The Great Commission: Changing the Starting Point

The Matthew 28 version of the Great Commission speaks of developing Disciples. There appear to be three basic steps: They are Evangelize, Baptize, and Teach/Train.

GC Three Cycle

The question is where does it start. Within the context of the various Great Commission versions, the start seems to be with Evangelize. That is because the key issue of the Acts 1 version is for the apostles (“sent out ones”) to serve as witnesses of Jesus and proclaimers of Jesus’s message to the world. And since the recipients are people who are not followers, it rather makes sense that Evangelism is the first step.

Of course, things did change. As Christianity, as a religion, became naturalized to families and communities, there was more of a move toward the initial step being baptism. Babies of Christian families would be baptized and brought formally into the church. the children would be trained within the church until they become confirmed in the Christian faith. So Baptism in this case would be the first step. As a Baptist myself, I don’t really prefer that particular starting point, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

But it could also be argued that Training can (or even should) be thought of as the starting point. This can be seen in a couple of ways.

Number 1.   There has been a growth of “try before you buy.” Many seekers will become involved in church before they decide to believe. They want to see Christianity lived out. That can be awkward, because they may not just sit in the back of the congregation. They may want to jam in the worship team. They may want to discuss uncomfortable topics in Bible study or Sunday School. They may want to get involved with social ministries. They may want to join a short-term mission trip.

This first one can be awkward. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable in church with uncomfortable questions. I remember a woman standing up during church service after a deacon had given an (overly strong, and perhaps manipulative) appeal to tithe, and she asks the question to the entire congretation, “Does God’s love need to be bought?” It was a good question, but the church response was to guide her out of the church. Not ideal. I have sat in an evangelistic bible study with a young man who was dressed in women’s clothes. The bible study leader does a fine job for quite awhile and then the dam burst as she started rattling off every verse she knew that spoke negatively of homosexuality.

In both of those cases, I feel that the guests were handled poorly by Christians. They showed up at the church for some reason. Maybe their reasons were sincere… maybe not. The result was that the church pushed them out. The woman never returned, and although the young man did not walk out of the Bible study, he did not continue with the weekly studies.

Number 2.  Engel and Dyrness in “Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?” (InterVarsity Press, 2000) on pages 65 and 66 note that it is not really Biblical to start with transmitting a message without giving people a “taste” of Christian compassion and holy living. I kind of think that this statement is taken a bit far. However, I do believe it is generally true. Charles Kraft speaks of Power Encounter always preceding Truth Encounter. Again, I think that this pushes a particular tradition rather than expressing a Biblical principle. However, Jesus almost always gave a taste of the Kingdom first. This may be miraculous signs, and healing. It may be violating cultural taboos, and upending social structures.

Engel and Dyrness in the same book (see page 64) described Evangelism as it has become popular in the Market Evangelism of the late 1900s Evangelicalism. They noted the Great Commission became tied to two Omissions:

  • Evangelism became disconnected from Social Transformation. Many believed that social transformation would follow Evangelism. Engel and Dyrness noted that at least since the mid-1800s this has not happened. Social Transformation should work hand-in-hand with (or even precede) Spiritual Transformation. Focusing on cognitive change (without an understanding of how such a cognitive change is supposed to connect to a life lived for God) commonly leads to anemic Christianity.
  • When Evangelism drifts into Marketing a product to as many people as possible to get the most people to make some sort of identifying indication of response, discipleship as a total process tends to wilt.

Perhaps a better idea is to start in a better place:

  1.  Welcome people into the church, bible studies, ministry activities and more as seekers and skeptics to experience the Christian faith lived out, and where they can ask uncomfortable questions and get honest (unpracticed thoughtful) answers. In this way they can experience an aspect of the Kingdom that is tied to the message. Of course, this requires Christians to live out their faith socially, as well as doctrinally. This can result in 4th century Christianity where churches moved from small groups of the faithful to being large groups of the immature. But I don’t think this is a necessary result. A church can be a holy gathering of the faithful while maintaining it as a safe space for inquiry and doubt.
  2. Welcome these people to place their faith in Christ to become what they have been experiencing.
  3. Welcome believers into the mystical church— the body of Christ— through baptism.
  4. The people would were trained as believers become trainers of new seekers and skeptics, living out their faith with humility, and demonstrating holy brokenness and social concern to all. (And the cycle continues.)

