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Do we have a reductionist view of the Great Commission?

One of the great strengths of evangelical missions today is evangelism.  If you read the literature, follow the blogs, and listen to the conversations, everyone is talking about how to find quicker, better, more contextualized methods of evangelism.  After all, isn’t that what the Great Commission is all about? (Matt. 28:19)

I love evangelism. But the longer I spend in cross-cultural Christian work, the more I believe that in all our zeal to fulfill the Great Commission, evangelical missions often fails to take seriously the entirety of what Jesus told his disciples in Matt 28:18-20.  If we were to reverse engineer what many missionaries do in order to discover how they understand the Great Commission, it might read something like this:

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples converts 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 just enough to be a good church member and avoid falling into blatant immorality. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We’re good at the “going” part. And we are good at the evangelism part.  But somehow, we are not so good at following through and helping people to come to maturity in Christ.  Nobody outright denies the importance of discipleship.  If you asked 100 missionaries, they would all probably say discipleship is important.

At the very beginning stages of church planting, the majority of time is devoted to evangelism.  If you don’t have any believers yet, that’s all you can do and that’s what you must do.  But when you have a small group of believers, the focus must start to shift to discipleship.  Most missionaries will say they are involved in discipleship.  And, of course, many of them are.  We do initial teaching on the basics of the faith, and make sure converts understand that they should go to church, tithe, share the Gospel with others, and not have sex outside of marriage.  But do missionaries teach their converts to obey ALL that Christ has commanded?  Even the stuff that is perceived as non-essential to getting a church planting movement off the ground?

If you look at where the greatest time, energy, and thought is spent in obeying the Great Commission, the majority is spent on getting people to become Christians.  Much less is spent on figuring out how to help them mature in Christ.  That is not always true, but by and large, the much harder and less glorious job of discipleship is handed off to the local church.  Or it is handed off to the Holy Spirit and the brand-new converts themselves, while the missionary heads off to do more evangelism.

Objections to Emphasizing Discipleship

Some missionaries might object, saying, “It is our job to evangelize, and it is the job of the local Christians & the Holy Spirit to grow them into maturity,” reasoning that “if they have the Bible and the Holy Spirit, they’ll be okay,” or “if we stay too long, it will create dependency” or “if we stay too long, it will hinder spontaneous indigenous church planting.”  The example of the Apostle Paul is cited, saying that he planted and moved on quickly.  But, of course, one reason Paul moved on quickly is because he was driven out of the city by enemies of the Gospel.  He didn’t always happen that way, but he often didn’t leave by choice, and was not driven by a fear of creating dependency.

Paul & Discipleship

So how did Paul do discipleship?  When possible, he went back to the same places again to encourage and teach the disciples further.  And he wrote many letters back to the churches he helped plant.  And he sent other mature leaders back to teach and establish those churches further (Titus 1:5, 1 Tim 1:3).  Paul obviously saw his job as much more than simply evangelism, and he was convinced of the necessity of sustained biblical teaching from mature leaders, both in person and by letter.  When it is not possible to be with new believers and new churches personally, one must obviously trust God’s sovereign plan.  The ejection of missionaries from China by the Communists in the 1950s is a great example of this.  But this was not by choice.  However, in God’s sovereign plan, this was the best thing for the Chinese church.  Yet in the ordinary course of things, God gives pastors and teachers to his church for their upbuilding (Eph 4:11).  New believers should not be left on their own for the sake of multiplication strategy and the desire for speed.  Paul expressed his burden for discipling Christians to maturity in his letter to the Philippians, writing,

“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Phil 1:23-26)

Obviously missionaries don’t want to stay too long, recreating the paternalism that was such a problem for missions in years past.  But in an over-reaction to the errors of the past, the pendulum seems to have swung the other way.  Now it seems many missionaries are too quick to leave.  We have done a good job of modeling evangelism, but we haven’t done a great job of modeling discipleship.  And how will the local believers and their leaders excel in disciple making if those who started the church have not stayed around long enough to model disciple making?  How will people become grounded in the Word of God, if missionaries are always looking at their watch, eager to move on to the next village?

