by Marvin Newell
The Tokyo 2010 Declaration repeatedly states that both the process and product of missions should have at its heart “making disciples of all peoples in this generation.”
The “Tokyo 2010 Declaration,” issued by the Tokyo 2010 Global Mission Consultation held this past May 2010, is significant for this decade of missions and beyond. The document, intended to be a global rallying point for evangelical churches and missions around the world, repeatedly states that both the process and product of missions should have at its heart “making disciples of all peoples in this generation.”
This is a direct command from Christ. It is to be our first priority not only because it was at the center of Jesus’ last command, but also because it is first and foremost his highest priority. Making disciples is central to what has become known as “The Great Commission.” In Matthew 28:18-20, the command to “make disciples of all peoples” is found:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all peoples, 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.
An examination of the grammar reveals that verse 19 contains four verbs. There is an imperative (make disciples) tied to three accompanying participles with modal force (go, baptizing, and teaching). The principal verb of the sentence is not the first one, “go,” but rather the second one—the imperative “make disciples.” The centerpiece of Jesus’ command is the making of disciples, which is accomplished by his messengers going, baptizing, and teaching.
An important principle is evident from this instruction: the making of disciples is more than just the making of converts. Our mission is not complete when a person gives simple assent to the gospel message. The raising of a hand, the walking of an aisle, the uttering of a sinner’s prayer, while a start, are not the culmination of the task. They are only the beginning. Granted, the good news is shared and believed, but the mission doesn’t stop there. Evangelism initiates the process of a person becoming a follower of the Savior in whom he or she now believes. But this is only a partial segment of making disciples (or “discipleship,” as some put it).
There is a reason this distinction is important. Ever since Jesus gave this command, believers have obediently been propagating the gospel. Sadly, in some instances, this has been done by force or fiat of some ruler. The result has been the “Christianization” of communities, states, or even entire countries. Consequently, adherents have taken on the label “Christian” that is void of genuine belief in or allegiance to Jesus. Evangelism, on the other hand—the presentation of the gospel so that people have the opportunity to believe on the finished work of Jesus Christ as Savior—is the true goal of missions. However, when evangelism is done as a one-time event or encounter, not coupled with a nurturing process, it too often produces superficial results.
The making of disciples, on the other hand, is the process whereby mature believers build personal relationships with new believers for the purpose of producing growing and maturing followers of Jesus. The process develops over a period of time and demands the context of nurturing. These new believers evidence genuine faith by showing progress in spiritual maturity, which transforms beliefs, behavior, and worldview. Thus, I suggest an appropriate definition of a disciple to be:
A consistent lifelong follower of Christ, whose life is progressively being transformed into the image of Christ. He or she joyfully walks with Christ, is constantly being informed by Scripture, prayer, the Holy Spirit, and other believers, with the chief end of glorifying God.
The “making of disciples” then becomes a path to be enjoined as opposed to a one-time achievement.
The Three Essentials of Disciple-making
As stated in the Tokyo Declaration, the task of making disciples contains three essentials found in Matthew 28:19.
1. Reaching out: “Go.” The first essential in making disciples is going out and encountering those who are not yet Christ followers. They may not yet be because they have not had the opportunity to hear about Christ. Placed first in the sentence, “go” is the first step in the disciple-making process. It indicates the duty of believers to take the gospel from where it is known and believed to where it is not known or believed so as to penetrate every people group on earth.
2. Bringing in: “Baptizing them.” This second essential is the task of gathering new believers into a relationship with Jesus and other believers, which is evidenced by the identifying rite of baptism. Jesus doesn’t intend the practice of baptism as a magical rite that automatically brings people into relationship with God. Rather, baptism is the culmination of the consolidation process of the repent-believe-baptize experience of salvation.
This public show of initiation is very meaningful for the believer. It is a picture of beginning a new life in Christ and of allegiance to him and his Church. The ordinance is a powerful outward expression of a new identity and a changed life within. Indeed, because of these implications, there are new believers in hostile cultures who delay its application for fear of repercussion. Antagonistic nonbelievers certainly understand its powerful significance.
3. Changing over: “Teaching them to obey.” The making of a disciple does not stop with the initial belief experience or the subsequent initiation experience. There is an educational process that follows to keep the new believer learning and growing in his or her new faith. Some today would equate this with “spiritual formation.” Whatever the label, the important thing is that there is an ongoing growth experience. A new believer’s worldview must be changed, his or her lifestyle must be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, and his or her ethical conduct must be increasingly marked by integrity.
Teaching has a final goal: obedience that leads to transformation. New believers are taught with the goal that they become obedient followers of all Christ commanded. This includes living out the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37-40) and showing great compassion (Matt. 9:36).
It is why believers are congregated into local churches and missionaries have established Bible schools and seminaries. This is why seminars, webinars, church-based training, and a host of other teaching ministries are so important. Growth happens best in the presence of other believers. It is the local church that best facilitates the fellowship of believers. Thus, by implication, the establishment of local congregations is an outcome of making disciples.
Superficial or Genuine Outcomes?
All three activities—going, baptizing, and teaching—are essential components to making disciples of every people. When done correctly, lives are changed for the better. This is the ultimate objective of making disciples. Transformed lives, in turn, transform communities, cultures, and even whole countries.
However, the lack of genuine changed lives has become the greatest omission of the Great Commission. All too often, “proselytes” are made instead of “disciples.” When this happens, churches get filled with bodies that exhibit little evidence of changed beliefs and behaviors. This results in spiritually apathetic adherents who quickly deteriorate into dysfunctional gatherings or nominal Christians. They easily become victims of aberrant doctrine, heresy, and deviant cults. Although they wear the label “Christian,” many are not Christ followers at all. They are superficial followers of “the way” in need of a genuine conversion experience. This sad state has become the bane of the Church all over the world. Superficial conversions and inflated statistics only promote non-authentic outcomes.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon God’s messengers to engage in these three essential processes of going, baptizing, and teaching in order to make disciples. Taken together, they make possible the transformation of lives as the final goal. Only then do people become genuine disciples of Christ. Only then will sinful societies, corrupt cultures, and degraded communities be transformed for the better.
The Tokyo Declaration got it right! Penetrating, consolidating, and transforming every people group remains the Church’s highest priority. “Making disciples of every people in this generation” is a motto that should be rallied as we go forward in mission.
Dr. Marvin Newell is executive director of CrossGlobal Link and has served as a field missionary, mission administrator, and graduate school professor. This article is gleaned from his recent book, The Great Commission: What Jesus Wants You to Know as You Go (ChurchSmart Resources, 2010).
EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 392-394. Copyright © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.