You may have heard that I have a passion for disciple-making! I’d like to tell you why.
In the last two years I have had the enormous privilege of travelling to many places in the country and meeting with churches. Many churches are struggling but I would say that one of the key characteristics of churches that are growing is that they are clear about their mission – their purpose – what God has called them to do.
What is our mission? What is our core business? Churches do many things but what is the one thing at the centre of all that activity.
There are different views about that so there is room for discussion and you might want to discuss it with me later. However, I want to try to explain to you what I believe.
Read Matthew 28:16-20
I am sure you are very familiar with the words of the Great Commission. They are the very last words in Matthew’s gospel; the last words Jesus spoke to His disciples before He ascended into heaven; Jesus’ parting command to His followers. The last thing Jesus does is send them out and tell them what to do. Surely this final commissioning of His followers is crucially important.
In the commission there are four verbs – go, make disciples, baptise, and teach to obey. Grammatically, one is the main verb; the command. The others are participles that are secondary and that support the main command. Which one is the main verb?
I have asked that question all over the country and the almost unanimous response is that the main verb is “go”. It isn’t. Often this passage is preached on in the context of missions services and the emphasis is often on “go. But the main verb is actually “make disciples”. The command given by the departing Lord Jesus to the church is “make disciples”.
Jesus’ last command is our first priority. That is where He tells us what our mission is. What is it? Make disciples.
In this passage Jesus also explains what that means and how to go about it. The participles tells us how to make disciples.
What does Go” imply? Maybe it means “Get off your backside and do something.” Maybe it means “Get out of your comfort zone. The mission field is outside the church. Get amongst it.” It literally means “As you go”. That puts even more emphasis on the disciple-making because Jesus is saying, “As you go through life; wherever you are, make disciples.” The one thing we are to be always thinking about is making disciples.
The other two participles show us Step 1 and Step 2 in disciple-making. Firstly, Jesus said to baptise. In that one word, Jesus summarises evangelism. Baptism clearly implies that the gospel has been preached, that people have come to faith and that that faith is being celebrated through baptism. Step 1 of disciple-making is bringing people to faith in Jesus – evangelism.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. The next participle describes Step 2 – “teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” Many churches celebrate a person’s coming to faith and then leave them but Jesus said that half of the Great Commission happens after the person has been converted.
I grew up in the church. My parents were Christians so I was in church from before my birth. But I would say I became a Christian when I was about 12 and at an Open Air Campaigners after-school programme. There were all the usual games, quizzes, stories and so on but one day the person leading that programme said, “If anyone is interested in knowing more about having a relationship with Jesus, stay behind after we have finished.”
I and a few of my friends stayed. It was there that I heard that Jesus had died for me – that I could be forgiven because Jesus had paid the price for my sins – and that I needed to decide my response to Him. That day I prayed a prayer that changed my life.
But that raises a question: when I had spent all that time in Sunday School and so on, why wasn’t I challenged to receive Jesus as my Saviour there? I really value all the input I had through Sunday school, all the Bible stories I learnt and so on. I am not saying it wasn’t valuable but I do suspect that my church was not good at actually challenging me to take that step of putting my faith in Jesus.
Open Air campaigners told my church about the step I had taken and I don’t think my church did anything more. There was a youth group but that kind of fizzled out. My faith was fed during my teenage years by Youth For Christ. I used to travel, once a month, into Wellington to go to YFC rallies. Again, why didn’t my church provide. Why did it have to be a para-church organisation?
Actually, I think those rallies kept my faith alive but they didn’t grow me. When I went to university I was still a very immature Christian.
Jesus said that the Step 2 of disciple-making is teaching Christians to obey everything He has commanded. Once a person has come to faith and been baptise, the task of the church is not finished. The responsibility then is to nurture that baby Christian to maturity.
Note that Jesus didn’t say, “teach them everything I have commanded you”. He said “teach them to obey everything I have commanded”. The two are very different. Teaching everything Jesus commanded could be accomplished in a few hours – we could just read the gospels. But teaching someone to obey everything He commanded is about transformed lives. It is about people living more and more in harmony with Jesus’ commands. In other words, it is about people becoming more Christ-like. It is not information. It is transformation. It is about changed lives.
Note also that Jesus talked about disciples obeying everything He has commanded – not just a selection of things; not just what is convenient – everything: turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, dying to ourselves. This is not trivial. How long do you think that takes to teach someone to obey everything Jesus commanded? How long did it take you to obey everything Jesus has commanded?
My church didn’t do it for me. No one took me under their wing and taught me to obey Jesus. I was brought to birth then abandoned. I suspect that very few of us have been intentionally discipled. Most churches aren’t very good at evangelism either (Step1).By-and-large the church is not doing the very thing we have been told to do.