What is the solution?  I would like to suggest four things that missionaries can do to better model discipleship:

1. Give More Time to Discipleship

Missionaries need to put at least equal (if not more) time and energy into discipleship and maturing leaders as they do into evangelism.  I know there are missionaries who are already doing this, so I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brushstroke.  And I know that the majority of time in a young church plant must be spent on evangelism.  But at the same time, many missionaries probably need to stay in better contact with the the churches they help plant, and to follow with them and their leaders over the years.  This doesn’t necessarily need to be done in residence, but like the apostle Paul, he maintained contact, wrote letters, went to visit & teach, found opportunities to continue meeting with leaders, and found others who could go back and further establish those churches instead of him.

2. Teach Sound Doctrine

Like Paul, we need to be concerned to teach sound doctrine (Rom 16:17, 1 Tim 1:3, 1 Tim 1:10, 1 Tim 4:6, Titus 1:9, Titus 2:1, Heb. 6:1-3) not merely the basic of the faith necessary to keep people in church, and out of immorality.  Part of the reason why churches are ravaged with immorality and division is not because there has been too much focus on doctrine, but too little.  I am not talking about teaching people how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  I am talking about doing the basics (and beyond) well.  If people truly understood deep in their souls the depth of human sin and the heights of grace in the gospel of Christ, then their would be much more humility and forgiveness to go around, and much less prideful selfishness and in-fighting.  Do we give our people a sound understanding of baptism, the Lord’s supper, church leadership, the nature of the church, the teaching of the Scripture on marriage, family, work, and politics?  If we spent more time on the doctrines of divine sovereignty and suffering, then the prosperity gospel would not so easily gain an audience in our churches.  Churches that are grounded in the Word of God are less prone to confusion and heresy when false teachers come to town, put on a big show in Bangkok, or get translations of their teachings into circulation, either in print or online.

3. Equip Parents to Disciple Their Children

In both East and West, one of the great misunderstandings of evangelical Christians is that it is the church’s job to disciple their children.  Drop them off at Sunday school or youth group once per week and the job is done.  The church certainly has a role, but in Scripture, the primary job of teaching the faith to children belongs to the parents:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism with the intention that the head of the household (usually the father) would instruct his family in the basics of the faith held in the catechism.  Richard Baxter in 17th century England visited the families and made sure that the parents knew that they should be teaching their children in the faith.  Many families were not equipped for that, so Baxter sought to teach them how and gave them resources they could use.

On the contemporary mission field, missionaries need to be giving some sort of practical instruction to people generally, and families in particular, to learn the faith.  Although it is not too trendy, teaching them the 10 Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer would be a great start.  A catechism such as Luther’s Small Catechism or the Westminster Shorter Catechism would also be good.  If the wording of those seem too difficult for people, writing a new catechism is an option.  Learning Bible stories by heart and then telling them to each other at meal time and discussing is also another accessible way to teach the faith, especially with people who are not analytical thinkers, or with children.  Everybody loves a good story.  And a steady diet of Scriptural stories help shape worldview and ground people in the faith.

4. Invest in Theological Education

Some missionaries love formal theological education.  Some hate it.  Either way, it is a fact of life in many places that a large proportion of pastors and church leaders will study at a bible college or seminary, whether it be full-time, part-time, or online.  The theological schools have a large part in forming and discipling the leaders of the church, and if missionaries want to equip and ground the church, then they need to get into the academy.  Formal teaching is not for everybody.  But if missionaries are concerned that the bible schools are too much about this, or not enough about that, then they should get in there and do something about it.  Teach a course as an adjunct while also doing church planting or more direct evangelism and discipleship.  In hierarchical societies where status and position lend themselves to credibility and influence, a teaching post certainly doesn’t hurt.

There are probably many more good ideas to help promote discipleship but the bottom line is that missionaries need to be as concerned with laying a good foundation as they are with doing outreach.  Unless we do that, then we may find that those eagerly sought after church planting movements dissolve into nominalism or heresy after we have breezed through town.

Karl Dahlfred

Karl Dahlfred has served with OMF in Thailand since 2006. He has taught church history and missions at Bangkok Bible Seminary, assisted in editing and translation of Thai Christian books at OMF Publishers Thailand, and engaged in church planting efforts in Central Thailand and Bangkok. In 2020, he completed a Ph.D in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh and is preparing to return to Thailand. Karl and his wife Sun have three children. Find out more about the Dahlfred family and read their blogs at Gleanings from the Field, A Reductionist View of the Great Commission

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