…To “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything [he had taught and] commanded.” This was the Risen King revealing God’s mission to the world, through the gathered disciples. In many Bible translations we’ve aptly titled it the Great Commission, because of the clarity of vocation for the church, those gathered together under Christ.
On this blog we’ve often written about discipleship in connection with church planting, defining church planting as the fruit of disciples who make disciples who can also make disciples. Disciple-making is the call of the Great Commission. In other words, the mission of the church isn’t evangelism, it’s discipleship.
In an interpretive misunderstanding of the “go” in Jesus’ Commission, we’ve made the “going” the mission. The more literal translation in the Greek is not an imperative “go,” but rather a descriptor of how we make disciples: as the disciples are going (back home from the mount in Galilee), and as followers of Christ we each go about our lives (our witness), we make disciples of all the people we encounter, baptizing them when they recognize they have a need to travel a different road (repentance and salvation). Then, they begin the lifelong journey of intentional and accountable discipling of one another.
Before we go further, I do want to say that I am thoroughly convinced that all humans are always being discipled by others, and therefore are witnesses of that discipleship. My Grandmother discipled me to view the mentally challenged adults she worked among with respect and honor. My Great Grandparents discipled me to care for the frail and elderly when I served tea and talked with those in their old age care home. Culture and societal values have certainly discipled me to a variety of worldviews and ideas, many of which I still find myself needing to submit to Christ. Everyone is being discipled, and by the way we speak, form opinions, act or don’t act (our witness), everyone is discipling others whether they realize it or not.
With that in mind, every person we encounter and are in some form of relationship with, are being discipled by us before we even mention Jesus/church/God/salvation. What we are discipling them to, is another matter.
Here, we are talking about the kind of discipleship that shapes us towards being image bearers of God’s character, by living lives increasingly reflective of Christ’s kingdom point of view. That’s a lifelong, relational journey, putting all our heart, mind, soul and strength increasingly under the Lordship of Christ. When we are on that kind of journey, evangelism is what naturally happens “as we go” as demonstrative witnesses of Christ where we live, work, play and pray.
Somewhere along the way, discipling one another in intentional, relational communities has become something many leaders yearn for, but are wary to lead into, knowing many church-goers like going to church, but are not particularly interested in being in accountable discipleship relationships with the group of people they worship with on Sunday. We compartmentalize different aspects of our lives and justify and rationalize that because Jesus has saved the world and we’ve accepted that gift through baptism, God’s main requirement of us is that we “go” to church and possibly serve in the church’s programs and activities.
Evangelism, then, has morphed into being a task/program of helping people make a decision for Christ by telling them a particular aspect of the gospel and encouraging them to come to church. Disciple making – on the level Jesus made disciples – became something optional as long as we could keep people attending our worship services. Thus the creation of what is popularly known in the West as “consumer Christianity,” and our current non-discipleship crisis.
As Dallas Willard is famously known for saying, “non-discipleship is the elephant in the church.”
We’ve long known the elephant was there. We thought that we could solve our current declines in church attendance with more evangelism, more “witnessing” while our own witness to the world in word and deed, both as individuals and as corporate entities, looked not a lot different from those who did not profess to be followers of Christ and tragically, worse. Conferences, books, lectures and missional and church planting networks rose up to help us with increasing our evangelistic impulses, whilst ignoring the elephant taking up the majority space in the room with the solution written across its body: discipleship.
To be clear, if we do not refocus our time, our budgets, our energy, and our mission, toward making disciples who make disciples and so on, there will be little evangelism (witness). Evangelism happens because we are making disciples who are then making disciples who also make disciples.
Matthew commentarian Rodney Reeves says it like this: “When these disciples make disciples of all peoples, then the reign of Christ is present. And when those disciples make other disciples, then the unstoppable kingdom of heaven will continue to extend all the way to the ends of the earth.”1
You might think this is just hair splitting, but just looking around us, we can see that making people into church-goers has not been as effective as we would hope in changing the lens through which they see the world. We all have multiple, and often opposing, ideas on politics, culture, social issues, entertainment, the poor, the marginalized, the homeless. That’s normal, of course, we aren’t talking about uniformity where we all think, act, vote or even necessarily interpret scripture the same way. But we are talking about sanctification, where our worldview, with the guidance of the Spirit and one another, begins to be reshaped so that we look, speak, behave, and love more and more like Jesus, living life by the examples he taught and by obeying his commandments of loving God, self and neighbour with all we are and all we have as we participate in God’s kingdom of peace, joy, righteousness and love towards all humanity.
In the following posts that look at the crisis of non-discipleship the church faces, we will examine some things we need to rethink and some things we need to lay down next time. In the meantime, ask for God to help us be open for all our hearts, minds, soul and strength to be shaped like Christ “as we are going”…
- Reeves, Rodney, Matthew: The Story of God Bible Commentary