Making Disciples Means Planting and Building Up Churches

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.

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6 thoughts on “Making Disciples Means Planting and Building Up Churches

  1. Yes, I can see what you are saying. However…I do have ill-defined questions.

    It concerns me when the Great Commission moves from being defined as “evangelism and discipleship” to “churches” because there’s so much more ushered in by the using the word “church”. Having grown up in churches where there is no real Christian witness, I fear the emphasis on church over baptism and teaching puts the cart before the horse. You look at how churches, even in the last couple of decades, have concentrated on numbers and style and power and money, even while, in some cases, bringing people to Christ and teaching them. To rephrase the Great Commission as “leading to the planting of new churches or the building up of existing churches” endangers what I understand to be the Great Commission.

    Now, I note that you said, “leading to” which is an important caveat. But it is also an important implicit confession that the Great Commission itself does not mention churches. To emphasise “church planting and building up churches” as the goal of the Great Commission leaves me with the impression, personally, that the local institutional church – with all its accruements – is what the believer is for, rather than the church being the family of Christ in various forms that individual Christians join, belong to and grow up in.

    I’m concerned that the emphasis on churches immediately brings to mind certain types of churches. You say that other avenues for discipleship and teaching like para-church ministries are not the church, but are meetings in houses? Are gatherings of believers who have chosen not to attend the local church building in a town or city? And biblically, how do we differentiate between a para-church ministry that baptises and serves communion and teaches, and a local church?

    I guess, in the end, I’m thinking from the perspective of the Great Commission starting from believers and going to churches, whereas emphasising churches as part of the Great Commission does the opposite.

    But, no doubt this is just a big lot of hot air on my part which, when deflated, will see us agreeing whole-heartedly…

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Alistair. Always appreciate your thoughts.

    I think planting and building up churches is part of the definition of “making disciples,” because in the New Testament there is no discipleship that is not lived out in the context of the local church, submitting to its oversight and disicpline and investing oneself in the good of one’s fellow members. This is the case because Jesus entrusted the power of the keys first to Peter as a representative of the apostles (Matthew 16) and then to the local congregations that the apostles would plant (Matthew 18:18). That means that Jesus’ authority on earth is now expressed through each local congregation. Therefore, if you want to be a disciple of Jesus, you must submit yourself to the authority he has established. Certainly, there may be exceptions to this rule (as to virtually any rule), but I see it as the general pattern of the NT. That’s why I think Jesus mentions baptism in particular, because it is one aspect of the church’s power of the keys by which it admits members, marking them out with the authority Jesus has given as disciples.

    Para-church organizations do not have this authority, and thus I do not believe they should administer the ordinances at all.

    Now regarding believers who meet in homes, they could very well be churches if that is what they intend to be and if they order themselves according to the NT pattern for church life. So churches can take many forms. I hope this helps clarify a few things.

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  3. Yes, that clarifies things, but I maintain that to emphasise the “church” side of things – at least in the contexts we live – puts the emphasis in the wrong place, and imports more into the Great Commission than was intended, not because churches were not envisioned in the carrying out of the Great Commission, but because churches are not the Great Commission.

    This is the difference I see: When the apostles etc. evangelised and brought people to Christ, those people became the local church. New Christians became members of a group of people, connected to Christ.

    When we evangelise and people are brought to Christ, those people become members of an institution that operates by certain New Testament principles and that contains people who are connected to Christ.

    The first perspective sees the local church as Christians living together and growing together in Christ, maintained through eldership and sacraments.

    Our perspective sees the local church as a container which is to constructed or added to in which living together and growing together becomes the goal.

    And so you say, “believers who meet in homes…could very well be churches IF that is what they intend to be and IF they order themselves according to the NT pattern for church life.” I.e. the container must be there to fulfil the Great Commission. But that perspective has it the wrong way around, in my humble opinion. The Great Commission allows for Christians to be baptised outside of a church structure (Acts 8:36-39) and to be a church without elders (Acts 14:21-23). You’ve allowed exceptions, yes, but I don’t see them as exceptions. I see the Great Commission as giving birth to Christians who are born into a family, the local expression of which may be sub-standard or even disqualifying according to what 9Marks and co. consider to be biblical ecclesiological, but that has the ability to mature into the biblical expression of a church.

    To me, the Great Commission is the seed, the church is the plant. To change the metaphor, it doesn’t tell Christians to build the house and then find tenants. It tells Christians to find tenants and use them to build a house.

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  4. Unfortunately, I believe there are many laboring today to fulfill the Great Commission who have never thought through to the “plant” stage (in your metaphor). They see their task simply as evangelizing and discipling individuals. But my argument is that if we’re making “disciples” who either never form new churches or get connected to existing ones, we’re not really making New Testament disciples, nor are we laying much of a foundation for the endurance of Christian discipleship in a given community.

    It is for this reason that I advocate prioritizing our support for Great Commission efforts with those leaders and organizations that have the end goal in view: thriving churches.

    Yes, churches go through phases of development, from having no elders to having them, etc. But it is crucial to note that, wherever Paul spread the gospel, he organized his converts into churches. That’s basically what I’m arguing for here, a point that I don’t see as taken for granted among all missionaries or sending agencies.

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  5. Aaron, I totally agree that if churches are not an outcome of Great Commission work, then long term endurance is likely to be compromised. But I’m curious as to who you are referring to when you say many are merely evangelising and discipling individuals. Can you give specific examples?

    I’m picking that you are not denying the specific ministries of individuals and groups who may concentrate on evangelising and individual discipling, but at the very least you would want them to encourage those they have evangelised to understand membership in the local church as part of their discipleship, and at best, you would encourage them to work as part of a local church so their ministries can be balanced out by others in the body.

    It’s an interesting discussion. We support ASCF (a University ministry) who have had strong ties with our church. Many of the people who have gone through that ministry have ended up in our church, and we, as a church, support them out of our mission budget and through fundraisers. You’ve made me wonder how we can better support them to bring that “church” dimension more strongly into their work.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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  6. That’s great to hear, Alistair. If these thoughts help anyone to be more intentional and strategic in the Great Commission, I am grateful.

    In answer to your question, I think that my own denomination’s mission efforts have not been sufficiently church-oriented, though I am hopeful we are moving in a better direction. One example in particular I can give is the Send North America conference I attended last summer. The conference was great, inspiring, helpful, etc. I thank God that I was able to go, because it was an experience that has shaped my thinking in a positive direction since then.

    But overall, the conference ended up being more about “every life on mission” than about planting and building up the church. That’s a perfectly fine thing to emphasize, but I think our mission boards have to be more explicitly focused on the goal of planting new churches in order to fulfill the Great Commission. I was looking for a church planting conference, but it ended up not being as much about church planting as I thought it would have and should have been.

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