My family and I were missionaries overseas for about 10 years. During our time as international missionaries, we had these things called furloughs or home assignments. “What is that?” you might ask. Well, those were the times when we returned to the US to visit our prayer partners and financial supporters. During our visits, as the token missionary, I was usually asked to speak on missions. Seems like a no brainer, right? A missionary should speak on missions. Well, I soon found out that when I presented missions to churches, their feedback made me realize that a truly biblical understanding of missions has either been lost or at least misplaced.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that these churches love missions and have their heart set on honoring God with their missions’ programs. My observation is that there may be some churches that are not necessarily focusing on the same end goal that Christ had.
Let’s start the conversation with this question: What is the Great Commission? When I asked that question from the pulpit, the well-meaning pew sitters often responded, “preach the gospel.” Um…. yes…. I would respond. I knew that they had Mark 16:15 in mind. So, I would clarify: According to Jesus’ words in Matthew 28, what is the Great Commission? What are our marching orders as believers? Again, the answer would usually be “preach the gospel”. Well… as I stood behind the pulpit, I wondered what I should say. The well-meaning audience seated before me didn’t understand that they were only speaking a half truth. They were expressing a lack of understanding about the meaning of the Great Commission.
I would like to say that as a furloughing missionary speaker I found myself in this situation only a few times. But the reality was that I found myself talking with people who expressed a less than full understanding of the Great Commission much more often than I thought possible. Each time I spoke with someone who had a less than accurate understanding of the Great Commission I asked myself, how can I redirect their zeal and efforts to what Jesus commanded in Matthew 28 without crushing their evangelistic spirits fueled by their understanding of what was recorded in Mark’s gospel?
It is hard for me to fault these dear people because I grew up with a similar mindset. Like many of you, I grew up in an environment that was very focused on missions and in getting the gospel out around the world, but did not have a structured focus on making disciples in order to see that gospel proclamation produced more disciples. Now, granted, we are talking about two different eras of ministry.
If you are like me, then you have had the privilege of growing up in a time period when people still had some semblance of a Christian memory. If you are a baby boomer or part of Generation X and were born in the USA, then you probably grew up in a culture that was at least vaguely familiar with the Bible and had some level of respect for it. You grew up being told the great tales of old like Noah and the great flood, David and Goliath, Samson, and probably a few more tales about well-known Bible characters. Today is a different world. Today there are people in our own back yards that have never really heard the gospel. They have no index of Bible stories saved up in their memory banks. How in the world can that be? There are most likely many factors to consider. One of the most important ones must be a lack of intentional focus on disciple-making.
Many churches place the main emphasis of their adherence to the great commission by faithfully preaching the gospel. Not a bad thing, right? Anytime we can preach the gospel that is a good thing. But Christ’s own words in Matthew 28:19-20 tell us that we are to do more than just proclaim the truth, we are to make disciples of all nations.
Let’s break that down and make sure we understand what these terms mean. The term discipleship seems like it has become rather ambiguous and hard to define for more people. That is one reason why I prefer to use the phrase make disciples rather than discipleship. Many times, the term discipleship indicates a program of some kind that has a beginning and an end. On the other hand, the concept of making disciples indicates a long-term relationship focused on growing in depth, and multiplication.
A simple definition of making disciples would be to reproduce the treasured faith you have in Christ in someone else, and help them to grow to the point of spiritual maturity where they can do the same with someone else. How do we do that and what does that look like? Disciple-making and multiplication takes a commitment to intentional, gospel-focused, life-on-life interaction. When Paul wrote to Timothy reflecting on their disciple-making relationship, Paul reminded Timothy of the times they had spent together. It’s interesting that Paul does not remind Timothy about the football games they may have watched together or the times they enjoyed hanging out around the campfire. No, in 2 Timothy 1:13-14 and 2:1-2, Paul reminds Timothy to make sure he is patterning his life after the treasured biblical instruction he had deposited into Timothy’s life. Guard it, and deposit it into others so that it can be multiplied. Basically, Paul is encouraging Timothy to take the Scripture-laced life instruction he had received, and deposit it into others so that they can multiply the process around the world.
Making disciples is an investment in time. Making disciples is an investment of life. Making disciples is where we take the faith and godly disciplines we have received and grown in, and deposit them into someone else through intentional, life-on-life relationship, expecting them to keep the process going with others. Why are so many people in our nation walking down the streets with no Christian memory? It could be the result of generations of Christians dropping the ball on guarding, depositing, and multiplying the treasured gospel we were given.
Some people have the tendency to view discipling as merely having social interactions with someone as you develop a friendship. Definitely not a bad thing to build and grow relationships, but if that is your only focus, then the attempt falls short of true disciple-making. If the relationship is not intentionally focused on helping the person grow in their understanding and application of Scripture, the gospel, and/or developing spiritual disciplines so that it can all be reproduced in someone else, then it is not true disciple-making as commanded by Christ in Matthew 28. So what is disciple-making? One of several definitions could be: intentionally gospel focused, life-on-life relationships that seek to multiply mature Christian faith in others.
Now, who do we place in our disciple-making cross hairs? Christ said that we are to make disciples of all nations (every ethos). That means that we are to see the multiplication of disciples among every ethnic group. As you may have noticed, interacting with people from other ethnic backgrounds no longer requires a passport, visa, and a myriad of vaccinations. Now, every ethnos has now come to your hometown. I live in a small town in North East Ohio. Even in our little town we have people from Saudi Arabia, Romania, Ukraine, Africa, India, Japan, and China, as-well-as Americans from a variety of different cultural backgrounds. My point is that in the past, the church interacted with people of different nations (ethnos) by sending a missionary around the world. While being an international missionary is still a valid calling and worthwhile of your support, you have a similar opportunity to make disciples of every ethnos right here at home, just like the missionaries do while living abroad.
So, what does it take to make disciples of every ethnos? It requires the same gospel-focused intentionality that making disciples of your own ethnos does. Yes, there are definitely some cross-cultural things to consider, but that is the beauty of having a Scripture-focused, disciple-making plan. God’s Word spans the cultural gap. God’s inspired Word is relevant and powerful for people from all time periods and from every ethnic group.
Disciple-making is not a new concept or a fashion trend. While an intentional focus on biblical disciple-making does seem to rise and fall from generation to generation, let’s make a conscious effort to bring it to the forefront of our generation today. Christ has given His followers a divine command: Make disciples of all nations. That is for all of us living in this time, during these world events. I would challenge you to re-focus on biblical disciple-making. Dig into God’s Word so that the overflow of your study just spills out of you when you talk with people about the Lord. Intentionally look to multiply your faith in people who are just like you, and also in people who are the exact opposite of you, so that they can repeat the process with others in their lives.