Ajith Fernando is the teaching director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. Alongside his wife, he ministers mainly to the urban poor. Discipleship is a mainstay of Ajith’s ministry. (Personal note: Ajith’s commentary on the book of Acts in the NIV Application series has been a great encouragement to me.)
Moore: Would you first tell us how your country is doing in light of the Easter day massacres?
Fernando: In addition to the many who died, many others have been affected. Many, especially in the tourist industry, are without jobs’ as tourists have stopped coming to Sri Lanka. Some have been blinded, maimed, or paralyzed. A youth in the Youth for Christ soccer ministry has lost a leg. The sister of one of our staff members has severe brain injuries. The challenge of caring for those affected is as acute as ever.
Sadly, extremists from the majority community seized the anger following the massacres to push their agenda that is hostile to all minorities in Sri Lanka, not only Muslims. There is a lot of confusion among the people and national leaders in response to the bombings, even though Christians (who were most affected) bore good witness to Christ by generally not acting in vengeful ways.
Moore: What were the motivating factors that led you to write this book?
Fernando: I have become very worried recently about the lack of a culture of care for people within the church. People often come to church as consumers to receive blessings from the service, but many do not have anyone to help them personally as they seek to follow Christ. This is a problem for Christian leaders and workers as well as many don’t have leaders who care for their lives. Discipling helps create an atmosphere where people can be personally helped in their walks with God. This, in turn, helps them avoid a substandard Christian experience. If Christians have others they can go to when they face a challenge, they can be helped to weather the storm. I know many people whose failure to live up to the potential they once showed was triggered by an unwise response to a challenge they faced!
Moore: A good friend recently told me that a man came to him so he could be discipled. My friend has a “parachurch” ministry. It was the pastor of a church who told this man that the church does not really have a discipleship ministry. Dallas Willard used to say that he rarely saw churches committed to discipleship. Is the lack of interest in discipleship a distinctly American problem or is it a much broader problem throughout the world?
Fernando: It is a problem all over the world. Everyone seems to talk about the need for it, but few are willing to carve time out of their busy schedules for the vital work of discipling. Even in parachurch ministries with a history of emphasis on discipling, it is easy to gradually give less and less time for discipling.
Moore: What are a few things that you have found most gratifying and most challenging in your own discipleship relationships?
Fernando: I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and have seen many failures in my discipling ministry. This has been painful. But I have learned a lot from these disappointments. In fact, I think that because of our personal weaknesses, it is important for those we disciple to be exposed to the influence of others also, to fill up what is lacking in our input into their lives. The joy has been seeing many people I’ve invested in thrive in both ministry and so-called secular work. There are few joys in ministry that are greater than that of sitting at the feet of people you have discipled and learning from them.
Moore: How can American churches better address the rabid individualism that makes discipleship seem unimportant?
Fernando: One of the most counter-cultural aspects of Christianity today is its understanding of commitment within the body of Christ. We are living in a fast-paced society characterized by disposable relationships, so people join groups and churches as consumers and transfer to other groups and churches if they offer a more attractive program. Many Christians don’t approach the church with a biblical attitude that says, “This is the family to which I will belong, come what may,” or “I am part of a body to which I am so linked that my actions and attitudes impact others within the group.” Such biblical attitudes breed commitment within churches.
If Christians rediscovered the idea of deep commitment to each other with all the inconvenience it brings, they would be actively concerned for the welfare of others within the group. Discipling would be the natural outflow of such concern. How can we recover that commitment? I believe the key is for the leaders to be genuinely committed to their people. If they show such concern for individuals, they help forge a culture which begets a similar concern. When the leaders die for the people, the people will die for the church. If the leaders are not discipling, it is unlikely that the people will do it.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers gain from your book?
Fernando: 1. I hope it will nurture a culture of caring within the church—where both mature and newer Christians seek the assistance of other Christians to help them grow, and where mature Christians take on the responsibility of caring for less mature Christians.
- I hope that readers will discover the blessing and thrill of investing in others and will pay the price needed to help them grow.
- Most people who need the Savior today, both in western and non-western cultures, find many Christian values quite alien to their thinking. I hope this book will help equip Christians for the cultural challenge of communicating Christian values to such people.
- I hope that readers will be encouraged not to let the influence of celebrity culture, with its faulty overvaluing of fame and public ministry, cause them to neglect the great work of personal ministry, of battling for the souls of people.