Why Make Disciples?
We are people of the Book. We are gospel people. From the beginning of our movement, we have been part of an evangelical stream. The touchstone of that stream is the inerrant, inspired, authoritative, sufficient Word of God that finds its culmination in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Throughout history, we have this stream of who we are as evangelicals: committed to that Word and committed to the gospel to form and shape us.
And we have the record of Jesus’ final earthly word given to the disciples, what we refer to as the Great Commission:
Then the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. 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” (Matthew 28:16-20).
There are other texts of Scripture that communicate the very same thing—other Great Commission texts. Jesus did not communicate this only once. Even if He had, it would be authoritative, but it isn’t the only time. In John 20:21, He breathes “go.” And in Luke 24:45-49, Jesus states that the gospel will be proclaimed to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem—which He repeats in Acts 1:8 with a reach “to the end of the earth.”
In the Matthew 28 passage, notice the alls: all authority, all nations, [all] I have commanded you, everything, always.
Making disciples is a mandate, for all people, every day, for all time. The proclamation of the gospel results in repentance and faith, and the response of discipleship is baptism, instruction and obedience. Disciples are those who hear, understand and obey Jesus’ teaching.
This passage begins with a command and ends with a promise—the promise of Jesus’ comforting presence: Go, and I will be with you.
Life and doctrine
Disciplemaking is taught by Paul as well. The apostle pointed out that part of the process involves watching your life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). This is absolutely critical.
Awhile back, I reread the sad story of the two Mars Hills: Mars Hill Bible Church (Grandville, Michigan) and Pastor Rob Bell’s slide away from orthodoxy; and Mars Hill Church (Seattle, Washington) and the resignation of Pastor Mark Driscoll in October 2014.1
Rob Bell did not watch his doctrine closely, and Mark Driscoll has not watched his life closely. Brothers and sisters, we are exhorted to do both. It’s not an either/or.
What elements of contemporary Christian culture might we be passing along in our disciplemaking?
If you attended the 2014 EFCA Theology Conference,2 you heard the discussion about Christian faithfulness in a changing culture. We are in the middle of what we might call a moral tsunami—as much, if not more, like the early church than ever before. Let’s look back a bit, to see the cultural comparison as we consider what disciplemaking means today—this watching/conveying of life and doctrine.
The early Church
Christians today repeatedly hear accusations of intolerant and hateful. Our intolerance is due to the fact that we are religiously exclusive. (There’s salvation in no one else but Christ.) But we’re also exclusive ethically or morally in that not all behaviors are given a pass, which raises the accusations of “you’re a hater.”3 These were the same words used of the early Christians.
Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bythinia (writing c. 111-113), was frustrated that Christians would not “invoke the gods.” In a letter to Trajan he lamented their “stubbornness and unyielding obstinacy.”4 Their intolerance.
Tacitus, Roman historian, states that Christians were not killed for setting Rome on fire (as Emperor Nero claimed), but rather because of their “hatred against mankind.”5
Then during the Crusades (1095–1291), the changing cultural scene caused Christians to ponder afresh the gospel. On the one hand, there was a temptation to separate and form “holy huddles” of protection from the contemporary secular culture. (In the EFCA movement, we find enough pietistic and fundamentalist strains by which that’s still our initial impulse.) On the other hand, there was (and, again, is) the temptation to accommodate. To update biblical truth. To become “progressive” in our understanding of doctrine, of Scripture.
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II delivered the speech that launched the Crusades. While everyone today agrees that the Crusades were a disaster, a failed attempt at Christianity, still almost every major Christian leader of that age endorsed them, notes Dan Doriani, professor of theology and vice president of strategic academic initiatives at Covenant Seminary, in St. Louis, Missouri.6 How did this happen?
“Every theme of Urban’s speech resonated with his listeners: pilgrimage, honor, land, brotherhood, knights of Christ, and remission of sin,” Doriani writes. Yet Pope Urban II also interwove cultural convictions of the time, such as “the need to forcibly avenge affronts to the clan’s honor [and] the idea that works of penance are instrumental to salvation.”
This raises important questions: What elements of contemporary Christian culture might we be passing along in our disciplemaking? What are we attempting to salvage or recreate, thinking that it is biblical? Where might we be creating another gospel that is no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-9)?
What we hear and experience today is not new. The early Church heard the same accusations (where it expanded and flourished) and faced similar spiritual temptations (where it faltered and made regretful history). Both then and now, a commitment to biblical disciplemaking has been essential and indeed was pivotal at the birth of the Evangelical Free Church of America.
