SBC Life Articles

The Unifying Mission: Make Disciples!

If you have been reading this column for the past year, you are aware that we have been looking at the characteristics of a Kingdom-centered church. None of the eight characteristics that we have covered are goals in and of themselves, but they are character traits which the Holy Spirit molds together in the church to enable it to accomplish the single goal or purpose given by the King — disciple the nations. Thus it is important that we pause for a moment and reflect together on the unifying mission of the church.

The discipling of the nations is the unifying goal that enables the church to maintain focus and balance. Some churches are known for exciting worship, but they are weak when it comes to evangelism or discipleship. Others are known for doctrinal integrity but do little to work with others to reach their community or the world. Still others take pride in the depth of their fellowship but have no depth of teaching nor do they manifest any concern for reaching the lost.

The balanced, Kingdom-centered church has a clear and non-negotiable aim, and that is to make disciples of all nations. If you take a moment to review the eight characteristics we have looked at over the preceding articles, you will see that all eight characteristics must come together in balanced harmony to enable the church to accomplish this goal.

Bill Hull, in his book The Disciple Making Church, defines discipleship: "The intentional training of disciples, with accountability, on the basis of loving relationships." This simple definition has profound implications. "Intentional" demands that we have a clearly articulated process. "Training" indicates that we must think carefully about the process and content of disciple-making with the goal of developing fully-formed followers of Christ. The phrase "with accountability" indicates the seriousness with which we approach this goal. "On the basis of loving relationships" indicates that this is a community process.

Numerous studies have pointed to the apparent weakness of the average church member. A study conducted in one evangelical denomination revealed weakness in basic spiritual disciplines that are alarming:

• Twenty-five percent of church members never pray;

• Thirty-five percent never read their Bible;

• Sixty percent never give to missions;

• Seventy percent never assume responsibilities in the church;

• Eighty-five percent never invite anyone to church; and

• Ninety-five percent never win anyone to Christ.

If we are serious about pleasing our King and advancing His Kingdom, we must thank God for His patience with us, repent for our apathy, and plead with the Spirit to transform us into the image of Christ.

"Make Disciples" is a Command and Not an Option

When we read the final imperative in Matthew's Gospel, we must remember the crucifixion and resurrection are now reality. The seeming defeat of Golgotha has been transformed into radical victory. Jesus, the King, has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Based on this universal authority, Jesus issues a final command that will remain as the marching order for the authentic church "to the ends of the age." While it is a visionary and nearly overwhelming command — make disciples of all nations — it is a command given with supernatural assurance — I am with you always.

It is all authority that forms the basis for the church's mission to all nations with the commitment to teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. The conviction of the universal authority of the resurrected Christ drove the Apostle Paul to give his life to the task of planting churches throughout the known world of his day. Here's how Paul stated this universal authority in his letter to the Ephesians: And He put everything under His feet and appointed Him as head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of the One who fills all things in every way (Ephesians 1:22-23). When we understand that the church has been empowered by the risen King to express His fullness in the world today, we are stricken by the enormity of the sin of playing church — of failing to realize our full potential.

Our first step must be to admit and accept that making disciples of all nations is a command and not an option. In the Greek, "going," "baptizing," and "teaching" are participles that are dependent upon and help modify the main verb, which is the imperative translated "make disciples." Thus going, baptizing, and teaching are essential components of the disciple-making process, but making disciples is the primary thrust of the command.

The Characteristics of the Disciple

If we are going to be effective at the task of disciple-making, we must have a clear picture of the characteristics of a "fully-formed follower of Christ." In Acts 11 Luke gives us a glimpse into the life of the church at Antioch. When Barnabas saw what God was doing in the church at Antioch, he brought Saul to Antioch to assist him in discipling those who had responded to the Gospel. Here's how Luke describes their work: For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers, and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26b).

This verse has a critical time reference that tells us that discipleship is an ongoing process and not a six-week class for new Christians. If we are going to produce disciples we must be willing to devote the time and energy that the process of discipling requires.

