Mentoring in Melanesia: Discovering a Culturally Effective Way to Make Disciples
By Dan Anderson
New Guinea is the second largest island on the planet. Melanesian by race, its inhabitants represent a thousand languages and cultures. Europeans first set foot on the island in 1527, but they did not establish a presence for 300 years. After World War I, Australia accepted responsibility for the eastern half of the island, and it became known as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Since 1963, Indonesia has governed the western half of the island. In 1975, the eastern half became independent from Australia, and the nation of Papua New Guinea was born.
A history of mission work
Mission work began along the coast of New Guinea in the 19th century but did not move into the interior until the 20th century. Brethren missionaries from Australia, the United States, and New Zealand arrived in the early 1950s. Together, they registered with the Australian administration under the name Christian Missions in Many Lands (CMML). Mission organizations entered districts at the invitation of the government administration, as it established law and order. CMML missionaries were among the first mission groups to enter the western Sepik interior region during the 1950s and, then, the western region of the New Guinea Highlands in the 1960s.
As missionaries moved into each new area, they studied the language and culture, proclaimed the Christian message, established medical clinics, organized primary schools, and set up and managed other projects to promote holistic development. They also established churches and trained leaders and workers, and national Christians joined the missionaries in proclaiming the Gospel among their own people and neighboring tribal groups.
However, announcing the good news is only part of the God-given task. Jesus’s instruction to His followers was to “make disciples,” not just converts (Matthew 28:19). Young believers needed to be mentored toward maturity in every area of life. Therefore, missionaries worked hard to ensure the new believers learned in a variety of settings, using several methods.
They emphasized knowledge and practical application, teaching with the use of visuals, including stick figures on a blackboard, flannelgraph, and pictures. Extensive repetition of information was the norm. New believers received teaching on Sunday mornings during church services, in classes before and after baptism, at women’s meetings, and in literacy schools.
Traditional New Guinean cultures were strictly oral in communication. However, missionaries considered literacy essential for the ongoing growth of individual believers and churches. Eventually, they held weekend and five-day Bible schools in local churches. To prepare men, and eventually women, for Bible teaching and leadership roles, the missionaries organized formal Bible schools, which used methods of teaching and learning focused on reading and writing. By God’s enabling, these efforts produced lasting results.
However, there was a problem. Mentoring of new believers was not being practiced by Melanesians in many churches like evangelism was. As one retired missionary couple pointed out, after a return visit to Papua New Guinea, “The churches are good at evangelism. Every year, there are evangelistic efforts of various types, and fruit is seen. But there is a lack of follow-up afterward. So many contacts are not nurtured as they need to be.” (1) If the churches were going to continue to mature, this problem needed to be addressed.
During our years in Papua New Guinea, we have focused on mentoring. It involves developing relationships with people, young and old, and within that relational context, discipling new believers and training leaders, teachers, and other mentors. We emphasize not only mentoring men and women toward maturity but also preparing and encouraging them to mentor the next generation of Melanesians. But that goal was the challenge. How could we encourage mature Christians to be more actively involved in “making disciples” of new believers and preparing them for future leadership and service in the church and community?
In our early years, we set an example for mentoring in the manner with which we were most familiar. Coming from a highly literate culture that emphasized doctrinal content, we assumed that discipleship was largely accomplished by transferring knowledge through literacy. So we organized Bible studies with new Christians who lived near us. These studies required would-be disciples to read essential information about being a follower of Jesus and write responses to carefully designed questions that guided their thinking to “proper conclusions.” Then, they discussed their answers in small group settings.
For those who lived at a distance from us, we distributed workbooks on discipleship. The workbooks included questions that encouraged thoughtful interaction with the written material and, again, solicited the desired response. We monitored our distance students’ progress by having them return their workbooks to us for grading. Those who finished well received a certificate. This method was popular among young people who knew how to read and write, and by God’s grace, it produced lasting results in some lives.
