My church, Cornerstone Community Church in Jackson, Tennessee, does not have a creative mission statement. Essentially, our mission statement is the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. The reason for this is because we believe the mission our Lord has given to his church, and thus to every local church throughout this present age, is clearly laid out in Scripture, and thus is not something we can improve on. Of course, that mission will be carried out in different ways from location to location, but the mission itself never changes, and that mission is this:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The primary command Jesus has given to his followers “to the end of the age” is this: “make disciples of all nations.” That means we are called to be the human agents involved in the task of transferring the allegiances of rebels against Christ among all the nations of the earth so that they become his faithful followers who will inherit the blessing of his kingdom. This is God’s ordained means for creating a new humanity who will dwell with him on a new creation forever, to the glory of his name. The fact that Christ has commissioned us to be key players in this task is overwhelming.
But note from the text how it is that we make disciples. We do so by “going,” by “baptizing,” and by “teaching.” My understanding of this passage, together with what the rest of Scripture teaches, is that the command to make disciples is framed in such a way that implies the ministry of planting new churches and building up existing churches. In other words, if our efforts at fulfilling the Great Commission do not lead either to the planting of new churches or the building up of existing churches, we are not fulfilling the mission Christ gave us. Why draw that conclusion?
The command to “go” (actually a participle in Greek, but with the force of a command) implies intentionality. We must go to unbelievers in every nation of the world. That does not mean that every single Christian must go somewhere else, but it does mean that the church as a whole must be involved in sending missionaries to places where the gospel is not known. The two other participle-commands are “baptizing” and “teaching,” and these two commands pertain to the initiation of discipleship (baptism) and its continuing progress throughout one’s life (teaching). It is these two commands in particular that I believe are centered on the local church.
What is baptism? It is an ordinance entrusted to the church, by which the church marks out those who credibly profess faith in Jesus Christ and distinguishes them from the unbelieving world. As such, it is an exercise of the power of the keys given to the apostles and apostolic churches (i.e., local churches that adhere to the teaching of the apostles) in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. Unless there is no local church in a given area, baptism should necessarily unite a new believer to the fellowship of a local church. It was not given to individual Christians to administer as they please, but it is an ordinance that Christ entrusted to the institutional church and is one aspect of church’s institutional character. For this reason, I believe Christ’s command to baptize as an aspect of making disciples has particular reference to the planting of new churches, which the apostles fulfilled in their mission to the Gentiles (see, e.g., Acts 14:23).
That also means that the ongoing process of discipleship (“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”) that follows baptism in this text is being envisioned as discipleship that occurs through the ministry of a local church. If baptism has particular reference to planting new churches (by identifying new believers with one another in local bodies), teaching seems to have reference to building up those churches so that the members endure in the faith and join the global mission until Christ returns.
We live in an age that has many wonderful para-church ministries and other opportunities for evangelism and discipleship that occur apart from local churches. I thank God for these ministries and have benefited from many of them myself. But these ministries cannot replace churches, and no one should ever assume that discipleship can be rightly pursued without a firm commitment to a local church. The local church is the arena in which Christ’s authority is exercised over his disciples (Matt. 18:15-20), and thus, it is virtually impossible to imagine a disciple of Jesus who operates outside of the authority that Christ himself ordained to represent him. Let para-church ministries be truly para-church, meaning “alongside the church,” supplemental to its ministry of the Word and of the ordinances. May the para-church never see itself as a substitute for the church.
As churches and individuals seek to fulfill the Great Commission, we have a vast array of options before us to support with our money, time, and energy. We cannot support them all, so we should prioritize those endeavors that lead to the planting of new churches and the building up of existing churches. It is ultimately only through these two activities that we can truly make disciples of all nations.
I want to give credit to Jonathan Leeman, whose book The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love has given me a deeper understanding of these issues. I highly recommend the book to you.