The Christian Mission: Making Disciples

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If you want to build an effective organization, you must know your mission. Whether it’s a restaurant chain, big business, or charity corporation, a mission statement is like the rudder of a ship, keeping the vessel from drifting off course.

But what is the mission statement of the church? We can’t stay “on mission” if we don’t know our mission. Here are a few examples of mission statements from actual local churches:

  • “To reach the valley for Christ”
  • “To Reach Up, Reach Out, and Reach In”
  • “To be a church that lives by faith, is known by love, and is a voice of hope to the world”
  • “We exist to make Heaven more crowded.”
  • “Connecting people to Jesus and one another”
  • “Making Disciples”

Each statement has a slightly different focus. Some are more catchy than others. The last one (Making Disciples) catches my attention. No matter how meaningful or memorable our mission statement, it needs to center on the ultimate mission statement that Jesus gave to us in Matthew 28:18-20:

All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

While the Great Commission must be viewed in light of everything the New Testament says about the church, it is nonetheless a central text for understanding the church’s mission.

Jesus’ central command, “baptizing them,” is framed by parallel commands to make disciples, which is framed by parallel assertions about Christ’s relationship to the mission.

Go…

With assurance of Christ’s authority (“All power is given unto me”)

To make disciples (“teach [matheteuo, ‘train in discipleship’] all nations”)

To baptize (“baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”)

To make disciples (“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”)

With assurance of Christ’s enabling presence (“I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”)

Baptism and Discipleship

Baptism is key to Jesus’ understanding of how the Great Commission is to be carried out. The command to baptize is sandwiched between commands to teach: “teach all nations,” “teaching them.” Discipleship (teaching) is the heart of the Great Commission. So what is the relationship between baptism and teaching (also known as discipleship)?

In John 4:1 we read, “the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John.” People who were baptized by John were considered John’s disciples; people who were baptized by Jesus were considered Jesus’ disciples. Philip Brown explains that in the first century, “When one was baptized in the name of X, the one baptized was announcing his intention to be with and learn from X. In other words, it was common knowledge that getting baptized was a public declaration that you were becoming a disciple of someone or something.”

To become a Christian is to become a disciple both of Jesus and of the one who will teach you about Jesus. Paul said to the Thessalonians, “ye became followers of us, and of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:6). There is a lot to say about baptism, but one thing we do not want to miss is that it communicates a desire to follow both the God in whose name the baptism is carried out and the church who does the baptizing.

Baptism is a new convert’s way of saying, “I’ve been saved, immersed in the life of the triune God through union with Christ, and I’m ready to be taught to observe everything Jesus commanded.” And baptizing this new convert is a commitment whereby the church says, “we will do just that.”

The Command to Be a Disciple-Makers

Discipleship, then, is the heart of the Great Commission. The word “teach” in the phrase “teach all nations” is translated as “make disciples” in most Bible versions. Mounce’s Greek dictionary defines “teach” (mathēteuō) in this context as “train in discipleship.” The same word is used in Matthew 13:52 to refer to those “trained for the kingdom of heaven” (ESV) or “instructed unto the kingdom of heaven” (KJV).

Making disciples is the mission of the church. Teaching people to obey everything that Jesus commanded is vital to our purpose for existing. This burden of disciple-making falls on every Christian.

While pastors should make disciples, their primary purpose is to equip ordinary Christians to make disciples of their own. Ephesians 4:11-12 makes this clear: “[God] gave…the shepherds and teachers [pastors], to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (ESV).

Who does the work of the ministry—the work of discipleship? The saints. Who equips the saints so that they are able to do this? The pastors. A congregation that expects its pastors to do all the work of making disciples should repent for disobeying Jesus’ command. A pastor whose congregation does not make disciples should repent for failing to equip them!

What is Discipleship?

One reason that I prefer the verb “disciple” or the noun “discipleship” over the verb/noun “teach” is that “teach” conjures up ideas of students facing a blackboard and scribbling on notepads. Our concept of teaching is typically focused on the transfer of information. But the relationship between a student (disciple) and teacher (Rabbi) in Jesus’ day was very different. By using the less familiar words “disciple” and “discipleship,” the church can define terms in a way that is Biblically prudent. Biblical discipleship typically involves four things.

