The COVID-19 crisis has forced us all to reconsider our priorities. With churches closed for several months, and now only cautiously considering re-opening, we need to be radical in thinking about the purpose of church.
Matthew 28:18-20 makes our main role very simple: It is to be disciples and to make disciples. Jesus has all authority but He shares it with us so that we can make disciples as we go – wherever we go – baptize them and teach them what He commands. The Greek text has only one key verb in the Great Commission – and contrary to our usual assumptions about mission, it is not ‘go!’ but rather ‘make disciples’.
To make disciples… not converts! To teach them to do what He says and not just think or know about it – so to be ‘disciplers’.
But what does it mean for us in practice? The dictionary definitions of ‘disciple’ usually focus on the idea of being a ‘follower’ and a ‘learner’. In the New Testament, the word ‘disciple’ conveys something more significant:
- Yes, someone who is a follower of Jesus,
- Yes, someone who hears and obeys what Jesus says
- But also someone who learns about God in a context of relationship with Him and with His people (not just from hearing or discussing ideas).
Good teachers and trainers know that we learn best from putting things into practice with some direction and support. In our context as Christians, this engagement in action has extra weight because it is what faith is all about. To biblical authors, to hear meant to obey. James, for example, says, ‘I will show you my faith by my works!’ (James 2:18).
In John 7:17, Jesus makes clear that there is a condition for knowing whether something is from Him or not – being determined to do God’s will. Similarly, in John 8:31-32 He teaches that remaining in (holding to) His word is a condition of knowing the ‘truth’.
So what do true New Testament disciples look like?
- Disciples follow and obey Jesus. This is the key definition of a disciple but it is worth emphasising: Luke 9:23; John 8:31-32
- Disciples learn to follow Jesus when they imitate a discipler (Paul encouraged people to copy him in 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1). But the discipler must be a disciple as well. He or she must be one who can be trusted (‘By their fruits you will know them…’ Matt 7:15-20), i.e. not controlling, manipulative or proud!
- Disciples and disciplers are accountable, humble and open; they confess faults to trusted disciples alongside them (Ephesians 5:8; James 5:16) and seek honest advice (Proverbs 28:23). Advice and warnings are designed to encourage right attitudes in our hearts: Hebrews 3:12-13.
- Disciples bear fruit and reproduce (John 15:8; Matt 28:18-20). We reproduce what we are, so we need to make sure we are godly and reproduce by the power of the Spirit.
How do we make disciples?
The simple answer is, in the same way Jesus did! He invited His disciples to be with Him. They ate with Him, travelled alongside Him and lived together. We may not be able to share as much in practice with one another today, but there needs to be a lot of contact and time together, so we can see how others respond to things, for example.
We are all different so making disciples may look very varied, but there are some common themes:
- Prayer from the beginning and throughout
- Friendship as the context
- Example as the method
- Scripture as the key reference point
- Giving time/availability as the key requirement
- Boldly (in the fear of the Lord) as the approach – not afraid to challenge as well as encourage
- Maturity (able to overtake the discipler in godliness and grace) as the aim.
Why does this sort of disciple-making matter?
In Acts 19:9-10 and Romans 15:19, we see how the gospel was spread by Paul. He did not preach directly to everyone in the province of Asia Minor (estimated at 2 million at the time!) still less the population of the Eastern Mediterranean. But he did reach them indirectly through the churches he planted and churches that were planted out of those churches (also 1 Thessalonians 1:2-9 NB v8).
Our aim is not just to make a lot of individual disciples but to see them joined together and joined to the church, in love by the Spirit. Churches that have a culture of disciples reproducing, or making disciples, will reproduce and plant new churches, even if church services cannot take place in a building on a Sunday!
Chris Horton has served both in local church leadership and as an In-house lawyer/General Counsel, for many of the last 35 years. With master’s degrees in both law and theology he is now focused on leadership training and discipleship in All Nations Church, Wolverhampton. Married, with three grown-up children, he is passionate about family, hill-walking and cross-cultural mission.