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The Importance of Discipleship in the Quaker Church Today

By John Muhanji

The Quaker church in Africa was established through the discipleship of missionaries, and therefore the nature of the church in Kenya has always been missional. This means that we (the church) are to be disciple-makers.

When I was growing up, I admired and respected many church ministers and other leaders for their lives of integrity and respect. They portrayed a high level of wisdom, we trusted them, and they corrected us whenever we went wrong. I grew up wishing to live such a life of high integrity.

I grew up understanding that discipleship is modelling and teaching Christians the precepts of the scriptures, prayers, doctrine and Christian living, all with an attitude and heart that worships Christ. Christian elders in the community, including my parents, lived their lives above reproach and exercised a higher level discipline around members, particularly the young people. We came to understand that discipleship is not only a willingness to trust Christ to provide for our salvation, but to trust Him for the future.

This disciple principle enables the church to grow and expand. I remember when, in 1999, we were fully charged of the Spirit of discipleship that gained courage, and we went to the eastern part of Kenya where the Quaker church had never been. We stayed for three days, moving from village to village and finally opened the first ever Quaker church in Embu. Through discipleship, it is still strong and standing.

Discipleship means trusting Christ even when we do not know, like or understand where He is leading. Discipleship may often be unpopular, but when we forsake it, we end up living only for and unto ourselves. We miss out on opportunities, learning experiences, growth, exchanging an eternity of rewards for a limited amount of fun. This will turn into anger and bitterness later on in our lives. Regrettably, we have started experiencing this in our churches here in Kenya. Lack of proper discipleship process is evident in splits within many yearly meetings.

In Proverbs 27:17 and 1 Corinthians 10:12, we are told to come along side and encourage those who are down, who are new, who are old, who are immature and who are mature. In other words, we all are called to make disciples.

In 2011, the Africa Ministries Office together with Wabash Friends Church in Indiana, partnered in a program of discipleship for the church in Uganda and Mount Elgon in Kenya. The churches in Uganda and on the mountain in Kenya were weak and hence losing relevancy in their communities. Ugandans and the people on the mountain in Kenya, bordering Uganda, are not Luhyas, the dominant group in the Kenyan Quaker church. In 1952 through the efforts of Jefferson Ford, who lived in Lugulu, Quaker missionaries established a mission among the Mt. Elgon community. These Quakers were the first church to reach this hostile community that had never allowed any foreigner among them. Unfortunately, due to great insecurity in the region, where there had been much fighting, the spirit of darkness eventually covered the mountain and the church failed. The Uganda church experience was much the same. Whenever a visitor arrived, the people presented a picture of self-pity, suggesting that they had been abandoned and hence could not see their church grow. This was truly the absence of a church discipleship process.

From the time of Kenyan post-election violence in 2007-2008, the Mt. Elgon community grew worse. On the mountain people killed each other like chickens. The Quaker church on the mountain went silent for fear that it might be attacked. Nobody stood against the killings, and it became what we call survival of the fittest. Where there is no discipleship, confusion and death rule the environment. Leaders of the Quaker church and others went into hiding and forgot that they had a duty to restore moral sanity to the community on the mountain. The Quaker schools on the mountain became targets. Girls attending school were sexually abused and pregnancy was common among the children.

Proverbs 27:17 and 1 Corinthians 10:12 speak loudly to this condition and led us to realize that the Quaker church had missed many opportunities just because it had forsaken discipleship or was ignorant of the process. Discipleship training in a contextualized process was at last applied and as a result, six young men and women from Kaptama Quarterly Meeting on the mountain were selected and sent for three months of discipleship training in Uganda. They were joined by seven others from Uganda.

After graduating from three months of intense training in discipleship in Uganda, they returned to Kenya and began the process of recovering what had been lost for many years. They were energized and equipped to do what they had previously feared to do. Discipleship is key to church growth and it is our mission as a church to disciple each other for the future. These young men and women on the mountain have revived four Quaker meetings that had closed down and opened three new Quaker meetings with new members. It is now evident that members of the Quaker church who once were fearful can now speak with confidence against evil acts in the community. The six have transformed the community on the mountain. The Quaker churches in the Kaptama area have an impact in the community and many are undergoing discipleship by the team that went to Uganda. One of the young people, Nancy, went to Uganda a very shy person, but now is one of the most active members of the team, leading one of the new churches that opened with new members and has others joining every Sunday.

The Uganda team, with the trained disciples has similarly altered the Uganda church attitude of dependence. The church in Uganda is now growing positively as a unified team and we continue to move with them as described in Proverbs 27:17.

Discipleship helped to transform the community on Mt. Elgon through churches, schools and community mobilization. With the knowledge they have acquired, the young disciples have established a training at Koboywo Friends Church on the high top of the mountain and I am encouraged by this process. They are sharing and equipping others (Proverbs 27:17).

When, subsequent to the young Friends’ training, I led on the mountain leadership training in the faith and practice of Friends, it added energy and zeal to their involvement in ministry, ensuring that through Quaker ministry the whole mountain knows, understands and appreciates Christ.

Michael Birkel writes in his book Engaging the Scriptures, “Reading scripture is an invitation to learn more about our lives. When we read the scriptures, we look into a mirror and discover that our own inward life, both as individuals and as a community, is reflected in the lives of our Spiritual ancestors.” The early Friends understood about discipleship modelling. “We are taught by the same Spirit that inspired the written words of scriptures.” (MB)

Like other early Quakers, Isaac Pennington stressed spiritual experience above mere intellectual knowledge that could, he said, lead to unproductive disputes. “I had rather be feeling Christ’s life, Spirit and power in my own heart, than disputing others about them.” Because he was a student of the Bible and a great disciple, Pennington’s letters made many more disciples. We still quote and model his Christ likeness.

The words of these Friends and the fruits of their discipleship are evident on Mt. Elgon in a live church, the numbers of people joining them, promotion of peace in the community where they live and increase in giving by members. In Uganda church members are now seriously constructing their church at their headquarters by themselves. Discipleship releases a new spirit of joy, love, unity and growth in the church.

Unfortunately, though, occasions of the lack of discipleship in our meetings can have serious consequences, particularly for our yearly meetings in Kenya. We continue to experience separations and creations of new yearly meetings from existing ones. Leadership selfishness and personal glory threaten to destroy the unity of purpose, and disputes and divisions are evident. The number of yearly meetings increases, but the number of members decreases. As a result of these splits, many members are leaving the Quaker church. I am bothered by this question: “Will God receive the new yearly meetings as converts and people in his kingdom?” It would seem more desirable to establish a new yearly meeting in another country where there has not been any establishment of the Quaker church and to disciple as many converts as possible to Christ, giving them an administrative structure in a far land.

We are currently making more Christian Quaker disciples in Southern Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. When the number is large enough, we shall encourage them to form a new yearly meeting to continue with discipleship in these countries. Teaming up with others and God makes discipleship possible. Therefore, growing in Christ is key to growing the church.

A great people gathers as they energize and equip others for reaching out for Christ to the whole world. “Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” (Proverbs 27:17).

John Muhanji is the FUM Africa Ministries Director. John is an inspiration as he fulfills the call to God’s work in East Africa, doing this with joy in his heart. He works with yearly meetings by carrying out leadership workshops and helping meetings facing conflicts. He offers mission advice to superintendents, general secretaries, pastors and other leaders of the Quaker churches in Kenya. He also supports and offers counsel to other mission areas in Uganda, Tanzania and Congo. He spends a great deal of time traveling to visit these meetings, which has allowed FUM to be felt in the Africa meetings.