Getting the Great Commission Right: “GO!” or “Make Disciples”
by Barry G. Carpenter
Audio version: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=61512143956
Video Version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP4z8_KXL3Q
Whenever we in the church talk about missions or evangelism, inevitably Matthew 28:19 comes into the conversation. It could be that it this is in the top five of well known verses in the church. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps some might even consider it to be an overused verse. I confess I am reluctant to speak about it. After all, what else is there to say that has not already been said? I do think, at this juncture in Church history in the West there is something more to say. In fact, I am convinced that the Church in the US has for the most part, completely misunderstood the command given in this verse. Perhaps because of the coldness and inactivity of the church in North America, the past several decades has seen an emphasis being placed on the “go!” In an affluent culture that thinks it can pay its way out of responsibility, we see church members who believe they have fulfilled the call of Christ because they threw a few coppers in the plate for missions. Frankly, I wish they would throw in more and I am thankful for those who can and will give. Money is essential to mobilize. However, we are not commanded to “give.” That alone will not fulfill the Great Commission Ah, then we must “go.” Well, I would say yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if everyone remains seated on the pew then the great commission cannot and will not be fulfilled. Someone will need to leave the four-walls of the church and “go” into the world. For many churches this is an alien concept. The vast majority of “evangelical” churches are not very evangelistic. They have found that it is much easier to invite people to church and let the professional clergy “evangelize” them. Sadly, there are many in church leadership who encourage this. However, this is not evangelism. More to the point, the command of Christ is not “to go.” The command is to make disciples. Consider “Young’s Literal Translation”: “…having gone, then, make disciples…” Going is assumed but the imperative found in this verse is “make disciples.” This changes everything. This means that sharing the gospel message is not enough. God is not commanding the church to merely “spread the gospel” rather we are commanded to build the Kingdom. The visible Kingdom of God on the earth manifests itself in an assembly of believers we call the “church.” This means that evangelism is not enough. We should be “church building.” As has been previously noted, most evangelical churches do not evangelize. However, there is a very encouraging movement in evangelism. There are many individuals and organizations that have dedicated themselves to sharing the Gospel message outside of the
context of working in a local church. I praise the Lord that more and more I am seeing people who are striving to fulfill the call to take the gospel to their community. I am concerned about the privatization of the gospel (by privatization, I mean individuals and para-church groups). The Gospel was given to the church in order to replicate itself. Let me assume that those who are sharing the gospel message are sharing the message of faith and repentance as it is presented in the Bible and that they are doing it ways that are prescribed by God. If that is the case, what is there to be concerned about? The message is correct and the methods are Biblical, what else is there? Frankly, such efforts (while well meaning) completely miss the point. The goal of Christ’s commission is the formation of disciples. Discipleship will not occur by evangelism alone. The prescribed method of God by which people grow in discipleship is the church assembly. Therefore, evangelism must be the work of a church or for the purpose of planting a church. And “evangelists” should be working with the local church to expand God’s Kingdom or working within their culture or cross-culturally to create new assemblies of believers. Lone-wolf Evangelism It is very encouraging that there has been a movement among some within the church to share the Gospel with the lost. There are training programs that the individual Christian can take to be better equipped to share their faith. There are also organizations that promote evangelism and coordinate evangelistic people. Whereas this is encouraging there is also a ground for concern. If the purpose of evangelism is to make disciples then evangelists are to be discipline converts. Biblically, evangelists are not “hit-and-run” agents wagging guerilla warfare. Evangelists are to establish a garrison for believers and to train converts to become disciples. What is the difference between a convert and a disciple? A convert makes a profession of faith but never matures to self-replication. Those who have the gift of evangelism or who feel the burden to share the Gospel must be using their gifts in the local assembly to build-up the church and to expand the Kingdom of God. What if a person sees the Biblical call to evangelize but they are in a church that does not emphasize evangelism? This raises the question: Why would a Christian be in a church that does not follow the simple, clear command of God? Why would a Christian be in a church that is not fulfilling the very purpose of its reason for existing? Granted, there are situations where pastors have inherited a church that has historically not been evangelical but they are laboring to correct this. In such a case, those with the gift or burden of evangelism should partner with their pastor in evangelism. In cases where the church leadership is not actively involved in and participating in engaging the world with the Gospel message to create converts who will become disciples, the evangelist must confront and entreat the leadership. Again, inviting lost people to church is not evangelism. They must show the church leaders that they are in open rebellion to the commission of Christ and call them to repentance and obedience. If the leaders refuse, then the evangelist should leave to find a church that is methodologically Biblical. If such a church does not exist in their area, then they should be working to create one. Biblical Examples of Evangelism
