“We need to make disciples!”
If you want loud applause from an audience of Christian leaders, make sir you mention how important it is to make disciples. The applause come because of our present-day fascination with all things “missional” and “disciple-making.” It’s kinda cool.
Last year, I spent two days listening to and learning from a few of great thinkers share about “making disciples.” The opening speaker wanted to make one thing clear: The church is in trouble. According to some polls, some Christians didn’t believe what he thought they ought to about baptism or hell or atonement theory. Even more Christians polled confessed to premarital sex and Christian divorce rates were inching up. At the same time, he said, we should all be ashamed of not fully embracing the theology of adoption and adopt little black kids from Africa. If I didn’t know before, I knew now: We pastors aren’t “making disciples” (or at least that guys version of one). I wanted to tell him, I’ve already got my little black kids.
The conference only got worse. Over two days, speakers reinforced how we weren’t “doing enough,” or “teaching the gospel enough,” or “serving the community enough.” There were a lot of “enoughs.”
We also heard about what a waste of time it was to “preach sermons” and how “people aren’t interested in your ivory tower theology.” All of this, of course, was done in the service of getting us pastors to “make disciples.” I discovered we weren’t doing enough, because I wrote it all down in my “you suck at ministry” notebook they placed in our goody bags.
But there was an huge gap in my notes. No one ever bothered to explain what a disciple was, what a disciple looked like, or how — as a Christian leader — I’d know when I had one.
The speakers told stories, though. Stories about churches helping the homeless. Tales of young, urban hipsters serving little old, blue-haired ladies and so on. We worshiped. We listened. We left not knowing what a disciple was.
I know it sounds kind of silly, but if we’re going spend this much time talking, writing, and aiming at “discipleship,” shouldn’t we have some idea when we’ve hit the target? If you’re going to guilt me into believing I’ve failed to make disciples or the American church has let down the Kingdom, shouldn’t you make a contrast between what we have and what should have?
Calling A Disciple
No one I know doubts Jesus made disciples. But, His disciples looked remarkably like the disciples the conference suggested we weren’t making.
They were constantly in disbelief. They repeatedly asked questions which had already been answered. They were amazed when storms were calmed and thousands were fed. The disciples were consistently dumbfound by the faithfulness of God. They weren’t fired up when Jesus welcomed people they had been taught to dislike. When they weren’t being astonished, they were fouling things up. For goodness sake, even though they had been raised in synagogue, the disciples didn’t even know how to pray. They had to ask! Yet through it all, they were Jesus’ disciples…and they were called Jesus’ disciples.
It doesn’t seem like there were many hoops to jump through or tests to pass in order to be called a disciple of Jesus. The disciples taught what they had not yet fully learned. They healed the sick. They suffered persecution and they saw Satan fall like lightening. Before they had their doctrine right. While still worried about sitting at the right hand of Jesus and not having formed the capability to watch and pray without falling asleep, they were Jesus’ disciples…and they were called Jesus’ disciples.
Teaching, Obeying, and Trusting
Jesus doesn’t find “making disciples” all that complicated. If it were, He could’ve mentioned it sooner than his ascension. When Jesus describes discipleship, he does so in stunningly simple terms: teaching, obeying, and trusting. “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: 19).
In real life, teaching, obeying, and trusting don’t make for great “keynote” stories, but every time we practice them, we are Jesus’ disciples.
My friend lost her husband to cancer last year. When the waves of grief roll over her and she continues to trust in the goodness of God, that’s being a disciple. When a mother of five, fumbles through her purse, groping for her weekly (and meager) contribution, that’s being a disciple. Last week, a 75year-old-woman modeled preparing communion to my 7-year old, that’s being a disciple. When Sunday School teachers prepare to teach Bible classes knowing few people will show, I have a choice to make. I can shout that absentees aren’t “real” disciples or I can celebrate how he is.
All the podium prophets shouting at us to “make disciples” are right. We need to make disciples. The good news is, because we are teaching, obeying, and trusting, we already are. I went to conference and no one could tell me differently.