By Ed Stetzer
What if we misunderstand the primary function of being a Christian? Jesus told us to make disciples. But is that what we’re actually doing in our churches?
When people talk about becoming Christians, growing as Christians, and sharing how others become Christians, it sounds as if there is a series of steps. We treat it as if it were a process made up of isolated building blocks.
In this way of thinking, each part of the Great Commission is a sequence of events. Someone is evangelized, then baptized, then discipled, and then eventually goes on mission himself.
An Assembly Line?
In the industrialized West, we see this as an assembly-line process. A lost individual begins the process and, after going through specific stops along the way, a fully developed disciple emerges at the end of the line. Evangelism is distinct from discipleship, which is distinct from missions.
But is that really what Jesus is communicating to His disciples gathered on the mountain at the end of Matthew’s Gospel? Instead of seeing disciple-making as a series of steps, I believe there is a better approach. Look again at Matthew 28:19-20.
In the original language of the New Testament, the only verb in the Great Commission is “make disciples.” Everything else is a function of that. Going, baptizing, and teaching are all acts that occur within the command “make disciples.”
The command automatically leads into the activities of disciple-making. Because of this, I believe a better way to view disciple-making is as a holistic endeavor, not a step-by-step process.
Disciple-making as a Holistic Journey: Evangelism, Discipleship, and Mission
If we use the term disciple-making as our guide, that becomes our ministry focus—make disciples. Therefore, disciple-making must include people becoming disciples when they previously were not. That is where the evangelistic aspect is evident in disciple-making.
People need to hear and respond to the good news of the gospel. We are to take and proclaim the gospel to them. So Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations must include evangelism as an integral part of the approach.
But disciple-making also includes what we have traditionally called discipleship, or the spiritual growth part of the Christian life. It’s that part of the Great Commission that instructs us to baptize them and teach them to observe all Christ has commanded.
However, disciple-making is not only what we normally call discipleship. It is not something that happens only subsequent to conversion. Discipleship happens in the course of making a disciple. A person is made a disciple by being evangelized, learning and obeying the commands of Jesus, and engaging in the mission of Jesus.
A disciple throughout the Scriptures is someone who is on mission. In John 20:21, Jesus tells His followers, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” A disciple is one who is sent out by Jesus on His mission of reconciliation.
Disciple-making not only involves being made into a disciple yourself, it involves seeking to help make others disciples as well. Disciple-making involves sending people on mission.
A Journey, not an Assembly Line
As such, when we speak of disciple-making, we want to be clear we’re talking about a holistic approach that, to quote a well-worn phrase now, enables an irreligious person to become a fully devoted follower of Christ, who is personally involved in seeing others do the same.
As the church participates in the call to make disciples, atheists become active believers, materialists become missionaries. And disciple-making is the term that encompasses the fullness of that strategy: evangelism, discipleship, and mission.
As Westerners and Americans, we love to compartmentalize things and see a process as a collection of sequential building blocks with each one distinct and separate. Instead, I think the Great Commission calls us to something that is holistic and all-encompassing. It calls us to make disciples.
Disciple-making includes evangelism, discipleship, and ultimately being a mission-shaped believer who works so that others become disciples and engage in disciple-making themselves.