Disciple-Making: The Primary Task of the Church

DISCIPLE-MAKING: THE PRIMARY TASK OF THE CHURCH

REMEMBERING THE PRIMARY TASK

As parents living in the life stage of constant kid activities, my wife and I tend to have impromptu scheduling meetings every morning. More often than not it’s my wife providing the essential information for the day. And without fail, the instructions that are most important are the last things out of her mouth (“don’t forget to pick up Sam at 4:30!”).

That’s the image that pops in my head when I think about the Great Commission. At the end of the book of Matthew, as Jesus is about to ascend and return to the Father, he gathers with his remaining 11 disciples and provides them with the “whatever you do, don’t forget this” task: Go, make disciples of all nations.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of this commission in light of the grand story of God’s redemption. Not only does it link the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry with the post-ascension church, but this command actually encompasses all the other commands, and in doing so, lays a foundation for the DNA of the expansion of the church moving forward.  In this way, as David Bosch describes, the disciples were “prototypes for the church.” So the call to make disciples is the call to continue the work of Jesus, making it the primary task of his people  All other commands and activities of the church must be subjected to this main directive.

In the last 30 years, the global picture of missions has radically shifted. As Church Planting Movements have multiplied exponentially, the Great Commission suddenly doesn’t seem hopelessly out of reach.

Why is that? 

Because the sent ones of God have re-engaged in their primary task: making disciples. For too long cross-cultural missions, and not to mention domestic church planting, has looked more like the exportation of forms of church, rather than the foundational call to make disciples. But when the church engages in its primary task, incredible things happen, namely, the expansion and multiplication of his Church. 

With that in mind, below are 5 quick observations about disciple-making, particularly regarding how the Great Commission can take center stage in our communities, and what that means practically. 

PRACTICAL THOUGHTS REGARDING DISCIPLE-MAKING

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.”

1) Disciple-making is not only for the varsity Christians. 

One of the most encouraging statements in the whole New Testament is found right before Jesus gives his disciples the Great Commission.

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.(Matthew 28:17)

Wait. What? The group of people to whom the greatest and most audacious task ever given consisted of some who doubted. Hopefully, that is a breath of fresh air for the everyday Christian hoping to live on mission and make disciples.! If doubt is not a disqualifier, then surely my imperfect level of Biblical knowledge or evanglestic persuasion isn’t either. 

What this means practically is that making disciples is not for the “special Christians.” It doesn’t merely belong to people with a certain job title, and it doesn’t find itself in Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts. Making disciples is the core task of all who follow Jesus. 

For the average church leader, this means we need to take on the role of mobilizer. This is why one of our primary tools within Kansas City Underground’s trainings is our Relationship Mapping exercise. For most people, disciple-making begins with the people to whom they are already around. The problem is that most church-goers do not see themselves as players in the game, but rather as spectators watching the real athletes. But when we realize that disciple-making is not just for the varsity Christians, and that we are miraculously and strategically placed as the most effective missionary in our relational network, the Great Commission becomes tangible. 

2. Disciple-making is not a program

I’ve heard sermons over the years that unpacked the Greek meaning of “Go” within the Great Commission. That word, although translated in most our English Bibles as an imperative verb, is actually a participle in the original Greek (the only imperative verb present in the Great Commission text  is “make disciples”).  So, a better reading may in fact be, “as we go.”  

In some ways, nerding out linguistically can help us understand this: Disciple-making is not a program. Although we have very intentional disciple-making strategies like Discovery Bible Study (‘DBS,’ which is the primary ‘method’ of making disciples around the world.), Jesus moved at the monotonous speed of relationship. His followers learned the rhythms and ways of his life. They heard his words and his voice became real, his commandments became compelling, and his love became tangible. They became mini-pictures of the master they served.

One of my favorite authors and theologians over the years was Dallas Willard, who said it like this, “The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus. And by that I mean they’re learning from Him how to live their life, as He would live their life if He were they.”

That’s disciple-making. It’s not making disciples of “me,” but it’s making disciples of Jesus, the master.  It’s not about teaching people the information that “I” know, but it’s getting people to the feet of Jesus so they can become his apprentices, learning directly from him, and living their lives submitted fully to Jesus.

3. The nations were not followers of Jesus yet. The call of disciple-making is inextricably linked to evangelism

It’s common, for whatever reason, to think that “discipleship” happens after evangelism.  But here’s the reality: the nations, the very ones Jesus told his eleven to go to, were not yet followers of Jesus. This means that making disciples is deeply connected to reaching the lost. It’s not something that simply happens after conversion, but it actually encompasses the whole missional journey. My friend Roy Moran said it like this “By Jesus’ practice, making disciples starts with lost people and ends with Biblically functioning churches.” 

4. Disciple-making is fundamentally more about obedience than knowledge 

9 times out of 10, when I ask church leaders what the final action listed in the Great Commission is, they answer, “teach.” But that’s not what Jesus says. He actually says, “teach them to obey all that I have commanded.” Disciple-making, therefore, is far less about transferring the right information to someone and way more about teaching them to surrender their lives to Jesus as Lord. Or, to say it another way: obedience supersedes knowledge as the defining point of a disciple. 

One of the primary characteristics of all Disciple Making Movements worldwide is that they all have a disciple-making process often described as “obedience-based.” Practically, this means finding spiritually open communities, and instead of starting with sermons, they get them directly into the Word and ask, “If this is God speaking, how can we obey what he’s saying?” Much like what Jesus did with his disciples, following him began with a tangible response to his words. This strategy is a breath of fresh air for the everyday disciple-maker. The onus falls on the compelling power of Jesus’ words, and not on the skills or knowledge base of the disciple-maker.

5) Disciple-Making is Not Just One on One

Another funny assumption of individualistic Western church culture is to equate discipleship with one-on-one meetings (usually at a coffee shop!). But, as we observe the nature of this passage and the resulting narrative played out in the book of Acts, disciple-making was about reaching entire people groups, not just individuals (outside the story of the Eunuch in Acts 8, all other stories of new baptisms occurred with groups of people). When new groups are reached, entire networks begin to follow Jesus together, and the church emerges as a result of making disciples. 

6) Disciple-Making is, by nature, Multiplicative 
I remember sitting in a meeting with a co-pastor and friend of mine who was mentoring a college student in our congregation. One day the student told my friend, “I’m ready to make disciples. How do I do it?” I’ll never forget the look on my friend’s face as he told me the exact moment he realized he was doing something wrong. Despite all his years of experience, and all his seminary classes, he had no idea how to answer the young man’s question. Until that point, “discipleship” mostly involved proclaiming his knowledge of Scripture, which suddenly seemed nearly impossible to transfer to his mentee.

The final observation is this: if we’re not making disciples who can reproduce other disciples, we’re not actually living out the Great Commission. If a disciple is an apprentice of Jesus, doing what the master does, and the master was all about making disciples, then, by nature, we as his disciples must also be about making other disciples. It’s embedded into the very command. It’s the only way this mustard seed disciple-making strategy of Jesus makes any sense as a way to reach all the nations. It’s all about multiplication.

My hope and prayer is that these observations lead you not into cynicism or frustration, but instead to hope and encouragement. Amazing things happen when the church remembers her primary commission to make disciples. Within the KC Underground, our hope is to see our entire city reached, with microchurches filling every relational nook and cranny.  But, as we run towards that dream, we very much resonate with Mike Breen, who once said “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.” 

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