I think this is our core business. “But,” you might say, “only Matthew talks about making disciples. The Great Commission occurs at the end of all of the gospels and at the beginning of Acts and they don’t talk about disciple-making. Surely, if it was our core business, it would be mentioned in all of the versions of the Great Commission.”
You would be exactly right. The Great Commission is at the end of each gospel and at the beginning of Acts. And, yes, only Matthew explicitly mentions disciple-making.
Mark talks about preaching the gospel to all creation.
Luke talks about preaching forgiveness of sin in Jesus name, to all nations.
John records Jesus saying “as the Father has sent me I send you” and also talks about forgiveness
Acts talks about being witnesses to Jesus.
None of them explicitly mentions disciple-making. They are about the preaching of the gospel of forgiveness and while they don’t explicitly call it disciple-making preaching the gospel is Step 1. None of them would have suggested that people to be converted then abandoned. That would be like saying that the job of parents is to simply have babies and not raise them. You can’t be converted and not become a disciple. All of them, actually, were talking about disciple-making without using that term.
They would never suggest Step 1 without Step 2 because they had watched Jesus. The most important thing Jesus did was die for us but the second most important thing he did was make disciples. He grew twelve men to maturity. It was a slow process. It didn’t look very promising at times, but, actually, in the end, they were transformed. Jesus invested heavily into the lives of 12 men utterly transforming them. He grew them to the point where He could return to heaven and leave His ministry in their hands. They knew about Christ-likeness because they had been mentored by Christ. They knew how to make disciples because they had seen Him make disciples.
Even if we didn’t have Jesus’ last command; if we simply said, “We are to do what Jesus did, so what did Jesus do?” the answer would still be “make disciples”. That is what Jesus did.
And those disciples made disciples. Read the book of Acts.
Or consider Paul. He travelled around preaching the gospel and often staying in one place for a significant time teaching the new converts. It is exactly that same process: preach the gospel, baptise them, then teach them to be mature Christians.
And look at how Paul describes his own mission.
Col 1:28-19 It is Him we proclaim (Jesus) teaching and admonishing everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
All of Paul’s energy, in fact, all of Jesus’ energy working through Paul, was focused on one thing: presenting everyone fully mature in Christ. Paul preached and taught and admonished so as to present everyone (everyone! He had a big dream) fully mature in Christ. Disciples of Jesus Christ. Paul always had apprentices with him – people like Timothy, Titus, Luke, Silas, Epaphras. Paul trained people for ministry by taking them with him on his missionary journeys.
Is that sufficient reason to believe that disciple-making is our core business? Jesus did it. Jesus commanded it. His disciples did it. Paul was single-mindedly focused on it. Is that sufficient?
I believe there is one question that can be used to assess every aspect of the life of a church: How many disciples are being made?
But you know what? Somehow the life of the church has morphed to become something else. In a famous survey in the States some years ago, 89% of Christians said that the church existed to look after them and their families. That is horrifying. It is all about me. The church exists to look after me. No it doesn’t. We are the church, commissioned to make disciples.
I know that this might be intimidating for some people. You might be thinking “I am not good at evangelism.” Some of us are allergic to evangelism. Actually it frightens me a wee bit too. I am not an evangelist but, look at that, it is a major part of my job! That’s scary. But I know that this is what Jesus has asked us to do so I am going to have to learn and get out of my comfort zone. I am committed to disciple-making not because I am good at it but because Jesus has asked us to do it.
I am not going to force you to do anything. Life will go on. Church life will go on.
Remember, this is not about just evangelism. It is also about growing Christians to maturity. Maybe that is where God will use you. But the key point is: our mission is to make disciples. The question is: Will we?
I believe there is no greater satisfaction than to be doing the will of God. I think we have an opportunity to be part of a wild adventure and a part of what God wants to do. I believe that church growth is not a matter of gimmicks and techniques. It is a matter of doing what we have been asked to do.
If it is intimidating at the moment, let’s take some time to talk about it more? Let’s grow into it together, allowing God to teach us and use us. Maybe it is not as frightening as we imagine. Maybe it is very do-able. I believe that if we say to God that we want to be obedient, he will be delighted and He will honour us for that and He will teach us and lead us. I think the abundant life Jesus talked about is found by those who do what Jesus has asked them to do.
Just so you know that I am not the only person saying this, look at this video. It is promoting conference next year.
At the beginning of the Great Commission, Jesus said “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” At the end He said, “And I will be with you always to the very end of the age.” The One who has all authority in heaven and earth has promised to be with us when we engage in His mission. It is as we are obedient that we experience the presence of Jesus.
It will be an adventure into the unknown and we will make some mistakes but, actually, I want to be obedient and I hope you do too.