add to this that most Albanians travel around the city on foot or by public transportation and having a “quick” lunch meeting is time prohibitive.  I find it very challenging to even find time to meet with women for discipleship.  Generally, Albanian husbands do not care for the home or the children and so having a night where women can meet for spiritual encouragement and the husbands care for the children is not manageable for many women.

The Barrier of Language

Learning to communicate on a deep and intimate level in another language may take some years to accomplish (like me).  Some languages are more difficult to master and Albanian is one of those languages.  Communicating clearly what Scripture has to say and how to personally apply it to our lives takes a grasp on vocabulary and grammar that must continue to deepen.  Thankfully, Albanians are a gifted people with language and can easily learn multiple languages (which keeps me mighty humble) so there is the possibility to disciple is English with many Albanians in our church.  However, the fact remains that speaking and expressing yourself in your mother tongue allows you to delve more deep in relationships.

I am committed to learning Albanian so I can disciple, counsel, and communicate in Albanian, but it makes discipleship a challenge until I have those language skills.  Also, few Biblical literary resources have been translated into the Albanian language.  In America it was easy to pick a book up from the Bible book store or church resource center and begin to read it together as a springboard for discipleship discussions.  There are only an armload of solid Christian books translated into Albanian and so Christians desiring to read commentaries, study books, spiritual living resources, or even Christian biographies are seriously hindered in their ability to find these resources.  Even getting English copies of books is difficult with cost of shipping material to Albania.  All in all, it is a challenging hurdle to overcome when trying to teach Albanian women how to read, think, and live a Christ centered life…

I have much more to share with you from this insightful interview in the coming weeks. I pray that the words of this dearest of friends will be an encouragement to you in your own discipleship relationships.

You can read my first interview with Chelle Stire on the topic of discipleship and how her perspective on discipleship has changed over the years by clicking here.