Discipling of Souls
The famous Great Commission gives the church its marching orders. In fact, this has long been understood as the mission of the church. The church exists to bring glory to God by making disciples of God’s son, Jesus. Much can be said about this charge, but the three participles in the passage provide the simplest insight into how we make disciples. Since ‘make disciples’ (one verb in the Greek, matheteusate) is the one command of the commission, we know that the other verbs (going, baptizing, and teaching) serve to inform us as to how to obey the central command to make disciples. And each one of these verbs reminds us that discipling always involves people.
Going. In most of our translations, the commission reads, “Therefore go…” In English, it gives the impression that the most important aspect of the commission is to GO somewhere. But a proper understanding of the structure of the text reveals that it would more clearly read “having gone.” In other words, Jesus is not telling them that their primary job is to always be traveling. Rather, their primary job is to make disciples. And evidently, they will not be able to make disciples without “going” somewhere. At the very least this means disciples ought to make disciples not just on mission trips but in their everyday lives. And if other Greek scholars are right, “going” demands a certain intentionality in moving toward others relationally and perhaps geographically in order that they might know, love, and obey Christ.
Baptizing. Clearly, an important pillar of a Great Commission lifestyle is evangelism. How do we make disciples? By baptizing people. When people are baptized, they publically demonstrate their heart’s intention to turn from their sin, and trust Christ as their Savior. The message of the New Testament is that Jesus followers share their faith. Christians who intend to obey Christ and His Great Commission, then, share the Gospel of Jesus with others as a normative part of life.
Teaching. One of the most under-emphasized phrases in the Great Commission are the words, “teaching them to obey.” We almost always focus on going, on evangelizing, and on making disciples. In fact, we accidentally believe we’ve fulfilled the commission when someone comes to faith and is baptized. Part of the commission is to teach younger/newer believers to obey all that Jesus commanded. How many people do we know who have, in an emotional impulsive moment, repeated a “sinner’s prayer” on cue only to return to their lives of sin and brokenness? They must be evangelized, but they must also grow. They must be taught. They must be trained. The message of the New Testament is that Jesus followers invest truth and time into younger believers as they grow together in holiness.
So followers of Jesus go. Where are they going? To countries? To neighborhoods? To buildings? To locations on a map? Sure. But ultimately, they’re going to people.
And followers of Jesus share the Gospel. They are sharing the Gospel with people.
And followers of Jesus are teaching. Are they teaching programs? Teaching classes? Sure. But ultimately, they are teaching people.
Sunday School teacher, are you executing a service by developing a curriculum and fulfilling your obligation to the church? Or are you investing in souls?
Homeless shelter volunteer, is your loyalty to the organization in which you serve? Or is your commitment to the souls you are privileged to meet?
Mission trip participant, is your strategy about the appearance of success or does your strategy aim at investing in the souls of people?
The fact is, it is much easier to build a building than to build a person. It is much easier to teach a class than to care for its members. It is much easier to appear effective than to be effective in making disciples. Making it about programs, buildings, and appearances attempts to microwave a process that was meant for the crockpot. We can expect a cheapened, shallow, hollow result.
Finally, if discipling is in fact about people, it reminds us of some critical truths:
- People can’t be discipled using a stock, one-size-fits-all process. People are different. Discipling must be personal, must be customized and tailored to meet the needs of the ones we are pouring into.
- Real discipling is messy. If the task is to teach a 45-minute lesson, measuring the result is quite easy. Did I teach it? Yes. Mission accomplished. But if the goal is to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to help someone grow spiritually, it will involve conversations, conflicts, questions, confrontation of ugly sin, and a mutual pursuit of holiness.
- True multiplicative legacy occurs through our influence on others’ lives. What investment of yours truly lives on once you’re gone to be with Jesus? Our legacy is in people, not property. In this sense, we are storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven, not on earth, where moth and rust destroy.
“You can impress from a distance, but you can only impact up close.” -Howard Hendricks (1924-2013)