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December 2020- January 2021

Passing the Faith


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Pitching Our Tents Toward Discipleship

By Ruth McDonald


Call it intuition, but I could usually tell who my kids had been hanging out with by subtle changes in their speech and mannerisms. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in myself when my pronunciation turns Canadian after a weekend with my best girlfriend.

As Christ followers, we should spend time with Him, hang on to His words, and pick up His characteristics. The closer our relationship with Him, the more His speech, mannerisms, and personality influence us. People will notice as we remind them more and more of Him.

I like the nuances of discipleship as defined by the Japanese culture. The word disciple (deshi) has been used among the Japanese since ancient times to denote a special relationship between master and student. The actual word means “younger brother” and originally referred to a student selected as the master’s protégé, taken into his household, and treated as a younger sibling.

Teachers have many students but only a few deshi. Living with the master, a deshi takes on a familial resemblance and imitates his lifestyle, ensuring the master’s legacy continues.
By being adopted into God’s family, doing daily life with Him, and imitating the things He does, we become true disciples. We grow to know Him well, and His habits wear off on us.

Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). He chose 12 men to do life with Him, much like a Japanese master teacher. Does that mean we need to adopt young believers into our homes and let them live with us for a few years? Actually, it sometimes does.

We know one obvious group of people we are responsible to take into our home: our family. If you are a believer, and God has blessed you with children, you have the job of discipling them. If you’ve ever opened your mouth and heard your mother or father’s voice come out, you know this happens quite naturally. For good or for bad, your children resemble you. They pick up your speech patterns, inflections, mannerisms, and often, your values. Outsiders may not be able to distinguish your voices on the phone.

My friends include violin teachers, expert gardeners, golf enthusiasts, snow skiers, hikers, and football fans. You know what? In every case, they passed these passions down to their children. Taking them to games and concerts, they exposed their children to the subculture they love. They spent their free time including them in their favorite activities. When we’re truly excited about something, it’s easy to share it with others, and our enthusiasm is contagious.

We’ve all heard the expression “more things are caught than taught.” I was born on a Thursday and carried to church the following Sunday morning by my mom. She was the preacher’s wife, and I was her youngest child. My siblings and I were typical kids. We spent most of Dad’s sermon time passing notes, drawing pictures, or keeping a tally of how many times he said “uh” or mispronounced a word.


Our family was imperfect. We had family devotions inconsistently. Our parents never sat down and did a Bible study with us specifically. But somehow we “caught” our parents’ faith. We remember the frequent prayers, the open Bible and coffee cup in front of my mom each and every morning, the ways they loved us and others. We were shaped by the dailyness of living with people with a deep, abiding faith in Christ and His provision. We watched their sacrificial love and service for the Kingdom. Their hearts were tender toward Jesus, and it showed.

Short of forming a commune (which I do not recommend!), we will not have a family relationship with everyone. Yet, we are responsible for others—even for “all nations.” The “us four and no more” philosophy has never been God’s plan—not for Israel, and not for you. Proximity is necessary for influence.

I once attended a testimony meeting and heard a lady say, “I am so thankful for this church. I literally don’t have any friends who are not members of this church. I’m also thankful I get to work every day in a Christian environment where all of my co-workers are fellow believers.” I looked around the room as others nodded and smiled, but I was cringing inside. “This is not okay,” I thought. “No wonder the church isn’t impacting the world!”

I’m so glad Jesus didn’t live that testimony, aren’t you? He left home (Heaven), moved to a new country, and “dwelt among us.” I’m told the original phrase in Greek means, “He pitched His tent among us.” I’ve done some tent camping, and let me tell you, tents in close proximity don’t experience a lot of privacy. Singing, arguing, cooking, sneezing—you know what your neighbors are doing. At one site, the Japanese neighbor came carrying my child piggyback because she dropped her shoe down the outhouse hole and wouldn’t walk back in the mud. They’re seeing the good, the bad, and…the stinky!

Yes, I slipped in a cute story, but the point is this: the watching world cannot be influenced by what they cannot observe. Japanese people frequently say a Christian family doing life in a non-Christian culture is the greatest form of evangelism and discipleship they know. Just being Christian in front of them, living out all the implications of our faith, is a powerful example. (Not sure how the shoe in the outhouse relates, but hey, it was real.)

It’s often uncomfortable to live vulnerably and in close proximity with people who don’t share your faith and values. Gravitating toward like-minded people is our default. That tendency sparked the now famous quote by Pauline Kael: “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” Obviously, the majority of Americans did vote for him, but Pauline only knew those who voted like her.

A few years ago, our Nashville, Tennessee, church held an outdoor event at a nearby park. I greeted people and offered Bibles and other literature to them. Most people kindly accepted or declined. When I offered an Asian lady a Bible she firmly said, “I am Buddhist!” She expected this middle-aged, white lady to be put off by that, I’m sure. I just smiled and said, “Okay, I have tons of Buddhist friends. Would you like a Bible?”

Jesus came to seek and save the lost. It’s the Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, and “nones” who need a Savior, not our friends at church socials (though, yes, they need Him too).

The example of pioneer missionary Trula Cronk, who served with her husband Dan in India for many years, challenges me. When the couple returned to the States, she did not sit around and enjoy the saints. She went to work for social services and soon had a thriving ministry reaching former prostitutes. The more polarized our world, the more important it is to intentionally place ourselves with people unlike us.

This job of discipleship, at its essence, cannot be done remotely. Don’t get me wrong—I’m thankful for technology that allows us to study the Bible and teach new Christians online. Instruction in the Word is absolutely essential in the task of discipleship. But discipleship isn’t done only with a notebook and pencil.

A missionary named Paul asked new believers to “imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). I think we can assume Paul lived a show-and-tell lifestyle that allowed others to observe his walk of faith. Though he spent time in churches and synagogues, he also hung out with a variety of people who did not resemble him. We know he made tents, so I’m sure he also spent time in them. Paul must have been comfortable with thin walls, authenticity, and noisy neighbors.
By “pitching our tent” and “living among them,” we can imitate both Paul and Jesus. With intentionality, we can maximize our influence and ensure faith is passed on to the next generation of disciples.

About the Writer: Ruth McDonald and her husband Donnie are career missionaries to Japan. Learn more:


©2021 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists