One of the last things Jesus told His followers to do was “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19. Seems like a pretty straightforward directive, right? Yet seldom do I get the feeling “making disciples” is of supreme importance among Christians or designated a lofty priority in our Savior’s churches. I just don’t hear much about it. It’s surely not that we don’t want others to find, accept, embrace and then enjoy the freedom and hope we’ve found by becoming followers of the Lord. We look at the world’s massive problems and conflicts and feel sorry for those who don’t know that having Christ in one’s heart is the only antidote for despair and depression. We long for everyone to surrender their life to Jesus and thereby discover the peace and assurance He provides. So it’s not that we don’t want to “make disciples”. It’s that we don’t know how. Since that’s the case I reckon we should spend more time educating and training ourselves in that area of our faith.
Logic tells us we must first be disciples of Christ ourselves in order to be effective at turning others into the same. In previous essays I defined what one is and how best to become one. I stressed a person doesn’t have to have a Masters in theology to be a disciple, only an overwhelming yearning to spend the rest of their life apprenticing under the guidance of Jesus. A.W. Tozer wrote, “I would emphasize this one committal, this one great volitional act which establishes the heart’s intention to gaze forever upon Jesus. God takes this intention for our choice and makes what allowances He must for the thousand distractions which beset us in this evil world.” Remember, God makes disciples, not human institutions. Our job is to help and assist Him in any way we can. We learn the craft of “disciple making” via imitating and utilizing the methods Christ employed to raise up His disciples. The most obvious tact He used was proclaiming, manifesting and teaching them about the kingdom of God. He brought it up frequently. We should do likewise. When Jesus spoke about it He made the kingdom out to be the most incredible, desirable place and state of mind to exist in. But how often do we tell non-believers about the wonders of God’s Kingdom? Or, for that matter, discipleship in general? And when’s the last time you heard a sermon preached on those subjects? Dallas Willard opined, “…with the disappearance of Jesus as teacher – replaced by the mere sacrificial Lamb or else the prophet of social and personal ‘liberation’ – the prospects for the making of disciples to Him become very dim indeed. You cannot have students if you have no teacher.” In accentuating the glorious advantages of being a citizen of the magnificent Kingdom of God, Christ was offering an alluring incentive for men and women to become disciples. It seems apparent to me that somewhere along the way the church got distracted and ceased doing foremost what our Lord commanded before He ascended from the Mount of Olives.
Has Christianity mistakenly focused its energies on making converts instead of disciples? I only have to look at myself to answer that question. When and if I’m asked I normally describe myself as a Christian but not necessarily as a disciple of Jesus. I was brought up in church and knew all about the disciples. So at what juncture in my life did I stop striving to be a dedicated student of Christ, constantly stretching my intellect to expand my understanding of and usefulness to my Savior and settle for just being one of the “saved”? If I’m being totally honest it happened early on, right after I turned 18. I’m not implying that if I’d met my death at some point afterwards I wouldn’t have awakened in the heavenly realm. I know for certain my name got written down in the Book of Life with indelible ink because when it comes to forgiveness, our Heavenly Father’s is inexhaustible. Yet I have no doubt He’ll inquire of me one fine day why I waited so late in life to become a Christ disciple and I won’t have an acceptable excuse to give Him. It’s reasonable to think discipleship was important to Jesus because it prepares God’s children for what heaven will actually be like. Had I kicked the bucket even 10 years ago would I have been ready to devote all my love and fealty to Christ? Sadly, no. I was satisfied to be a believer, not a disciple, and I don’t think by merely entering the Pearly Gates I would’ve instantly been able to forget myself and worship the King of kings in the manner He deserves. Having never confronted and worked on my many character defects, it’s probable I would’ve had no clue whatsoever what to do or how to act in His presence. Finally deciding to become a disciple of Jesus was the wisest choice I’ve ever made – bar none.
Therefore, if I’m reading Matthew 28:19 correctly, as a disciple of Jesus it’s imperative I make it my primary mission to make more disciples. Instead of trying so hard to be “a good man that everyone likes to hang with” I should be more focused on introducing others to the greatest person I’ve ever met – Jesus Christ. If folks can see that He means everything to me and that I’m happy with that fact, then chances are favorable they’ll want what I found in Christ for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, though. That’s an extremely tough row to hoe for life in the “real world” will make it that way. With his tongue firmly in cheek Henri Nouwen wrote: “We simply go along with the many ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ that’ve been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. Moreover, we ought to be on good terms with the church and civil authorities; we ought to be liked or at least respected by a fair majority of our parishioners; we ought to move up in the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life.” Little wonder the modern church is guilty of paying such scant attention to facilitating the divine mandate to “make disciples”.
Could it be that 21st century Christians fear what would happen if we started concentrating on seeing an increase in the number of Christ disciples over gaining a new influx of “church members”? I heard T.D. Jakes once preach, “Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to bring dead people back to life!” In today’s PC culture most non-believers will take being called “dead in sin” an uncalled for indictment of their lifestyle but the body of Christ must be bold enough to warn them of the eternal consequences that stem from ignoring Jesus’ atoning blood sacrifice. Courageous disciples, following the lead of the likes of Paul and Peter, will not be afraid to speak the truth in love. But disciples won’t just appear out of thin air. They must be cultivated and nurtured over time by the church itself. As Willard wrote, “We should intend to make disciples and let converts ‘happen,’ rather than intending to make converts and letting ‘disciples’ happen.” What a major shift in direction and emphasis that would be!