Biblical discipleship involves a mentoring relationship. The disciple-maker extends friendship and guidance to someone who is younger in the faith. For example, older women disciple younger women when they “teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed” (Titus 2:4-5). This necessarily involves both mentorship and modeling.

Biblical discipleship involves modeling. The disciple-maker lives the Christian life in front of his or her disciples. And I don’t mean setting an example from afar. The disciples ate, drank, traveled, and prayed with Jesus; they watched his every move. In a similar way, the disciple-maker invites his disciples into his life and home to watch how he  interacts with his spouse, parents his children, and manages his finances. He says to his disciples, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

Biblical discipleship involves instruction. This is the element of “teaching” about which we typically think. Jesus said to teach the nations to “observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” and they can’t observe all things if they don’t know them. A disciple-maker will ensure that his disciples learn the Scriptures and become familiar with the broad body of Christian truth. Acts 2:42 says that the early believers devoted themselves to “the apostle’s doctrine.” 

Biblical discipleship involves life change. Jesus said that we are to teach the nations to observe or obey everything he commanded. Paul told Timothy that “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Obedience to Christ’s commandments, the evidence of Christian love, is the goal of discipleship. In other words, we labor “that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28).

Getting Started with Discipleship (An Example)

If you are serious about obeying Jesus’ command to make disciples, it may feel a bit daunting. You may think, “I can’t do it!” But you can, for at least three reasons: First, because Jesus promises to help you (“I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”). Second, because the Spirit has gifted you, and those spiritual gifts are essential to the discipling mission of the church. And third, because your gracious heavenly Father has appointed pastors to equip you. You don’t have to figure it all out on your own.

Let’s look at an example of what discipleship may look like in practice.

Joe Christian was born again two years ago and extensively discipled by his pastor, both through his pastor’s preaching and through private instruction at his pastor’s home. Joe feels confident about what he believes and how to explain it from Scripture. He is still intimidated by talking to others about what he believes and he’s afraid of questions that he may not be able to answer. But he’s no longer a spiritual child, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).

Joe meets a new coworker, Nick, and learns that they both like to fish. Joe invites Nick to go bass fishing, and they hit it off. Joe knows that as a Christian, he is to practice hospitality (Heb. 13:12), so he asks Nick, “Would you and your family like to cover over for a meal sometime?” Over the next year, Joe has Nick’s family over to his house six times.

Inevitably, Joe’s faith has come up many times. One day, Nick asks Joe why he is a Christian. When Joe explains the gospel, Nick accepts Joe’s invitation to pray and Nick is saved.

Nick begins attending Joe’s church, and after a few services, Joe explains to Nick in more detail what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. He shares some of Jesus’ very hard sayings, such as Matthew 10:38: “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Joe makes it clear that discipleship is very serious and requires total devotion, but that Jesus also promises to help and guide those who will follow him. Nick assures Joe that he is serious about being a Christian and agrees to be baptized to express his union with Christ and declare his commitment to follow Jesus.

Joe assists his pastor in baptizing Nick. Joe and his pastor discuss Joe’s plans for discipling Nick. Joe shares a Bible reading plan with Nick and calls him each week to ask questions about the readings and to talk about Nick’s temptations and spiritual progress. Joe puts gentle pressure on Nick to keep pressing on, and sometimes asks him sensitive questions, explaining that he wants Nick to be victorious.

Once a month, Joe and Nick meet for three hours on Sunday afternoon to work through a book together on Christian beliefs. They read one chapter together and talk about the discussion questions in the back. Joe is not an expert on theology, but he has learned a lot from his pastor. Sometimes, Joe doesn’t have the answers to Nick’s questions, so he asks Nick, “Can I write that down, talk to my pastor, and get back to you?”

After a year and a half, Joe encourages Nick to make a disciple of his own and walks with Nick through the process of evangelizing and discipling another believer from their workplace.

Can you invite an unsaved friend or young Christian to your home for a meal? Can you build a relationship with him or her? Can you regularly invest in his or her life? Can you share what you have learned about Jesus and the Bible? Can pray with him or her and ask how he or she is doing in his or her spiritual life? If you are willing to do this, then you can be a disciple-maker. You can obey Jesus’ command and help fulfill the church’s mission.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.