Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)
Notice that Jesus says that all authority belongs to Him. He is Lord. As believers and as a church, we recognize His leadership. He is in charge; we are His followers. As Christians, we exist for His glory and for His purposes. In this passage, He has given us a sacred mission: to go and make disciples. Two things come to mind when I think of this command. First, many pastors and Bible college professors have propagated the idea that this mission is given to only those trained in a seminary or Bible college. However, according to this command, it is the job of every believer to make disciples. The church is supposed to equip its people (every person) to be an army released on its community. Second, this command calls us to make disciples and not converts, and there is a big difference (more on this later).
The discipleship process Jesus modeled was essential to His plan to reach the world. In John 17:3–4, Jesus said, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” It is not surprising to me that Jesus made this claim that His work was finished; it is when He said it that is worth commenting on. In this passage, Jesus claims that His work was done, even though He had not yet gone to the Cross. As believers we know that His primary purpose for coming to earth was to pay for the sins of all who would accept His grace through faith. The Cross is clearly central to His mission. However, this passage reveals something else. Jesus is praying to the Father before the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. He says here that He has completed something. Completed what? I believe He was talking about having completed the training of His twelve disciples. He was ready to release them into the world to make disciples themselves.
Too often Christians focus rightly on the gospel message of the Cross but forget about the discipleship process Jesus revealed and modeled. Again, He came not only to die but also to give us a model for disciple-making that trains Christians so they can accurately represent Him and deliver His message to the world. If Jesus had not trained disciples who could in turn train others, the gospel message would have been lost. No one would have heard about it after the disciples were dead.
You might be thinking, But we have the Word of God. While that is true, think about it. How did we get the Gospels? From the apostles, Jesus’ disciples. Or maybe you are thinking, Well, after the apostles wrote the Word, the Holy Spirit takes it from there. The Spirit and the written Word work together to reach the world. But if that is all it takes to reach the world, why did Jesus tell us to go and make disciples? And why did Paul say to train up reliable people who would teach others? Clearly, mature believers play a part in parenting spiritual children to know Jesus, and mature believers also play a part in training future disciples who will go on to train others.
Discipleship is so much more than just sharing the news about Jesus; it is also about teaching people to obey the commands Jesus gave us. Unfortunately, many churches have not taken this charge seriously, and they are experiencing significant problems. This whole issue of discipleship is critical if we want to save the church from the Sunday-morning show and make it a place where real relationship and real change takes place.
No plan b
Many Christians believe that they are unimportant to the cause of Christ and that the work of the church is the job of the clergy. So when I ask Christians why they have never served in the church, they often say, “Because I didn’t think I could.” Yet the Bible clearly states that all believers have been given the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19) and that we are all part of the priesthood of believers (see 1 Peter 2:5). We are all saved by grace through faith for good works, which God planned for us before time began (see Ephesians 2:8).
Matthew 16:18 makes it clear that Jesus intended to create a team: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (ESV). The church is God’s team. Those on His team work together under His direction to accomplish the goal of taking light to a dark planet. We are saved and placed onto God’s team to do the part He gifted us to do in the context of the team (see Romans 12:4–8). Again, we are all given abilities to edify and help the team be all it is supposed to be (see 1 Peter 4:10–11). These abilities are not for our own glory but for God’s. Some might feel they have no real abilities to contribute to the team, but that isn’t true. Paul says that everyone is important and everyone plays a role (see 1 Corinthians 12:12–31).
Tragically, most believers do not know or do not accept that we are God’s Plan A for reaching the world and that there is no Plan B. Too often our idea of being on a mission with God (if we think that is even our job) is inviting our unbelieving friends and family to church so the pastor can convince them to accept Christ. If we believe that these new converts should be taught at all, we certainly don’t think we are qualified to teach them. We have no idea that conversion is just the beginning of a spiritual growth process and that what comes next—discipleship—will determine if a person matures spiritually to a stage where that disciple experiences real change that others will notice.
Because of this view of Christianity, most believers are not equipped to do more than attend church. Most have few unbelieving friends because they’ve moved away from folks who don’t know Christ and entered into relationships with other Christians. Those who still have unbelieving friends often don’t know enough theology to answer the spiritual questions their non-Christians friends might ask. Why is this the case? Once again, I believe it is because most Christians were not discipled properly. Maybe they heard a sermon about discipleship once or attended a Sunday school class, but making disciples takes much more than listening to a lecture and knowing right theology. Discipleship requires real teaching and real learning. It requires conversation, modeling, encouragement, debriefing, and practice, all of which need to happen in the context of relationship. Without relationship between believers, there is no model to follow, no authenticity, no accountability, no application, and no support for the journey. These things come through personal contact. And because that relational context for learning is lacking, life change is much rarer than it should be among Christians today.
Many believers who do share their faith are spiritually immature, self-absorbed, or unwise in how they relate to the lost. As a group, Christians are known more for what we are against than for our love. As a result of our spiritual immaturity, unbelievers don’t want what we have, which is understandable. If we are spiritually immature and act like spiritual brats, why would unbelievers want to hang out with us in the church? They can find enough drama in their own lives without joining our drama-filled buildings on the weekends.
When a church spends most of its time and energy putting on a weekly show, the pastor is too busy to create a system by which people are being discipled. This behavior reveals that the leaders have a player mentality rather than a coaching mindset. Consequently, Christians with gifts that the church needs, such as leadership, end up taking their abilities into the business or sports world because the church is not training and using them. If making biblical disciples is the business of the church, and business is good, every need of the church will be met. When we disciple our people, leaders naturally develop and emerge.
Putman, Jim. 2010. Real-Life Discipleship: Building Churches That Make Disciples. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.