It is not insignificant that Luke indicates that followers of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch. Most commentators agree that the term "Christian" was a term of derision given to the followers of Christ by members of the secular community. What they meant as a term of derision — imitators of Christ — soon became a badge of honor. But here is the point I don't want you to miss. The process of discipleship produced visible results. These converts to Christianity began to display such Christ-like behavior in their community that their pagan neighbors took notice. Do our churches have the reputation for developing believers who behave like Christ?

Let's pause a moment to consider some of the characteristics of a disciple. In his upcoming book on this very topic, my colleague, John Revell, identifies eight traits — identifying marks — of a Kingdom disciple.1 While this list may not be exhaustive, it is clear that these characteristics should be present in persons who claim to be Kingdom persons.

1 The disciple recognizes and submits to the Kingship of Jesus. Believers in the West have never lived under a monarchial form of government, and thus, we struggle to understand what it means to be a follower of the King. We still harbor ideas that we own or control certain things. The King has absolute and total control over everything and everyone in His Kingdom. Disciples no longer make any claims about "my time" or "my money." We serve the King alone.

2 The disciple follows the King at any and every cost. The Gospel narratives make it clear that Jesus expected those who would follow Him to put aside any thing and any commitment that might keep them from following the King with their whole heart.

3 The disciple views all of life as a citizen of the Kingdom. We understand that our life purpose is to advance His Kingdom by His power and for His glory. All of life is lived from a Kingdom worldview.

4 The disciple is fully devoted to fishing for men. It is impossible to be a follower of the King and not share His passion for the reaching of the nations. Thus we must be prepared, willing, and enthusiastic about sharing the story of our encounter with the King.

5 The disciple loves the Lord totally. The relationship between disciples and their Lord is one of biblical love. This is not simply an emotional attachment but a love that shapes our walk with God.

6 The disciple studies and grows in the knowledge of God's Word. There is a critical link between knowing God's Word and following Christ.

7 The disciple loves others. Scripture continually affirms that it would be foolish to declare one's love for God and yet fail to love one's brother. Yet we see families, churches, and denominations manifest a lack of love for those for whom Jesus died.

8 The disciple serves the King through His body, the church. There is a critical link between discipleship and service to Christ expressed through our humble ministry to others.

Ask yourself, "Am I, and are the members of my church, pursing these eight characteristics as a priority? Based on this profile, do I truly look like a disciple?" Even more, as Revell points out, we must ask ourselves, "Are our churches producing people who look like this?" If not, can we rightly claim that we are fulfilling the Great Commission?

What Will Be Required?

Knowing the profile of a disciple is a necessary first step, but it must be accompanied with a commitment to the process Jesus used in disciple making. We usually think of discipleship in terms of instruction, but Jesus also taught through demonstration. Each church needs to determine how they can best combine these two elements of the discipling process. Revell calls this "small group mentoring." In Jesus' example, we see that He mentored the disciples in a small group. In Acts, we see that spiritual growth and maturity took place in small groups where new Christians were mentored — not just on Sunday mornings, but throughout the week.

Mentoring in small groups does not mean that a church would need to eliminate an existing small group structure such as may be found in its Sunday School classes. It does mean that each church would need to evaluate its overall program based on the command that we make disciples and provide the time and resources necessary to accomplish the imperative of the King.

Perhaps you are thinking that such a radical commitment to the restructuring will slow "church growth." Put that fear out of your mind! When you make a commitment to the "small group mentoring" process, you will soon see the law of multiplication produce exponential expansion. Just look at what happened to the explosive growth of the early church within a single generation of the training of the original eleven.

Discipling the Nations Requires Global Commitment and Supernatural Empowering

We cannot think that our task is finished until the nations have been discipled. The enormity of the task reminds us that we must develop partnerships and work cooperatively to complete this task. The concern of Scripture is not simply church growth but one of Kingdom expansion.

Before you dismiss the idea of discipling the nations as a "pipe dream," you must recall that the King promised His presence and power for the completion of the task. Your church can — and must — play the role God has assigned to you in the reaching and discipling of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.

1. Watch for The Forgotten Command — Make Disciples! Rediscovering and Embracing the Heart of the Great Commission by John Revell, scheduled for release in 2008.

    About the Author

  • Kenneth S. Hemphill