The early EFCA movement
In 1950, the EFCA crafted its Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws7—weaving, throughout, the threads of the gospel and of disciplemaking. Let me reiterate two significant ones here (emphasis mine):
Article II.A: “The Evangelical Free Church of America shall be an association and fellowship of autonomous but interdependent congregations of like faith and congregational government whose purpose shall be to glorify God through obedience to the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ by bringing individuals to personal faith in Christ and helping them toward maturity in Him.”
Article II.B.2: “[The Evangelical Free Church of America … shall pursue the following objectives in accord with the above purpose:] … to establish churches and related ministries and to organize and maintain evangelistic and disciple-making efforts in the United States and throughout the world.
Disciplemaking is foundational for our movement. And 2015 isn’t the first time we’ve returned to those roots. In fact, 1980 was referred to as “the decade of discipleship” by former EFCA president Dr. Tom McDill. At the time, a lot of discipleship ministries were parachurch-focused. McDill lived in that same stream but carried that emphasis into the EFCA and local churches.
Then, beginning in 1991, the EFCA experienced “the decade of disciplemaking” under the leadership and passion of Bill Hull, who developed the T-Net (short for “Training Network”) approach to disciplemaking churches.
Subsequent to this there have been other renewed calls to disciplemaking, such as the emphasis embedded in the church-planting boot camps, and the incorporation of SonLife into EFCA student ministries.
But what about today? Why do we need a renewed emphasis on disciplemaking? And what’s going to be different about our disciplemaking focus this time, so it’s not just a placard we put on the wall to feel good about ourselves?
Returning to the touchstone
The “why” comes into focus when we look around. In 2000, an important national survey8 was first implemented that assessed the condition of local congregations by looking at members’ perceptions of six areas: worship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry, prayer and fellowship.
In the September 2014 report, “12 Findings From Church Health Surveys,” we learned that most respondents consider discipleship and evangelism to historically be the weakest areas in their church.
What are we doing so that we might experience a different response if that 160-question survey were given in our local churches?
For the past two years, EFCA national and district leaders have been talking passionately about disciplemaking, about returning to it as the touchstone of our movement and of all of our churches. In our regular calls to individual pastors—for encouragement and ministry updates—we’ve asked: What is a disciplemaker? Does your church have a disciplemaking process?
Because we are people of the Bible, we continue to return to Jesus and His message, which means we retain our disciplemaking roots. In fact, our new vision statement declares: “We are praying that God will raise up 1 million disciplemakers impacting millions with the gospel and transforming entire cities and regions globally.” (Read more about the genesis of the EFCA vision in T.J. Addington’s article “No Small Dreams,”)
I see five nonnegotiables (two affirmations and three prayers) rising out of our name (Evangelical), our mission and our new vision statement:
- We affirm that it is God’s gospel that is at the center of all of life and ministry.
- We affirm that we exist to glorify God and we do so through prayerful dependence.
- We pray that God might multiply transformational churches through the raising up of 1 million disciplemakers.
- We pray and work toward the proclamation of the gospel such that millions will be transformed by that gospel.
- We pray that, through this gospel, cities and regions will be influenced and impacted globally.
Disciplemaking is nothing new—not new to the Evangelical Free Church of America, and certainly not new to church history. It’s as old as revelation yet as fresh and relevant today, straight from Scripture.
To pursue this vision, let’s continue to talk about disciplemaking in each and every context and corner of our movement; let’s encourage each other to make it both a denominational and church-by-church priority. Finally, let’s work to create and share resources that will help us make disciples who make disciples.
After all, we are people of the Book. We are gospel people. We are disciplemakers.
1With thanks to one pastor’s September 3, 2014, blog post on this topic at ericgeiger.com
2The 2014 Theology Conference audio and other resources are available for review.
3cf. “Regarded as ‘Intolerant Haters’: What’s New?” September 9, 2014, by Michael J. Kruger (The Gospel Coalition).
6“The Speech That Launched the Crusades,” November 26, 2013, by Professor Dan Doriani (The Gospel Coalition).
7The 2013 amended version of the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws is available for review.
8The Church Health Survey was developed by Chuck Lawless, now a professor at Southeastern Seminary, and Thom Rainer, now president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.
Adapted from the author’s talk at the September 2014 Vision Summit.
Greg Strand is EFCA director of biblical theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minn.) EFC. “When I was 25 and in youth ministry,” Greg says, “what would typify me was zeal without knowledge. But as I age, I don’t want the reverse to be true: knowledge without zeal. I’ve prayed that I will not simply have gained knowledge and lost a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ.”