Making Mature Disciples in Missions


Editorial Comment: This post is the eighth of 10 articles explaining Reaching & Teaching’s 10 Missiological Distinctives.

Jesus gave his followers one command in Matthew 28:18–20: make disciples. Two thousand years later, disciple-making remains at the heart of the missionary enterprise.

Our goal in disciple-making is to remain faithful to the Bible’s instructions as we multiply followers of Jesus. We must carefully pass on faith in Christ to those who will similarly teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). We want many people to believe (1 Cor. 9:19) and subsequently grow to maturity in Christ (Col. 1:28).

While some contemporary missions strategies suggest this process can happen quickly, we believe it’s normally a slow process that requires patience as believers mature through the ordinary means of grace in the context of a local church.

Paul describes the progress of spiritual maturity in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” We don’t transform ourselves; transformation is the work of God’s Spirit within us.

To be sure, there is work for us to do, but growth is not up to us (see Mark 4:27). We fix our eyes on Christ. We meditate on his person, his work, his character, and his nature every day in his Word and through prayer, and each week when we gather with the church. Our responsibility is to trust the process. Year by year, little by little, God transforms us.

The goal of this transformation is for us to become like Christ. We are transformed “into the same image” or, as Paul put it to the Ephesian Christians, we are growing “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

As you can imagine, this process takes time. No disciple is immediately mature. We start as newborn babes and gradually grow to look more and more like him (1 Cor. 3:1–3; Heb. 5:11–12). We know we are becoming like him as we grow to love him, and we know we love him when we are growing in loving what he loves and hating what he hates (1 Thess. 5:21–22).

No Christian is exempt from this process. It’s for every believer. Consider Paul’s stated aim for his ministry. “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Any truly “apostolic” ministry will have the same goal.

You can’t microwave spiritual growth. You can’t take spiritual growth hormones. Why? Because the process is wrought by God alone.

Only God can guide our growth for he alone knows what edges of our character need to be sharpened, softened, or hammered away. Only his loving hand can apply the right amount of pressure. Only his wisdom knows how to correctly untangle the thorny knots of our flesh. Only his power can coordinate the troubles of today with our present and pressing needs.

Can God make us mature quickly? Of course he can. All Christians will, one day, be perfected in an instant (1 John 3:2). But God doesn’t regularly work that way. For example, we can slow our growth by resisting what is good (see 1 Cor. 3:1–3; Heb. 5:11–12). We can fail to put the right conditions in place. It doesn’t follow, however, that we can remove all resistance and achieve instantaneous maturity.

This was true even of the numerical growth of the early church. The church grew wildly from a handful of disciples and became the predominant religion of the Roman Empire in just three centuries. We look back now and praise the growth as a triumphant act of God the Spirit. In The Rise of Christianity, historian Rodney Starke estimates that the early church grew at a rate of about 30 percent per decade for the first three hundred years. Strangely, present-day advocates of movement methodologies call for modern growth rates many times beyond that. I wonder if they would have been dissatisfied with the rate of growth that typified the early church.

We must be patient. Being patient doesn’t mean we stop desiring all nations to praise Christ now. But it does mean we adjust our expectations, resist impatience, and praise God for what he’s doing—even while we seek to establish all the right conditions for growth today.

Disciples normally grow through the ordinary means of grace. We don’t need to innovate or discover new practices. There’s nothing flashy about prayer (James 5:16), reading the Bible (1 Tim. 4:13), gathering for worship (Eph. 5:18–21), holding each other accountable (Matt. 18:15), singing (Col. 3:16), or observing the ordinances of baptism (Eph. 4:5) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:24). Nonetheless, the Bible encourages us to practice these and other ordinary activities on a regular basis.

I’m skeptical when missiologists say ministry success or disciple-making requires a course of action not found in the Bible—and you should be, too. For example, my missionary training included missiologists insisting that missionaries only plant “house churches.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with churches that meet in houses per se. But exhortations like this undermine the sufficiency of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16–17): if a house church is truly what’s necessary for growth and success in missions today, then why didn’t God tell us in the Bible?

A commitment to Scripture will necessarily lead missionaries to prioritize the ordinary means of grace. These are the “right” conditions for disciples’ growth. They’re the necessary ingredients. They don’t cause growth; only God does. But he causes growth through these ordinary means.

Depending on these ordinary means should humble us and comfort us. It’s humbling because God alone produces results, and he does so through means that are both simple and ancient. It’s comforting because we know that our job is to simply be faithful. Whether or not growth is happening, we can trust that God is bringing in the harvest he desires.

Disciples grow in the context of the local church. In Ephesians 4:11–16, Paul explains that Christians are equipped by the church, through the church, and for the sake of others in the church. Christians are expected to be members of a local church. As Bruce Milne says, “To be a Christian, if it means anything at all, means being gathered out of isolation into the corporate life of the body of Christ.”

When church members gather, they help each other grow by praying for each other, teaching the Bible to each other (even through singing), and encouraging each other to avoid sin. Much of the New Testament is written to Christians in local churches, so we conclude God expects the church to be the normal experience for every Christian—even missionaries.

What do missionaries do when there is no church? That’s a good question. After all, that’s why many missionaries choose to live where they live. In these situations, missionaries should commit to evangelism even as they pray together, read Scripture together, and hold each other accountable. In fact, as non-Christians see these kinds of relationships, they’ll see the gospel lived out, which God might use in their steps toward conversion.

If disciple-making is ordinarily a slow process, then how should we shape our missions strategy?

Well, first of all, failing to apply and understand this teaching leads to unhelpful and even dangerous missions methodologies. In the last 50 years, missionaries and missions organizations have realized how much work is left to be done in world evangelism. Unfortunately, they’ve responded by seeking faster, more streamlined methods to make more disciples and plant more churches. In other words, the urgency of the task has pushed missionaries to prioritize efficiency and immediate results. No matter the task—Bible translation, evangelism, discipleship, church planting, pastoral training—speed has become the core value in much of modern missions strategy.

I could list several examples of movements that wrongly privilege rapidity. Church Planting Movements (CPM) and Disciple Making Movements (DMM) are among the most popular. These methods employ church growth strategies that seek to spark widespread, rapid multiplication of new disciples and churches. They depend on reductionistic ecclesiology and a simplistic understanding of conversion and discipleship. When speed is the goal in church planting and discipleship, then the definition of both “church” and “disciple” will inevitably have to change.

The Bible says growing disciples is like growing plants (see 1 Cor. 3:6). Any child can grow a plant if the right conditions are set. In the right environment—a mix of adequate space to grow, the right temperature, light, water, air, and nutrients—plants just grow. As a child, my wife won a science award for experimenting with how different-colored lights impact the growth of plants. She didn’t need to learn how to make the plants’ cells divide or how to guide each plant through sprouting and flowering and ripening. She simply provided the conditions. She planted and watered and God gave the growth. In fact, she was doubly faithful. Even though her experiment proved a dud—as it turns out, colored light has decisively zero impact on plant growth—she received an award for her faithfulness to the process.

Growing disciples is like that. To grow disciples requires faithfully providing the biblically prescribed conditions. God will give the growth as he pleases because disciples just grow. That’s what they do. But we must also be doubly faithful by paying attention to the process and providing the right conditions. If we remain faithful, whether disciples grow or not, we will earn our reward from Jesus (Matt. 25:23).

Scott Logsdon

Scott Logsdon (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor of an English speaking church in Central Asia, where he resides with his wife. He has more than 20 years of experience in cross-cultural church planting.

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