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Discipleship at the James O. Fraser Centre

This article looks at life, learning, and practice at the J. O. Fraser Centre in northern Thailand to illustrate how disciples can be formed in a community context.

 

Richard Cho was born in Korea but grew up in Australia. He is married to Lisa and they have four children. They moved to Thailand with OMF in 2007 and were initially involved in church planting. In December 2013 they joined the staff at the J. O. Fraser Centre.​​

 

 

Jim McIntosh and Linda McIntosh met at Cornerstone Community, a Discipleship Centre, in their home country of Australia. They married in 1997 and have five children. After ten years of dairy farming, the whole family moved to north Thailand in 2008 to take over from Ted and Nell Hope at the J. O. Fraser Centre. They have enjoyed watching God develop the Centre from its beginning stages and seeing the number of staff and students grow.

 

 

Discipleship at the James O. Fraser Centre

Mission Round Table Vol. 9 No. 2 (Sep 2014): 18–21

How does a dairy-farming family from Australia with little formal theological education end up establishing a discipleship-based Bible college in Northern Thailand? That is a mystifying question. Yet, God knew that they were exactly the right people for the mammoth task before them. With 150 machete-wielding tribal people, they transformed an abandoned resort overrun by the jungle into what is now known as the James O. Fraser Centre (JOFC).

Background

For years, the Lisu Leaders from Myanmar and Thailand had wanted help from OMF to provide their young leaders with accredited theological qualifications, English language skills, and vocational training so they could send out self- supported evangelists. Ted and Nell Hope, who had been pioneer missionaries to the Lisu in Thailand since the 1950s, came out of retirement in their late 70s to help. The vision was to see Lisu and other people groups spiritually, theologically, and practically equipped to live as vibrant Christians and reach out in mission within and beyond their own people group. In 2008, the present site in Chiang Dao, North Thailand was purchased and named the James O. Fraser Centre (JOFC) after the first CIM missionary to the Lisu. But since Ted and Nell Hope were seeking to return home from the mission field, they needed someone to carry on the vision for JOFC.

Jim and Linda McIntosh had owned and run a dairy farm in Australia for ten years when God called them to move their family of five children to Thailand. Having previously studied at Cornerstone Community, a biblical discipleship training centre in the outback of Australia, they always knew in their hearts that God wanted them to make disciples and send them out to do mission. They felt that the best way to train the students at JOFC was to combine an in-depth discipleship program, laying a solid spiritual foundation, with quality training in functional English.

Effective discipleship requires a limited number of students Since discipleship is very time consuming, we have limited student numbers at JOFC to ensure we can disciple them effectively. The JOFC began in 2009 with one missionary family and eight students. Over time, as student numbers increased, God brought additional staff members to JOFC. Currently we have three missionary families, one Thai family, and a Lisu student who has completed the course on the teaching staff along with thirty-five students.

How is JOFC different?

What makes JOFC different from many other Bible Schools within Thailand and elsewhere is the centrality of discipleship in the training program. The model of discipleship we aspire to is that of Jesus and his disciples. Although Jesus had many disciples, his focus was on the twelve with whom he lived and who he taught, not in a classroom, but as life happened.

There are five essential aspects of the discipleship program at JOFC.

1. Community

All the staff and students at JOFC are required to live together in community. Worship, meals, social times, and accommodation are in the context of Christian community. After a few weeks living in community, there are no facades. People cannot hide and their true character is soon revealed. The goal of portraying all of life as spiritual is achieved when students and staff live side by side. Staff and senior students have the opportunity to model walking in the spirit, resolving conflicts, managing time and resources, exercising people skills, and living out their family relationships.

2. Mentors

As part of discipleship, students are assigned a mentor who will teach, guide, and pray with them. The mentor is a staff member or a more senior student who has been discipled this way and is currently meeting with a mentor. This structure allows a level of accountability within the whole community and provides a relational way to approach personal character and discipline issues. The meetings take place once a week and intentionally meet in different places, such as under a shelter, in a house, at a cafe, at the market, and driving in the car. The purpose is to engage in deep spiritual conversations and prayer in many contexts in life. This then becomes a reproducible model that students can continue in their different contexts after JOFC.

