Monday, November 15, 2004

Thoughts on The Great Commission

The Great Commission - Matthew 28:16-20

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

If there is a single passage of Scripture that would serve as a "mission statement" for Christians then the case could be made that Matthew 28:16-20 is it. It is the passage that most Christians would cite as the passage that explains our primary purpose here on earth. It is also a passage that is probably one of the most easily misunderstood.

I've observed many churches that focus their ministry on reaching non-Christians. The predominant theme running through most of the sermons is the Gospel. In other words, the focus is on salvation instead of discipleship.

Mark D. Roberts, a pastor and blogger, has posted a sermon entitled "Sent to a People Beyond Ourselves" that analyzed this passage and presented some applications for the church today. A couple of points he makes really stood out as I read it. He focuses on the phrase "Go and make disciples" in verse 19. He asks whether we need to "get up and go somewhere"? His answer:

"Thus, not only do we not have to go elsewhere to fulfill the Great Commission, but in fact our primary mission is here, right on our doorstep, right across the street, right in our schools, neighborhoods, and offices. "

Opportunities to share Christ are all around us: co-workers, neighbors, friends, family members, and anyone else we encounter through the course of daily living. That is not to say that going out is not important and there certainly is a place for sending out missions workers into the world. But we should not be focused on ministering to the world at large that we miss opportunities much closer to home.

Roberts then turns his attention to another key part of verse 19: make disciples.

Notice, Jesus didn't say, "Make believers," though believing in him is an essential part of discipleship. Nor did Jesus say, "Get people to clean up their lives," though genuine disciples become more holy as they grow in Christ. Jesus didn't say, "Get people to go to church," though faithful participation in the community of Jesus is absolutely crucial to discipleship. Rather, Jesus said, "Make disciples." To paraphrase, this means, "Make people who enter into an intentional, intimate relationship with me and with my other disciples, in which they put their trust in me as Savior, in which they submit their life to me as Lord, in which they allow me to teach them both how to live and how to serve me in the world."

So our mission in this community is not merely to make converts, but to make genuine disciples of Jesus Christ.

I am persuaded that this is what is missing from most of what passes for evangelism in the church today. We have become too focused on salvation and have not focused on discipleship.

I was discussing this topic with my former pastor this weekend who observed that when you have a church that is focused primarily on salvation (and often on increasing the number of people coming to church) that the believers in the congregation tire of hearing a salvation message over and over again. As a result, they become frustrated because they are not growing deeper in their relationship with Christ.

Roberts then moves on to this application for the church:

We cannot make disciples in this community unless we are living as a community of disciples, loving one another, bearing one another's burdens, teaching each other, forgiving each other, worshipping together. There is no discipleship without genuine community. And, in our day, there's no effective evangelism without genuine community. Our neighbors, those to whom we have been sent, won't believe the good news about Jesus unless they see this good news fleshed out in our fellowship together. Then, if they accept this good news and become believers, they won't live as disciples unless they can join a community of disciples.

This reflects what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5:

4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

The power of the Holy Spirit is demonstrated in how we live our lives. If we are truly living our lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, perfect strangers should be able to see a difference in us. My wife often tells me of the story of the kid who said that if Jesus was living in him He would be "sticking out all over". I remember once in college sitting in one the main areas of campus talking with a friend of mine when someone I did not know came up to me and asked if I was a Christian. I said that I was. He said "I could see it in your eyes". The church should be all about developing a community of disciples who will have Jesus "sticking out all over".

Too often the church falls into the trap of believing that there is a need for more ministries or programs to draw people into the church. What we really need to focus on building the community of disciples, intentionally being involved in each others lives, to hold others accountable so that we can "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." 1 Peter 3:15

ADDENDUM: I was discussing this idea with a friend of mine this morning who believes that the majority of churches overemphasize discipleship and do not emphasize evangelism enough. I believe that each church is going to have different needs and be at a different place. We both agreed that the important thing is for churches to be able to strike the right balance between discipleship and evangelism, and like seeking balance in our own lives, it's a constant process.

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