It’s worth noting Jesus didn’t imply there’d be anything easy about “making disciples.” Needless to say, it’s getting harder and harder to do. Today’s “information society” has no need for Christ or the Kingdom of God He promoted. Intentionally or otherwise, the mainstream media has systematically eradicated any and all spiritual concerns from their secularist agenda. To mislabel what they do a conspiracy is to invite unhelpful paranoia into the issue when what’s really behind it is way more powerful – a somewhat nebulous “authority” that stakes its claim of being truth-holders in what it firmly considers to be rock-solid, science-based knowledge and wisdom. For instance, I recently came across a show on The Science Channel called “Space’s Deepest Secrets.” I’ve always been fascinated with stuff having to do with astronomy so I gave the program a gander. This particular episode was entitled “The Curse of Dark Matter” and it featured a plethora of cool graphics as well as interviews with a number of really smart men and women, most with “Dr.” or “Prof.” in front of their names. It was all very “up to date.” The bottom line, however, turned out to be the unavoidable truth that mankind still doesn’t know diddly about how the universe keeps from flying apart, much less how it came into existence at all. All kinds of theories and conjectures abound but not once during the show did any of the brainiacs venture to surmise God Almighty has anything to do with overseeing and controlling the incredible forces and energies that surround us. I got the impression that for any of the experts to make even the slightest reference to an omniscient, cosmic Creator/Administrator would be to commit scientific blasphemy. They dare not mention the elephant in the room. This is what the Christian community is up against and it’s a formidable adversary, indeed.
In other words, if a person grows up being taught in school that the very concept of there being a God is foolishness we Christians have a lot of swift rivers to cross to reach them. As Willard wrote, “…in any case the point here is not so much about which beliefs must be challenged and changed as it is that to enable people to become disciples we must change whatever it is in their actual belief system that bars confidence in Jesus as Master of the Universe.” If there’s a flaw in the Celebrate Recovery ministry I’ve been heavily involved in for over 8 years now it’s that we tend to put too much emphasis on getting people to stop doing destructive things to themselves or others and not doing enough to change their fundamental beliefs. It’s a tricky proposition, though. Most of the folks that come crawling into their first meeting are desperate to find out if there’s any hope left for them. Many have never stepped foot inside a church except to attend funerals or weddings so the last thing they want to hear about is discipleship. At the same time they’re very open to receiving some “Good News” and that’s where the Christ disciples in the room have an opportunity to reveal to them the healing, loving, merciful Jesus that perhaps they’ve never heard about. If they feel welcome and not judged odds are they’ll come back for more genuine encouragement and, over time, they might come to realize it’s their own misguided belief about what it’s like to be a follower of Christ that’s been the biggest obstacle to finding purpose and fulfillment in their life. Look, what we believe true about ourselves determines not only our personality and countenance but the whole of our outlook on life. Back in the 90s I was able to pull myself out of the miserable throes of self-loathing simply by standing in front of a mirror every day and feeding my reflection positive attributes. I found out I was what I believed I was. It was all in my head!
More often than not it’s the ones who profess to be Christians who are most confused about what they believe. If they get comfortable with coming to Celebrate Recovery and sharing in the small group gatherings they might take the next step and go through the soul-searching Step Study program. That’s where they’ll be asked about what they believe in regards to God, repentance, the Bible, salvation, etc. – perhaps for the first time in their lives. It’s not uncommon that many realize a lot of their core beliefs were based solely on what their peer group believed and that, in the final analysis, they didn’t truly believe what they thought they believed after all! To avoid them becoming discouraged over what they’ll then be tempted to deem their “anemic faith” the course leaders will gently direct them into God’s Holy Word to obtain the necessary corrections. The astonishing thing is all that was required to get them back on track was to ask them to express what they believed! The sheer absurdity of their false assumptions about who Jesus is and what He wants us to do for Him while we’re here on earth suddenly become crystal clear in their minds without anybody having to tell them they were wrong. This is frequently the breakthrough they’d been waiting for all their lives and they go on to discover the power of prayer, the joy of fellowship with other Christians, the enormous benefits derived from diligent Bible study, etc. And down the line, due to the patient leading of the indwelling Holy Spirit, they might decide to become a disciple of Christ.
What all Christians must remember is that when Jesus told us to “make disciples” it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command. That means it’s not up for discussion. He said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). And we’re not to think we’re doing our Savior any favors. Jesus said, “So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). We who’ve been rescued from the tyranny of our own sinful nature have an obligation to meet whether we like it or not. James S. Stewart wrote, “It is emphatically not an open question. The great command settled it once for all. And the man who still debates and argues it is daring to correct Jesus Christ. That wrecks his position. The Master’s ruling has been given, and He means it to be obeyed.”
Whether or not the church alters its overriding drive towards making Christianity more palatable and/or compatible with modern mores and ethics and returns to concentrating its efforts on doing what Jesus commanded – making disciples of all nations – isn’t something I can predict. One thing I do know is that God’s perfect will is going to get done regardless. Willard said it best: “The purposes of God in human history will eventually be realized, of course. His divine conspiracy will not be defeated. But multiple millions of individual human beings will live a futile and failing existence that God never intended.” How sad and sobering that last statement is! Makes me cognizant of how much “disciplining work” is left to be done by me and the body of Christ I’m grateful to be part of.