How do we do discipleship in a suffering world and what can we learn from Majority World Christians about discipleship models rooted in suffering? Any meaningful discussion on discipleship must start with the understanding of the lordship of Christ. It is within this context we can talk about following Jesus in obedience, dedicating our lives to God’s kingdom.
The lordship of Jesus as the Messiah who came to inaugurate God’s kingdom on earth is the central theme of the New Testament. Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom of God was a radical message in that a worldly king and kingdom in his day was displayed through pomp and pageantry, but the kingdom Jesus introduced was defined by love, submission, humility, and peace. This was because Jesus emptied himself, or more accurately did not cling or hold on to power (Philippians 2:5-7). This is known as kenosis (the Greek word for emptying oneself), a theological concept that describes the humility and liminality of Jesus’s life, mission, and ministry. This is why Jesus taught that those who want to be great or to lead must become a servant in order to lead effectively (Mark 10:34-45). The implication is that in order for us to incarnate Jesus’s way of doing mission, we must first empty ourselves or renounce any worldly notion of power or ambition. This is true to the New Testament notion of leadership or greatness, which can only be accomplished by humility, submission, and servanthood.
The implication of this is that if our discipleship programs and events do not prepare people to understand the idea of suffering and sacrifice, it will mean they will only follow Jesus temporarily. People will follow Jesus when all is going well, and then will walk out on God when things get tough.
We must put every part of us – mind, will, and emotions – and all aspects of our lives (job, family, education, hobbies, and finances) before God to use as he pleases and whenever he calls us. After Jesus gave some serious teaching about what it means to believe and follow him, many of the Jews left him. But then he asked the disciples one important question: “Do you also wish to go away?’” (John 6:67). Peter’s answer to that question is very important for our discipleship today because it demonstrates loyalty and obedience to the lordship of Christ. “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’” (John 6:68). Peter’s answer is conditioned on the understanding that following Jesus even when it is rough and difficult is not an optional lifestyle but rather that his own survival depends on it. This changes the narrative when we see discipleship not as some form of alternative lifestyle but the source of our survival.
Jesus’s notion of suffering and sacrifice as an essential element in following him has been demonstrated through the history of the church. Eusebius, the church historian, chronicles the sufferings and martyrdom of the early disciples and how the church expanded through persecution in its first three hundred years.Many of the early disciples of Jesus suffered in different ways and ultimately sacrificed their lives in following God’s call to incarnate his kingdom. Martyrdom, that is, the idea of dying for the cause of Christ was a major theme in early and patristic Christianity. It also became a vehicle for advancing God’s kingdom so that Tertullian (c. AD 150- 225), an African church father and theologian, could say, “… the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  In essence, martyrdom and mission went hand in hand.
In the context of COVID-19, the characteristics we see presented are uncertainty, despair, suffering, pain, grief, trauma, loss, and isolation. It is then the followers of Jesus who have been prepared through suffering and sacrifice are best placed at this time to reach out to people and help them follow Jesus faithfully. The idea of suffering and sacrifice is very much the reality that Majority World Christians, who are refugees, asylum-seekers, and economic migrants have suffered (and continue to suffer). This will be very different from what white, middle-class Western Christians face. This is not to say that white people do not suffer. That is far from the case. The point I am making is that people do indeed suffer in various ways and forms.
I am also not advocating or suggesting that Africans, Asians, or Latin Americans have a monopoly on pain and trauma. An example of a European who suffered is German theologian Jurgen Moltmann. Moltmann’s theology about the suffering of a God that suffers through Jesus in a suffering world is a very powerful reflection needed for this period. So what I am suggesting is that some Majority World (Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean) history demonstrates that certain regions of the world have suffered from systemic and institutional injustices like the slave-trade, indentured servitude, imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, therefore making Majority World Christians typically more accustomed to suffering and pain.
Some of the Majority World theologies originate in the context of loss and pain. An example is liberation theology, which developed in the socio-economic poverty context of Latin America as the Catholic Church responded by identifying with the poor and the marginalized. In the African context, black theology emerged in southern Africa to challenge the systemic injustice caused by the apartheid regime. African political theology that developed elsewhere on the continent also has something to offer in terms of the theology of lament. A prime example is the work of the Roman Catholic Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole who speaks of the evil and trauma of the recent conflict in Congo and the need to know how to lament.
If there is one thing common to these theologies, it is that they take the suffering of the poor and the oppressed as their hermeneutical lens. Their understanding of discipleship is therefore rooted in Jesus’s humility and sacrifice and how that shaped his ministry praxis. The implication of this is that these theologies emphasize that following Jesus entails suffering and loss, and that mission is to respond in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. Majority World Christians who have relocated to Europe or North America through various migratory factors come with this notion and experience of discipleship. Diaspora Christians therefore understand from firsthand experience that whole-life discipleship entails different kinds of suffering and demands sacrifice.
Thus, if the church is going to do discipleship and mission well in this coronavirus climate, we need to grasp Jesus’s understanding of suffering and sacrifice as a way of life.
 Andrew Louth (ed), Eusebius: The History of the Church, G.A.Williamson Trans.(Middlesex, England: Penguin Book, 1965).
 John Foxe and M Hobart Seymour, The Acts and Monuments of the Church: Containing the History and Sufferings of the Martyrs, Part 1 (London, Charter House, 1838), p.44.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (London, SCM Press, 1974).
 See as an example, Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (London, SCM Press, 1974).
 Emmanuel Katongole, Born from lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa (Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2017). See also Cathy Ross, Lament and Hope https://churchmissionsociety.org/resources/lament-and-hope-cathy-ross-anvil-vol-34-issue-1/ (Accessed 6th May 2020).
For Reflection and Discussion
- What connection do you see between discipleship and suffering?
- What do you think “whole-life discipleship” means and how can you practice it personally? How can it be taught or modeled in the life of your church / community?
- How has suffering and sacrifice been formative in your spiritual life over the last year?