3. Work

Whilst dependent upon the Lord’s provision, the Centre aims to be semi self-sufficient in areas such as growing rice, vegetables, and other crops, engaging in building and community aid projects, and in cooking and cleaning. This work environment provides a “real life” opportunity to put into practice biblical principles being studied. Work is where a person’s true character is revealed. Work also provides opportunities to develop vocational skills and develop work ethics. And as is really important in Eastern cultures, this kind of work places staff and students on the same level. By working alongside each other, they model Jesus’ servanthood and humility.

4. Study

After worshiping together each week- day morning, students are taught in a classroom or small group setting. All students start with the two-year discipleship and functional English program. The basics of the Christian life—such as having time alone with God and prayer—are covered in the beginning. This is important, as it helps us discover that some students are not actually Christians and ensures that the right foundations are in place. Those who complete the initial course and have demonstrated appropriate character, a heart to serve God, and who have attained an appropriate level of English, are invited to study the two-year theo- logical course in English.

Although some people question teaching English to the students, as the majority come from a tribal background with hardly any resources in their own language, it was felt that the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.[1]

5. Mission

Students are involved in mission activities throughout the course. We want to see people actively sharing their faith and discipling others, so we model and practice it throughout the entire time they study at JOFC. Students are sent to surrounding villages to teach and minister. We have planted a new church in a local village that enables students to be involved in weekly meetings and disciple new believers during the week. Each term break, evangelism trips are organised and senior students are sent across borders into other countries for months at a time.

Whole of life discipleship

The concept, “whole of life” discipleship is foundational to what we do at JOFC. We believe that students will learn as much outside of the classroom as inside. Rice planting is a good example of what we mean by “whole of life” discipleship. Each year at planting time, we stop classes and all the staff and students go to the rice fields for a week of rice planting. By the end, we are more tired and sore than we have ever been in our lives. Surely there must be a more efficient way of growing rice. A search on Google shows that, yes, machines that can speed up the process of planting rice do exist!

However, at JOFC, we wouldn’t invest in such a machine even if we had the money. Rice-planting week is integral to the “whole of life” discipleship vision of JOFC. It is as we get muddy and dirty, hot and tired, as our bodies ache and we don’t want to do it anymore, that we see true character come out—both in the staff and the students. It is much easier to hide your true self in the classroom behind correct theological answers, than working out on the rice fields.

We don’t just send the students to do the hard manual labour while we sit at our desks preparing for our next classes. As teachers, we lead the way and set the example. The long monotonous hours of pulling and planting provide opportune times to chat and for students and staff to open up to each other.

At one evening worship session at the end of another tiring rice planting day, one of the teachers stood up and openly apologised, asking forgiveness from two students whom he had spoken strongly to in the rice field. He encouraged everyone to go and seek forgiveness from anyone else if they needed to. This is what “whole of life” discipleship is about—through rice planting trials, together we see our need for humility, forgiveness, and fresh starts.

The importance of relationships and the heart of the discipler

One could easily replicate each aspect of the discipleship program at JOFC elsewhere, by living in community, worshiping, working, and ministering together, yet still not experience true discipleship.

A crucial aspect for discipleship is the heart of the discipler and their commitment to discipling other people. JOFC staff need to be proactive about entering the lives of the people they are discipling. They need to get out of their own home/life/world and enter that of the students as best they can. They need to build trust and care and also invite that student into their own lives and share with them.

This part of the program takes time, more time than is given to formal teaching. At JOFC, there are no “clock off” times; all of life is shared. That does not mean there is no personal time, rest time, or family time, but these important areas of life are worked out in the context of community.

Therefore, for staff at JOFC having a real, personal, and genuine relationship with the Lord that shines in every area of their life is more important than any training in evangelism, church planting, gospel sowing, leading worship, or teaching. From their love and intimacy with the Lord Jesus, will spring their ministry. In order to see the vision reached, staff must live it everyday and see it reflected in their students.

Five years on

JOFC has been in operation for five years now. We can see great strengths in the discipleship program and some drawbacks.

Teachability: Whilst God has dramatically transformed many students, there are some students who are not willing to surrender their will to the Lord. As JOFC life is in community, it does not take long to reveal students’ teachability and willingness to let the Lord change them. Sadly, some students leave of their own accord because this environment becomes too uncomfortable. Students who have “tests” put before them are forced to choose an option that brings them to surrender or they have to leave. So far, each student who has left JOFC has done so according to their own choice, but it has been in direct relation to their own response to the Lord’s call to obedience in an area of their life.

