He said, “I am beginning to realize that evangelism is not enough, they need to be discipled,” as he sat there connecting the dots in his head. Let me explain what happened.
Last year, I gave a talk to a group of church leaders in Northern Brazil about Jesus’ command to not just make converts, but to make disciples. It was nothing earth-shattering; I was simply trying to expound what Jesus taught in the Great Commission. Yet for some in the room it was the first time they realized that healthy churches will never be produced without intentional discipleship.
This particular brother shared how his church had been working for many years in a remote tribe in the Amazon. They had shared the gospel, some had responded to the message, and a church was started. But it was mostly a facade and the workers had grown frustrated. Each time they went they would hold a church service but then the “believers” in the community would go out behind the church building to do drugs and offer sacrifices to their tribal deity. They had made converts, but not disciples.
The Necessity of Discipleship
Certainly, we cannot make disciples without first sharing the gospel. This is the message of “first importance” that we must deliver if we are to be faithful missionaries (1 Corinthians 15:3). Yet, our missionary task is not done when a sinner is sovereignly and graciously given new life. Jesus made it clear in the Great Commission that we are to make disciples. At the very least that includes baptizing and teaching the commands of Jesus. Through discipleship we “grow up into salvation,” “go on to maturity,” and “strain forward to what lies ahead,” (1 Peter 2:2; Hebrew 6:1; Philippians 3:13).
These passages are clear that discipleship is a process for all believers, not just some. It is not that some believers are radical disciples while others are just normal Christians. The call is for every believer to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24).
What’s more, disciples make disciples. The Apostle Paul commended the disciples in Rome because they were “able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). He also instructed Timothy, a man whom he had discipled, to disciple others “who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). One of the pictures in the Bible of the church is a body where each part works together in order to help the body grow and be edified (Ephesians 4:16). In other words, members of the body edify other members of the body. Disciples make disciples.
Why You Should Go Overseas to Make Mature Disciples
With that in mind, why should you consider going overseas to make mature disciples? Let me offer a few reasons.
1. Making disciples is an essential part of the missionary task. Missions has been defined by some as taking the gospel to the unreached of the world. A quick scan of mission’s history shows that many of our missionary heroes were moved and motivated by the lostness in unreached areas. Today, we are reminded of the urgency of the need to reach the unreached. Yet, defining what is a reached group can be quite difficult and this emphasis has led some to adopt a strategy of going to an unreached area to share the gospel, forming those who respond into Bible study groups, and then moving onto the next unreached area.
Without calling into question the motives of these missionaries nor the sincerity of these new believers, we can say that this strategy is, at best, incomplete. Missions cannot be less than gospel proclamation but it should be more. It should include all that Jesus said in the great commission: evangelism and discipleship. A deeper look at the story of some of our missionary heroes will show they too understood the full missionary task.
2. There is a need for missionaries who are gifted in discipling and training others. Some missionaries are more gifted at evangelism than discipleship. Still others are more gifted at discipleship than they are at evangelism. This truth should not cause us to change the mission that Christ gave us. Rather, it should cause us to work together to obey all that Christ commanded.
The urgent need to reach the unreached is undeniable. But if we simply make converts without making disciples, we have only partially obeyed Christ’s command. And, as I tell my kids, partial obedience is still disobedience.
3. Discipleship is good missions strategy. A wise missionary mentor and friend recently told me to think about who from Argentina would some day take my place. While I hope to spend many more years on the mission field, it is not too early to focus on raising up a replacement. Missionaries should ask from the beginning, “How can I work myself out of a job?” Such a strategy may not make much business sense, but it makes good kingdom sense
Missionaries call this an exit strategy and it is necessary because the work in any given place should not be forever dependent on outsiders. But neither should the work die when the missionary leaves. In order for that not to happen, discipleship must take place. We must make disciples who make disciples. Such a strategy is not a luxury; it is necessary for the long term Christian witness in a given area.
4. Discipleship strengthens churches. I have traveled to a number of different places where a missionary labored for many years faithfully evangelizing. These missionaries have left behind a solid group of believers who now need to be discipled and trained. These young believers are still struggling with issues of syncretism and basic matters of doctrine.
For that reason, the churches in these areas are often immature. But, as believers are discipled, not only do they mature, but the churches they are a part of mature. Maturing disciples lead to maturing churches. And a mature church will be better equipped to evangelize and disciple for years to come.
The multiplying impact you can have as a missionary focused on deep discipleship is incredible to consider. Of course, just like salvation, discipleship is a work of the Holy Spirit. It is often difficult and slow and it is hard to quantify. It may not look good in a missionary newsletter, but it is faithful obedience to our Lord’s command and a joy to be a part of.