In chapter 2 of the Book of Acts, we have the coming of the Holy Spirit. Immediately thereafter, Peter preaches the Gospel and there are converts. These converts become the church at Jerusalem. In chapter 8, Philip preaches the Gospel in Samaria and there are converts. Peter and John go there to instruct the new converts. At the end of chapter 8, Philip is told to go and meet the Ethiopian on the road and share the Gospel with him. This is the first and only occurrence of the preaching of the Gospel that results in a convert that is not immediately assimilated into a congregation of believers. This is “extra-ordinary.” The normative means of evangelism is going to into the world with the gospel message, the conversion of the lost, the baptism into a local assembly and discipleship. This should be the pattern and practice of evangelists. What about the Apostle Paul? He is well known for his many missionary journeys but the fact is often overlooked that he was a church planter and discipled those who were converted under his ministry. In Acts 11 we see Barnabas and Saul staying in Antioch for a year (v.28) in order to instruct this new church. The church of Antioch grows in the faith and then becomes a “church planting church” (chapter 13). The Christians at Antioch were not nominal converts but because they had been mentored they became self-replicating disciples. Through out the missionary journeys of Paul, there are examples that he and his traveling companions would spend time with converts for the purpose of discipleship. “Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.” Acts 14:3 “And they spent a long time with the disciples.” Acts 14:28 “And having spent some time there, he left and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” Acts 18:23 The Scriptures also tell us that Paul would return to the churches that were planted so that he could spend more time instructing them. In situations where Paul could not stay with a church but had to leave, he left others to instruct. In Ephesians 1:3 Paul says that he left Timothy at the church of Ephesus to instruct them but it was Paul’s intention to return to them (Ephesians 3:14, 15). It should also be noted that Timothy was a disciple of Paul. Paul’s desire and life work was neither to “go” nor even to “preach the Gospel.” The going and the preaching was for the end purpose of making churches filled with disciples. Potential Problems Associated with the Wrong Focus When the focus is on “evangelism” and not on discipleship, problems ensue. Evangelism must be conscientiously linked to Church planting. If not, then there will be no discipleship. If there is no discipleship then the great commission has not been fulfilled. I am sure that there are some who will protest at this point that discipleship is not the problem. Many denominations have had a focus on discipleship. We can look at the largest denomination in the US to see that there has been a focus on discipleship in the past few decades. The SBC saw a large influx of members but they were not able to maintain those members. Many were leaving as fast they were coming into the church. “According to a newly released annual report, membership in the Southern Baptist Convention fell in 2009 by 0.42 percent to 16.16 million.”1 Having been a member of and serving in several SBC churches, I can tell you that the vast majority of people on church rolls are not attending members. In fact, the vast majority have not been seen in years. The estimated number of regular attending members in SBC churches is close to 6 million. Obvious the issue in this case is not discipleship but conversion. The SBC were able to get a great number of people to commit to something but that commitment was not to Christ and the church. If so, they would still be in attendance. There are, however, legitimate issues that occur when evangelism is not connected to church planting or to an existing church. We can look at the itinerate preachers and circuit riders of the “Second Great Awakening.” Time and space will not permit for a complete critique of all the issues (theological and otherwise) that were associated with this movement. Rather, let us focus on the result of these efforts. At camp meeting and “brush arbors” lay-preachers would preach and some people would confess conversion to Christ. The converts would organize themselves into an assembly and were reliant upon the itinerant, circuit riders for preaching. It would not at all be uncommon for a church to meet only once a month for a sermon. Even assuming that the lay-preacher was well studied in the Word (and this is a very big assumption), by only meeting for one service a month the converts (again, assuming that they were genuinely converted) could not and were not disciple. The itinerant preachers would make their rounds until a pastor could be found for the local assemble. So the immature, un-discipled assemble would choose a pastor for themselves. The pastor would most often come from that assemble or a similar one, which meant would not have been mentored or educated in scripture. The requirements for serving as pastor would have been the ability to read. This resulted in ignorance and a spirit of anti-intellectualism that still exists in many of these churches today. Secondly, if there is no one to disciple new converts there is no protection against error or heresy. The new converts are reduced to a pool of shared ignorance of scripture (this can be seen today in small group and Sunday school settings when a person will refer to scripture by saying “I think this means…”). The primary reason Paul left Timothy at Ephesus was to correct the false teaching that were infecting the church (1Timothy 1:3-7; 18-30; etc.). Without discipleship, new converts have no guidance to assist their growth and maturity in the faith and are prey for the ravenous wolves teaching heresies. Finally, without discipleship, new converts will never grow into disciples. At best, they will be nominal, immature Christians. At worst, the pressure of the world and the culture will cause them to shrink back. This is often seen in missions. In countries which are politically or culturally opposed to the Gospel, many confess Christ but because there is n assembly they fade back into the religion and culture from which they came. This begs the question as to if indeed they were converted. As we have no way of knowing, we can observe that even in cultures where Christians are persecuted and killed for their faith, when evangelism is connected to church planting disciples are made (consider places like China, etc.). “Make Disciples” Jesus’ command to the Apostles in the “Great Commission” is to make disciples. This presumes that they will go- that they will leave the comfort of “church” and go into the community or travel to foreign lands. Secondly, a disciple is a person who has been born again. Faith comes through hearing and hearing through the word and how shall they hear except there be a preacher. So, making disciples requires preaching the Word. But, this is not the fulfillment of the commission but only the beginning. Discipleship will take place in an assembly of believers who can mutually support, encourage and minister to each other while receiving instruction from the Word of God by elders (pastor-teachers).