Language: Ideally, discipleship would be so much easier if we all spoke the same language and had a better understanding of the student’s culture. (The main teaching is done in English and Thai, though for many their heart languages are Lisu, Lahu, Burmese, Karen, or Akha).

Artificial context: Some people think it is better if we keep the students in their own communities and see discipleship happen there within their own churches. However, at JOFC the vision is specifically to train tribal students to cross borders culturally, linguistically, and geographically to take the gospel to the unreached. Even though we have had to work within the context and constraints we find ourselves in, it actually is conducive to our vision.

Despite these drawbacks, we can see the fruit of the discipleship program here. There are students who give great cause for joy and praise! There is a faithful core group of students who have continued further in their theological studies and are actively involved in local churches, teaching and discipling. They have spent months at a time in other countries teaching in the three-month Lisu Bible Schools. Materials that students have studied and helped develop at JOFC have been translated and then taught to others. Students have a clearer and deeper understanding of the gospel. One Bible study that explains the gospel and teaches about having a daily relationship with God has been used to train over 1,000 Lisu in three different countries.

JOFC students are noted for their genuine Christlike character and their depth of Bible teaching. Some JOFC students are marked as people who are ready to forsake their lives and trust the Lord in his work even without any guarantee of financial support or personal safety. Already there are a group of JOFC students who resemble New Testament disciples in that many of them aren’t well schooled and come from farming backgrounds. They don’t fit the typical “middle class intellectual” mold of graduates coming out of many Bible schools in the west. They leave transformed and passionate to see the lost saved.

One student, Boaz (pseudonym), came to JOFC with a hidden agenda to learn English so he could set up a gem stone trade from within the heart of Myanmar. Boaz soon understood the gospel clearly and the Lord took hold of him. As he was being discipled and studying, Boaz became involved in local evangelismand missions. He made several mission trips into Myanmar and earlier this year was asked to teach in a Lisu Bible School. From the hundred plus students, Boaz prayed and chose a core group of young men that he invested himself in.

Each weekend he would take them out to Shan villages and share the gospel with people who had never heard this wonderful message. At the end of the three-month course, Boaz selected ten young men and led them from village to village sharing the gospel for a whole month. On the weekends, they would visit Lisu churches to encourage them and ask them to pray for their mission. Boaz has returned to JOFC to continue theological studies and take part in local mission.

Conclusion

JOFC is a blessing, not just to the Tribal groups in Thailand, Myanmar, and China, but also to the OMF missionaries and short term workers who have the privilege of serving the Lord in this context. JOFC will be a blessing to the peoples of SE Asia as the gospel is taken to remote and unreached places by people who have understood the gospel, been well discipled, and are able to pass on what they have learned. Just as in 2 Tim 2:1–2, by God’s grace JOFC desires to see four and more generations of evangelization and discipleship taking place, reflecting the key elements of community, study, personal mentoring,  work, and mission, and adapt this to any context to facilitate discipleship in all areas of life, as Jesus did.


[1] At its conception, JOFC was intended to provide education for Lisu from Myanmar. Their leaders requested that English be used as it would raise theological standards and open doors for vocational positions teaching English. This reasoning was acceptable to Ted and Nell Hope and made even more sense when other tribal groups were added to the picture. Thai was rejected as many students were from Myanmar and did not have good Thai, and the missionaries’ Thai was not adequate to teach in that language. Similarly, use of one tribal language would restrict students to that particular tribal group. Since the students came from different tribes, spoke various languages, and would become gateway people into the unreached people groups of Myanmar, China, and Thailand, the vision embraced students from several countries who partnered with Western churches and missionaries, using English as the common language.

The benefits of an English education are that students gain access to  a wealth of theological resources that are predominately in English. Thai has very limited theological resources and almost nothing exists in the tribal languages. English also helps students interact with other missionaries when they work cross culturally and allows graduates to teach English and thus provide themselves with a source of income while they do ministry.

The major disadvantage is the difficulty in getting the majority of the students to a level where they really benefit from the theological resources available in English. And even if they reach this level of English, the question arises whether once they leave, their English will deteriorate to a point where they won’t be able to use the resources (like many Greek and Hebrew students after they leave Bible college). Another problem is that some students are motivated to come to study English rather than be discipled.

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