As I was reading the book I could tell the author was driven by the prospect of making disciples. Every other word was “mission” “culture” “multiplication” “evangelism” “outreach” and so forth. Governing the author’s intention was his understanding of the great commission which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is a good start.
“We exist to make disciples of Jesus,” a church’s mission statement might say. You’ve probably seen that on a website or a church sign before. There are some in the evangelical world — especially some in the non-denominational church-planting networks — that place a heavy emphasis on making disciples. They want to see lost people come to Christ. And this should be commended. Too many churches have become an insular Christian bubble that never see anyone come to Christ. Worse, they don’t seem to care about outreach at all. Yes, those who are reaching those far from the God of the Bible and encouraging others to jump suit should be emulated.
But is the great commission only to make converts for Jesus?
Making and Maturing Disciples of Jesus
To be sure, the main focus of the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is to make disciples. We know this because in the Greek, the only imperative (command) Matthew uses is for the word for “make disciples.” This is important to note. But there are other instructions in the great commission that serve this central theme. There are other aspects of the great commission that must be obeyed if we’re going to be faithful to the mission.
If you read the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus does say “make disciples.” This is the popular phrase. But what is less popular is what Jesus says in verse 20: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Teaching is a means to make disciples, but teaching should not cease post-conversion. After the disciple is made (which is only possible by the initiating regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, of course) we are called to teach new disciples to obey the commands of Jesus. The emphasis, then, on making disciples is not wrong; it’s deficient. The goal of the great commission is not just to make disciples, but to mature them. 1
If making disciples happens through evangelism and apologetics and outreach, then maturing disciples happens through discipleship and theological training and Christian community. There is, of course, some overlap in the two.
But my concern is churches who place such a high emphasis on converts and not enough on helping new Christians grow. We’re not just called to reel them in, but to help them grow once we get them. Churches that focus primarily on evangelism but neglect discipleship are only being faithful to part of the great commission. As R. T. France observes, “To ‘make disciples’ is not complete unless it leads them to a life of observing Jesus’ commandments.”
Why else does this matter? Here are some more observations.
1. We will not be obeying God. The Bible is the very words of God, and the great commission is given by the Master himself. No Master wants only half his words obeyed. When we focus on part of the great commission but neglect the other part, we disobey God himself.
2. We will make the people in our congregations feel like objects to be mobilized, not blood-bought souls to be shepherded. God’s people have the Holy Spirit living in them (Eph. 1:13). Although some of us are less discerning than others, it doesn’t take long for the average Christian to pick up on the pastor’s intention. If the only thing you ever talk about is inviting people to church and seeking to make disciples, it may lead your people to feel used. They might think, “This guy cares more about numerically growing this church than pastoring my soul.”
3. We will create shallow churches. God saved someone and now they’re at your church. They’re a new Christian. Does this mean they should tell others to follow along since found people find people? Yes. But that’s not it. Now, as a pastor or a ministry leader, it’s your job to help them grow spiritually, to help them grow in the knowledge of God, to help them to pursue holiness.
This can happen organically in, say, a one-on-one conversation here or there, or it can happen formally in a Bible study or Sunday school class or small group or whatever else best fits your ministry context. The point is that churches should be teaching Christians how to obey Jesus with their lives. If we neglect teaching disciples how to grow in Christ, we will be seriously depriving the people of God of maturity in Christ.
4. We will burn people out. I was talking with a former pastor about why some Christians never do evangelism or why they never invite anyone to church. I used to think it was because of worldliness or laziness. There may be an aspect of validity in my previous conclusion. But he provided a different response. Basically, he said it’s because people are burned out and weary.
After being at the same church for 20 years and inviting all the friends they have, only to have one of them ever show up, people quickly get weary of the “invite people to church campaign.” Instead of beating the “make disciples” mantra to death, we should seek to love our people extremely well and create a Bible-soaked, Christ-centered church so appealing that our people can’t help but invite others in.
I’m thankful for all the churches that emphasize the primary focus of the great commission, but let’s not forget the other parts. Doing so would be a serious shortcoming for the people to whom God has entrusted under our care.
- I realize that there are other elements in the great commission like baptism. But the main intent of this article is the first part of Matthew 28:20. My focus is on churches that emphasize making converts, but not maturing disciples. ↩