The Great Commission is Not 30%! (Part I)

Dave: Credit for the title of this post goes to my friend, Paul Borthwick, who undoubtedly stole the catchy phrase from someone else.

Joe: You may have wondered why the name of our blog is unmissions.net. It has something to do with what has happened to the word “missions,” a word that has basically come to mean “doing something good somewhere else than where you are right now”. So, you want to start a ministry to pets? That’s missions. And because the actual word “missions” isn’t in the Bible, very little could be said as to the value of one area of ministry over another.

Dave: This crisis with the word “missions” has led many missiologists to recommend that we stop using the word and come up with something better (see the April, 2011, issue of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly, “The Death of Missions”).

Joe: So, rather than starting with the word missions, there may be more value in actually looking at the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20) and inquiring what it is really asking us to do.

Dave: In this blog series where we are trying to address “The Myth of the Missions-Minded Church,” we pose question #3: “Can you, or your church missions committee, consider yourself ‘missions-minded’ if you do not clearly understand the actual terms, expectations, and requirements of the Great Commission and if you have no coherent strategy for your role in the completion of Jesus’ command in Mt. 28:19-20?” Because this question about the Great Commission is so important, we may need more than one blog to scope it out.

Joe: Have you ever sat down with your missions team and asked them what really is the essence of the Great Commission using the words that are actually in the text rather than your own words? Put another way, imagine God sent an angel down with a red pen and clipboard to see how we are doing with Jesus’ final command to us. What would that angel be looking for? Words mean something and Jesus chose the words He did for a reason. Then (and this is where it gets really uncomfortable), has your missions team ever examined how they are channeling God’s people and resources to see how much we fit in with this more precise understanding of missions?

See, now you know why we aren’t called missions.net. I’m not that creative, and neither is Dave. Since we weren’t able to come up with a catchy new word, we settled on a term that is nothing more than a negative of missions; unmissions.net.

Dave is going to run with the rest of today’s blog…

Dave: So what is the core of the Great Commission? Or I could ask, What is the single command of Mt. 28:19-20? I remember asking those questions of a class I was teaching at a nearby church. The blank stares and silence that I got suggested to me that maybe this group had not studied or thought deeply about this passage. (This is part of the myth of “missions-mindedness” – the assumption that because we have read a Bible text or heard a sermon on that passage, we know what it means.)

And, no, the imperative is not “go,” but it is the two words “make disciples.” (OK. A brief comment on this verse from Greek grammar…bear with me for one paragraph.) It is not wrong to say “Go!” as if it were an imperative in spite of the fact that the Greek word “go” is actually a participle. The grammatical imperative in Greek is “make disciples” and, in an interesting Greek construction, the participle “go” derives imperatival force from “make disciples.”

(Are your eyes glazing over yet?)

So it is not wrong to say “Go…make disciples” as long as we understand the primary command is to make disciples, not to go. Which raises the most-important questions: What is a disciple? What does it mean to make disciples? How does one make a disciple? What would a disciple-making strategy look like for an individual or a church missions committee?

For much of my Christian life, the western church has been on a journey of maturing in discipleship and in its understanding of the Great Commission. Here are five progressive stages that I have observed in my lifetime.

(1) Growing up in the church, I did not hear much about disciple-making as a child. It was assumed in many cases that the Great Commission was about getting as many people saved as possible. So a word like “evangelism” was much more popular than the term “disciple-making.”

(2) Two events might help us understand the history of disciple-making in the American church. With the release of Robert Coleman’s “The Masterplan of Evangelism” in 1963 (reprinted continuously ever since), discipleship was moved to a more visible place in our theology and practice. I was required to read Coleman’s book in seminary and I am grateful since that book has influenced me as much as any other book I have read. The second event was the emergence of the Navigators as a discipleship-oriented ministry, causing discipleship to gain an increasingly wider exposure among western evangelicals.

(3) However, disciple-making is not the kind of ministry that produces an immediate bang for the buck. Disciple-makers must be in it for the long haul. It is a marathon, not a sprint. And that is simply not the American way! So the American church, with its tendency to want rapid growth through programs, dynamic preaching, great music, and lovely facilities, has been slow to buy into Jesus’ example of how to methodically make disciples by investing personal time and making sacrifices to see slow but steady maturation. Though large evangelistic crusades and church meetings are fine, they are no substitute for discipleship.

(4) But if we are good at anything in the western world, it’s creating programs. So, rather than wrestle with the long, hard process of making disciples, many churches sought (and still seek) to create programs to put a quick fix to the problem. This has not worked well. Turning discipleship into a program is like viewing dating your spouse as a project or homework assignment.

(5) Finally, there is a renaissance of sorts going on in the American church. One of the exciting aspects of this new thinking is a rediscovery of the ancient art of disciple-making. It is to this renewal of a focus on disciple-making that we will return in our next blog.

Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz