At the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis, there was a call for a “Great Commission Resurgence.” Now, I was not there, but it would seem this call came during the report on Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, given by Dr. Danny Akin.
I love Dr. Akin. I have a strong affinity for him. Before he left Southern Seminary for Southeastern, I made it a point to meet with him, sometimes monthly. In Dr. Akin I found a person who scared the tar out of me and I immediately saw the value in having him be a mentor in my life. While his departure cut-off the whole student-mentor relationship, I still consider myself very fortunate to have met with Dr. Akin on the relatively few occasions I did. So, when Dr. Akin called for the Great Commission Resurgence, my ears perked-up.
Dr. Akin is right, in essence. We do need (desperately need!) a resurgence focused on the Great Commission. However, my excitement for his call is greatly tempered by the reality of how most people will understand what his call actually means. (Read the article from the sebts.wordpress.com site here)
What Is The Great Commission All About?
The Great Commission is not about bringing the gospel to the nations, primarily. The Great Commission is about making disciples. I have written about this before, but it bears repeating. The Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20:
Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
“ And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The “Great Commission” must be the foundation of any missions and evangelism endeavor. The main verb is “Make Disciples.” Therefore, the goal of the Great Commission, whether at home or abroad is to make disciples.
In addition to the main verb “Make Disciples,” Matthew 28:18-20 contains three prominent and helpful participles—“Go,” “Baptizing,” and “Teaching.” These three participles speak volumes to how the Great Commission must be approached and carried out.
The participle translated “Go” is perhaps better translated, “After having gone.” The point of this participle is simple: Discipleship must be intentional, not haphazard. In fulfilling the Great Commission, we do not wait for people to come to us. Rather, we are to deliberately and intentionally go to them to bring the gospel to their country, city, and doorstep.
The second prominent participle, “Baptizing,” is very instructive as to the depth of the disciple-making process. Certainly baptism is a picture-in-action of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. However important baptism is (and it is very important), baptism is not salvific in and of itself. In this context, Jesus’ emphasis on baptizing is probably more closely related to the cost of being a Christian—completely forsaking the former way of life.
The point of baptizing people as part of the Great Commission is to eliminate so-called “easy believeism.” There is no such thing as a private conversion or a false dichotomy between public and private behavior. When true disciples are made by a good missions and evangelism effort, the converts will show fruit of true faith. Baptism seeks to insure (from the church’s perspective and the person’s perspective) a true conversion has happened so that in whatever happens, Jesus’ name and the name of the church is not dragged through the mud. Jesus’ inclusion of baptism in the Great Commission shows we are to have a deep commitment to the converts made so that they become fruit-bearing disciples and it helps to insure the person being baptized is serious about living a life wholly devoted to Christ
The third prominent participle is “Teaching.” Jesus’ point is this: All He taught the disciples must be passed on to new converts. Jesus’ emphasis on passing on His teaching further emphasizes that we are not called to make “Converts.” Rather, we are called to make disciples. When a person is converted to Christ, the battle is not over—it has just begun. When Jesus’ teaching is passed on to all new disciples, inevitably, those disciples will be “Romans 12:1-2” Christians—Christians who worship God in every aspect of their lives and who are continually seeking to have their minds renewed so that their lives are acceptable to God.
I have great fear that Dr. Akin’s call for a Great Commission Resurgence will be grossly misunderstood. Unfortunately, most Southern Baptists will see the call for a Great Commission Resurgence as only a call for a renewed emphasis on overseas or North American mission. This gross misunderstanding will put us in great peril as we focus on one “how to” rather than the main point. Certainly we must “go.” But the entirety of the Great Commission revolves around one simple command: Make Disciples. Going, baptizing, and teaching are how we are to accomplish the command to make disciples.
The Danger of Misunderstanding the Great Commission Imperative to Make Disciples
You do not have to look far to find a church that is getting the Great Commission wrong. Perhaps you’ve even seen one of these churches: A pastor committed to calling for people to “go” into mission; a pastor who calls for people to “go” and do personal evangelism; a pastor who is eager to “baptize” anyone who comes forward or makes a profession of faith.
Do you see the problem? The most important “how to” of the Great Commission is missing–Teaching. A not-so-careful examination of most Southern Baptist churches will show that we fail miserably when it comes to the “teaching” part of the Great Commission.
Churches are very concerned with the money given to missions (through the cooperative program; the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings, etc.) and they should be, giving to missions is very important and a non-negotiable. Churches are very concerned with baptizing and they should be. However, most churches are in a rush to baptize (as if salvation depended on it, which it doesn’t) and they never stop to consider whether the person should be baptized; they never consider if the person has shown himself or herself to actually be a true Christian. Teaching and education are almost never emphasized.
There is a good reason the early church had a trial period (the catacumen period) when you were taught and watched for three years (!) after your profession of faith. A catacumen was not baptized until the church body was satisfied the person was actually a Christian. A catacumen’s life was examined to see if there were the fruits of true repentance and true faith. The church did not want to bring shame on themselves or on Christ for the failings of one of their members. This is precisely why a program of education and observation preceded baptism and church membership.
The early church understood what we seem to have forgotten: Without proper education, only a “congregation” will be built, never a “church.”
Is there any surprise the churches of Southern Baptist Convention are in decline?
Education in the church should be a wonderful, all-encompassing endeavor that teaches people to read, understand, and live the Bible. Most often, however, it is not. Church education programs are little more than efforts to pass the time of Sunday school before going into the worship service. Complicating matters further, pastors rarely if ever “teach” from the pulpit. All too often, pastors give messages which are information dumps at best and worldly psycho-babble at worst. Almost never is there good application–the teaching of why and how we are to do what the Bible says.
Now, I’m afraid, we have had many generations of Christians who have a theological acumen akin to the song “Noah built an arky arky”–simple, infantile, superficial. Why?
For decades the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention have not taken seriously the imperative charge of the Great Commission to “Make Disciples.” We have been focused on numbers–Numbers of baptisms, numbers of people added to the rolls, number of missionaries sent or supported, number of dollars given to missions, etc. These are all good things, but we rarely focus on the best thing–the number of our people who are growing, spiritually, into the kind of well-discipled Christian the Bible calls them to be.
Fixing the Problem
The book Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger has some very helpful suggestions. The most helpful suggestion is this: every ministry of the church must pursue the same goal (my paraphrase). The concept here is that all the proverbial horses must pull in the same direction.
Since we are commanded to “Make Disciples,” every ministry of the church must seek to make disciples. Everything the church does is to have this one goal in mind. Of course in making disciples we are commanded to go, baptize, and teach. So, what should we be teaching about going, baptizing, and teaching? Here are some suggestions:
Going is a requirement. Where you go is up to God. Evangelism is not optional. We often think of the “going” as going overseas. While going overseas is important, it is not the only place to go. Whether we go across the world, across the nation, or across the street we must all be equipped for and take part in the work of evangelism.
The intentional equipping of people for evangelism is, in itself, discipling. People practicing intentional evangelism (whether they are vocational missionaries or not) is, in itself, showing yourself to be a disciple.
That churches practice the biblical model of baptism is a non-negotiable. Baptism must be a believer’s baptism and it must be done by immersion. But, before any baptism is performed, the one to be baptized must be taught and examined. Now, I don’t think a three year catacumen period is necessary. However, a time of instruction and examination by the church is absolutely necessary if we are to insure, as far as humanly possible, that the person being baptized is a true Christian.
Educating and observing potential candidates for baptism is, in itself, discipling.
Of course we have already discussed teaching because teaching is required (or should be) for baptism and evangelism. But, the teaching doesn’t stop there.
The teaching ministry of the church must be absolutely intentional and expository. Teaching makes disciples. I think of everything the church does as far as teaching as “Expository Education.”
In going, baptizing, and teaching, to make disciples, all the proverbial horses pull in the same direction. The church is focused and reading from the same sheet of music. By engaging in “Expository Education” the church can come together under one absolutely biblical banner–the effort to make disciples. So, what is Expository Education?
Expository Education is an all-encompassing system of education that is biblically based and serves every aspect of church life from preaching, to the musical texts used in the corporate worship service, to the Sunday school material. Expository Education has one over-riding goal: to make disciples.
The “Expository” in Expository Education refers to the manner in which the education will take place. I unashamedly borrow my definition of “expository” directly from Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Dever defines expository as taking the main point of a passage and making it the main point of the message. Dever uses this definition in describing preaching. This excellent definition is greatly applicable to everything the church does.
In order to make disciples, the preaching must focus on the biblical authors’ main point. This is big-picture preaching and it is preaching that teaches the whole story of the Bible. Now, this approach does not remove so-called doctrinal preaching. Rather, expository preaching is, by definition, doctrinal because the Bible itself is doctrinal.
The “Education” in Expository Education refers to the intentional instruction interwoven into every aspect of the church–the texts set to music and used in the corporate service, the Sunday school material, the practice of church discipline, teaching how to rightly interpret scripture, etc.
In order to make disciples, everything the church does must be educational. It is not enough to encourage people to believe something without telling them why they should believe it.
The music we use in our worship services must have deep and rich theological texts. An effective worship service must seek to build up the church. In Colossians 3:16, the Apostle Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” An effective worship service must contain elements that allow the individual members of the covenant community to learn and apply what the Bible says to their lives. Certainly, this is done through the preaching, but it is also accomplished through the texts of the songs that are sung.
Far too many people today just sit (or stand) during the singing in a worship service and become observers, not participants. An edifying and God-honoring worship service requires that the covenant community (and the assembled congregation) are active participants in the worship service. An effective worship service is a service that the people of the church can participate in with little or no difficulty. Because congregational singing is the primary way for the people to participate in worship, care must be given to the music selected for the worship service. Every effort must be made to ensure the congregation is familiar with the selected music so that they do not become observers, merely, but true participants.
Sunday School Material
Lifeway Sunday School material has not been helpful in “expository education.” Sunday School material should engage the people and teach and instruct them in some of the deeper points of Christianity. In the course of the Sunday School experience, there should be education on the importance of Systematic Theology, Biblical Hermeneutics, etc. Using Biblical Hermeneutics as an example, we can see how the curriculum can and should instruct people on the basics of Biblical interpretation. That way, we won’t have people misunderstanding passages like “judge not…” and “…cast the first stone.”
There is nothing to be feared from educating our people in the deep things of the faith. In fact, there is much to be gained. A well-discipled believer will, by definition, be a believer committed to every aspect of the Great Commission.
Many preachers and teachers try to guilt people into service. This is manipulative and counter productive. If you encourage people to become deep-thinking Christians, inevitably these people will want, on their own, to become missionaries–because of the call of God.
Missionaries who have been guilted onto the mission field will, most likely, fail. On the other hand, the missionaries who are deep-thinking will understand that going to the mission field is not primarily for the purpose of the people. The foremost purpose for a deep-thinking Christian to go to the mission field is to be faithful to the calling that God has placed on his or her life.
So, when the going gets tough–when the people you want to minister kill your family–you won’t leave! Deep-thinking Christians understand that being faithful to God means staying on the field in the face of overwhelming odds and crushing personal tragedy. These are not superficial people; they are people who are deeply committed to God and will go to great and deadly lengths to fulfill the calling on their lives.
The Great Irony
Ironically, the churches that are most concerned about numbers of members, numbers of baptisms, and numbers of dollars given to missions usually are the churches that have a superficial and anemic discipleship program.
However, the churches that spend their time and energy in building an all-encompassing and deep-thinking discipleship program will produce Christians who are committed, baptized members of the local church who give their fortunes and lives to missions, both national and international.
The challenge here is to focus on the main thing–making disciples. If that focus is kept paramount, the going, baptizing, and teaching will happen. However, if you focus only on the peripheral matters of going and baptizing with an anemic and superficial teaching ministry, making true disciples will not happen to the degree it is supposed to.
Unfortunately, this statement proves to be true more often than not: Disciples will be evangelists. Not all evangelists will be disciple-makers.
Keep the main thing paramount–making disciples. If we do our job in this area, God will call people to “go.” That is His job. We must not confuse the two.