I don’t think it is controversial to say that we teach unbelievers. It may sound controversial to say that we disciple unbelievers, but if discipleship is the entire process, of course one must disciple unbelievers. What probably IS controversial is to suggest that Proclamation/Evangelization is most commonly the wrong place to start.

And Evangelism that is built around marketing schemes does tend to lack the Biblical base and Spiritual foundation of regeneration.

I think we need to wrestle with this.





Mary at the Feet of Jesus

One day Jesus was invited to the house of a woman named Martha, along with a number of his disciples. The disciples sat on the floor in the main room, and Jesus began his instruction. Martha and her sister were not rich. They could not pass on the duties of preparation to the servants— servants they did not have. So Martha and Mary began to prepare the meal for their very special guests. It was a great honor, but also a great amount of work.

Mary, however, had heard second-hand some of the strange and exciting stories and teachings of Jesus. Thus, she would strain her ear to hear what Jesus and His disciples were saying inside the house. She would find reasons to linger by the door to listen. Jesus began to tell a story, and Mary did not want to walk away in the middle and not know the ending, or what the story means. She stood in the doorway for the entire story. But as the story ended the discussion began and she did not want to leave. She knew, however, that there was work to do. Regretfully, she began to back out to continue preparation; but Jesus looked at her and with a subtle motion of His hand beckoned her to sit down.

She was nervous to do so, but she did want to listen if she could, and it certainly seemed right to do as their special guest requested. So she moved toward the corner of the room farthest from Jesus and prepared to sit down. Jesus responded, “No Mary. I want you to join the group, not hide in the back.” He motioned His disciples to make room in the circle, and Mary, feeling out of place, sat down in the circle. This was foreign to her— other rabbis would not have allowed her to join in such a way. It was exciting to hear the words of Jesus directly and listen to the discussion and explanations and questions. She started to have questions of her own but was unsure if it was appropriate to speak up.

Before she had resolved this in her mind, her sister peaked into the room and attempted to wave her to come out. Martha gave her an exasperated look and tried to mouth silently to her to leave the guests alone.

Jesus looked up at Martha and said, “Oh, don’t be worried Martha. I invited her to join our little group. I hope you don’t mind.”

Martha responded, “I apologize to disturb you Lord. But don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Could you tell her to help me?”

Jesus then said, “Martha, Martha. You are worried and upset about many things. If we eat now, or two hours from now doesn’t matter. If you truly need help, we all can help prepare the meal. None of that is vital. I am here not to eat or to sleep, but to teach and proclaim. That is what is most important and Mary has chosen the more important thing. I will not send her away, and I ask you not to pull her away either. In fact, if you want to join us, there is room in the circle for you as well.”

The Back Door of Faith

There is a big disagreement as to whether someone can “lose” their salvation. Jesus seemed to set up a stark separation between those that were in God’s hand and those where weren’t. John certainly expressed doubt that the elect could ultimately be deceived. On the other hand the writer of Hebrews seemed to suggest that perhaps they could.

I will leave that for the Biblical Scholars. Part of the problem comes from the fact that we cannot know who is saved. The Book of 1st John tells how we can know that we are children of God, but not how we can know that others are. Paul emphasizes that it is the outworking by God of our faith, but we cannot tell whether others truly have faith or not. James notes that faith without visible outworkings is not real faith. Jesus even noted that those who have some visible manifestations of faith (even miraculous acts) may not be saved or have ever been known of God. Evangelicals tend to focus on the “Sinner’s Prayer” as evidence, but it is not so much a Biblical requirement for salvation, as a formula of sound doctrine tied to a vocal declaration of faith. It does not necessarily express the working of the heart and mind. Therefore, it is not necessarily a good assumption that a person who has said the Sinner’s Prayer is saved, any more than it is a good assumption to believe that those who have not verbalized this prayer are not saved.

Rather than get into a fight over this… let’s simply accept the reality that some people we THINK are saved fall away into faithlessness or into false faith. This is a reality, regardless of what is truly going on on a salvific level.