In partnership with local leaders, we conducted weeklong discipleship courses among tribal groups in our region. The courses focused on communicating important doctrinal and practical knowledge, and in some cases, students and teachers followed them up with a week of evangelistic and pastoral visits in the region’s villages.
In 1987, we were invited to move to a regional-level Bible school to teach and mentor students and Melanesian teachers. We have been involved in teaching and training Bible school principals and teachers ever since. Over the years, in partnership with other missionaries and local leaders, we have conducted many in-service courses for Bible school teachers in the Sepik and Highlands regions. Despite these efforts, making disciples of the next generation was not becoming a strength in many local churches.
Over the years, we have continued to visit areas where we worked in the 1980s and 1990s. Often, we conduct short courses on topics of perceived need. On one such occasion nearly 20 years ago, we met with about 30 Sepik Christians, many of whom we had known since they were children and teenagers. They had since become leaders and pastors in their communities and churches. The week focused on pastoral ministry with an emphasis on mentoring the next generation of Jesus-followers.
At one point during the week, we suggested to the group that we think about their learning experience growing up. Since the group comprised mostly men, we asked them to recall how their fathers had taught them to make bows and arrows. This skill is an essential part of their enculturation, since the Sepik male’s role includes providing protein for the family diet by hunting wild pigs, cassowaries, and other animals.
While the group called out the steps in the learning process, we wrote their words on the blackboard. The training was something they knew well, and their enthusiasm was evident. The following is the process they described:
Our fathers made their own bows and arrows while we sat close to them, watching them intently. As our fathers worked, they explained to us what they were doing. After we had seen them make their own bows and arrows, they gave us the opportunity to try out the skill with our own hands. They watched us closely, monitoring our efforts. When we did not do a part of the process right, they corrected us. As we began to improve, they praised us so that we would be encouraged. This learning process continued until we became proficient at making our own bows and arrows.
We will come back to what happened next at the course. First, however, note several basic elements of traditional Sepik mentoring: Sepik mentoring is informal and relational. It does not happen within a formal, programmatic structure but during the normal course of everyday life and in the context of close, trusting relationships. Sepik mentoring involves modeling and oral explanation. Mentors demonstrate what needs to be learned and insist that their protégés watch closely. In oral cultures, words have meaning only when they are part of a life event. Therefore, mentors use spoken words to describe what protégés are seeing. In traditional Sepik mentoring, reading and writing are unnecessary.
Sepik mentoring involves hands-on practice. Sepiks learn best through activity—not just by being shown and told how. Immediate application ensures that what is taught is understood and retained. Sepik mentoring includes correction and affirmation. Sepik mentors correct errors, encourage progress, and insist on competence, and for good reason: skill development ensures the community’s survival.
Further examination of Sepik cultures reveals that mentoring is holistically focused. The transmission of knowledge and skill development addresses the whole person, including spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and social elements.
Now, we return to the pastoral ministry course. Once the participants completed their description of the mentoring process they had experienced growing up, and now practice with their own children, we asked them to compare it with their knowledge of how Jesus mentored His disciples. Was Jesus’s method similar or different?
Together, we worked our way through their process, comparing each step with what we knew about Jesus’s method of mentoring from the Gospel accounts. We watched the men’s faces as they made the connection, as they recognized the similarities. Here was a skill they knew well, a method of making disciples that was not foreign and unnatural. It was an eye-opening experience.
That insight has had an impact on their practice of making disciples. Although they had been employing Melanesian-style mentoring in their family life, now they began doing so with Christ-centered intention and purpose. In subsequent visits to that area, we were encouraged to hear them describe how their “newfound” skill was producing results in the lives of the next generation of Jesus-followers. ■
Dan and Janet Anderson are commended from Emmaus Bible Chapel in St. Louis, Missouri.
(1) D. and B. Thorp, Christian Brethren Churches in Papua New Guinea 1951–2004: How Did It All Happen? (Auckland: Dennis and Barbara Thorp, 2005), 46.