When I was a student at Harding University, I was involved in the ministry at the local county jail. There I and several other Christians would read the Bible with inmates, teach them about Jesus, and conduct worship in each housing-pod. Over the couple of years that I was involved in this ministry, there were plenty of inmates who decided that they wanted to become a Christian and were baptized into Jesus Christ.
That was good, or so I thought. The numbers of baptisms, however many there were, were good for my ego. I could stand before my ministry peers and report to them all the good work that was being done. But never once did I stop long enough to ask why most of those inmates were no longer interested in being Christians when they were released from jail.
You might chalk that up to typical “jail house conversions” but this problem exists elsewhere too. A professor of mine told a story about a well-known international ministry that would boast about the number of people who were making decisions for Jesus but many of those people quickly turned back to their old life. It sounds good when we can boast about large numbers of conversions… that 100 people decided to become Christians on that mission trip, that we baptized 25 last month at the county jail. But why do we seldom talk about how many disciples of Jesus Christ have been made?
Go and Make Disciples!
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers what we call “The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
This is passage is probably cited more than any other passage in the Bible as to why we should go preach the gospel and evangelize people. This is the mission-mandate and ignoring is not an option—or so we think.
Christians are very obedient to this passage when it comes to calling missionaries and preachers, supporting them and sending them out to plant churches and evangelize the lost. Why? Because that is what Jesus commanded us to do. He said so right in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. But when we look at this passage a little closer, we just might find that we’re not as obedient to Jesus as we want to believe.
In this passage there is one verb: make disciples. This verb is an imperative while “baptizing” and “teaching” are present participles that are the result of having made disciples. Thus what Jesus is commanding us to do is make disciples!*
It Takes More…
Put another way, Jesus is not telling us to teach people what is necessary for them to “get saved” first, baptizing them, and then hope to make disciples of them as though the first goal is salvation and the second is making disciples. But I’m not sure we want to hear that. Why? Because it’s easier just to get people “saved” then it is to make disciples. It takes more work, more teaching, and more leading to cultivate the way of Jesus in people. And it certainly takes more time waiting for God to do the real transformative work that leads people to decide they want to surrender their life to Jesus as his follower (being a disciple), dying to themselves and be raised with Christ (being baptized) as a believer who continues learning (being taught) to live into this most peculiar kingdom way of life.
But frankly, it’s also more of a risk to make disciples than it is to get people “saved” (as if we can do that anyways). Most people, especially when life is not going well, want a savior. Not as many, however, will want a Lord who demands that they live every moment of their life in submission to him. Not as many will likely want to follow Jesus when he starts talking about carrying a cross and any one of his other rather difficult teachings. And let’s just be honest… “Not as many” is not what many missions committees and church oversight groups want to hear.
But We Must Make Disciples!
Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m happy that people decide they want to be a Christian. I believe that Jesus is the Savior and there are times when people are so hurt and distraught in their life that they need to hear about the grace of Jesus the Savior and know the salvation that he alone can offers them. But here in America, there is a discipleship problem that must be addressed. American Christianity appears afflicted with the same spiritual illness of cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer sensed among early twentieth-century German Christianity. But that’s not too surprising when evangelism is about teaching something like the four spiritual laws rather than teaching people to follow Jesus.
In a book that is now thirteen years old, Church Next, author Eddie Gibbs took notice of the mega-church and seeker-sensative trends sweeping across Evangelical Christianity. The churches which pursued these trends boasted in big numbers of people who had made decisions for Christ, becoming Christians. Then Gibbs said:
And any voice of triumphalism from among their ranks needs to be moderated by the fact that these new movements have not as yet exerted sufficient influence to reverse the overall decline in churchgoing (p. 18).
I’ll push even farther and say that both then and since then, with the rise of both neo-reformed and emerging church movements, there has yet to be a reversal in the rise of secularized American worldview.
I am not suggesting that we should not be thankful and encouraged by reports of people who make decisions for Christ and are baptized into Christ. What I am suggesting is that we need to stop making the decision for Christ or getting people saved the gold standard as thought that is what is most important. It’s not. Making disciples is the task of evangelism because that is what Jesus commanded and unless our evangelistic intent is making disciples, we are not obeying the command of Jesus.
* For more on what discipleship is, see my article Living the Way of Jesus, New Wineskins (March 2013).