How do we close the back door of faith? There have been many different methods.

1.  Separatism. I was raised in a Separatist tradition. Those who believe are taken into the church and shielded, as much as possible, from outside influences. Extreme versions of this may be cultic in structure, if not in doctrine. Milder versions may be of value. Certainly, there needs to be changes and often it is easier for these changes to occur if old connections are severed.

There are, of course, problems with this as well. I already mentioned the temptation to want to control the lives of the members. Jonestown was simply the most extreme of a very common tendency to completely regulate and separate members. Also, removing influences from new members also removes the member’s potential to be an influence on others. Finally, there is a tendency of separatist groups to create their own sub-culture. This sub-culture is likely to have little influence on the broader culture around, and may gradually become irrelevant.

2.  Emotional Event. I worked at a Christian Summer camp for several years. At the end of the week we would have what was called the “Burning Bridge” ceremony. We would gather in the woods at night around a bonfire. We would sing appropriate meditative gospel songs (“Pass It On”, “Seek Ye First”, etc.). Testimonies would be given. Then a call was given for those who are ready to give their lives to Jesus tonight, or have given it earlier in the week. They would get up and cross a small bridge that was built over a stream. The rest of us would keep singing. Next those who have “assurance of salvation” would cross next. Then those who dedicate (rededicate?) their lives to Christ would cross next. Finally those who are committed to Christ but have made no new decision this week would cross last. In theory those who have decided not to follow Christ would stay behind (can’t remember if that ever actually happened). We would sing “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus” as the bridge is set ablaze and eventually crashes into the stream (the ropes suspending the walkway were what actually burned).

Other methods can be used. Baptism can be used as a visible symbol, or First Communion. Other groups expect some sort of “miraculous” manifestation. These are meant to be visible and emotional signposts that one can grab onto to demonstrate to oneself and others one’s faith. One used here by some groups in the Philippines is EGR (Encounter God Retreat). It is a couple of days of lectures tied to some acts that are meant to be symbolic in the mind of the individual of spiritual change.

While these forms of events may be helpful for some, their problems hardly need to be noted (but will be noted). First, there is a tendency to confuse the act with the faith. That is why some groups will require people to go through one of these experiences even if they have demonstrated their faith and love for God in more reliable (and Biblical) ways. Second, since the act is not salvation itself, it can confuse and delude the people involved. It is not without reason that Jesus said there would be some “doing miracles” in Jesus name that He did not know, and others whose behavior satisfied a religious group but were considered unacceptable by God (see Matthew 25 for example). Often those who crossed the burning bridge one year for salvation would cross it for assurance the following year (because the emotions wore off over the year). Finally, some groups provide an experience that can do more harm than good. EGR varies from church to church here in the Philippines, but the standard version is of such poor quality theologically that one must wonder whether people may come out of it more damaged and deceived than anything else. Some groups looking for a physical sign leaving those who can’t muster up the sign and have too much integrity to “fake it”  in a state of doubt and confusion.

3.  Small groups. Small groups have been around for a long time. Monastic groups, Sunday School groups, Accountability groups, Cell groups, Growth groups, and Ministry teams are but a few. They provide the socialization of faith and (hopefully) the place for nurture.

I like small groups (particularly ministry teams and growth groups). But they may not be the best setting for a young believer. A group that may be supportive and helpful for a member of two or three years can be a very foreign setting utilizing an arcane lingo to new believers. Some fight this by making the groups more accessible to new believers, but the risk is then that the group provides no challenge for the new believer to spur growth. Either way, there is a gradual drift to the back door for many.

4.  I would suggest that God judges the heart so we can’t, but we can work on the back door issue. My suggestion is that the best method is not separatism (although everyone needs a little help in breaking destructive relationships and habits). The best method is not emotional events (even though symbols and milestones of faith may be helpful for some). The best method is not small groups (although they can have value later on in the discipleship process). I believe that one-on-one mentorship with a mature and trusted (and trustworthy) member of the church is the best start. As time goes on, the new believer can be integrated into other groups (such as Sunday School, cell groups, ministry teams, and so forth).

At least that is my thought. The biggest problem is that churches have so few mature and trustworthy members who are able AND willing to take on this role.