The heart of the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) is the call to make disciples of all nations. This imperative is one of the most recognisable hallmarks of evangelicalism and also one of the stated mission intentions of our Territory.
When I first became a Christian, I was ‘discipled’ by mentors who spent much time helping me to interpret the Bible, explaining doctrine to me and guiding me towards good, Christian behaviour. Without doubt, they had their work cut out for them and any judgement about my subsequent failure in any of these respects is no reflection of their effort, competence or character. For a long time after this, I assumed that ‘making disciples’ really just meant ‘making Christians’ and perhaps implicitly that ultimately came to mean ‘making people more like me’. With a little more age and life experience behind me, I can now see how wrong I was.
I now understand making disciples more clearly as being about getting people to follow in Jesus’ footsteps – to live like Jesus lived, to do the kinds of things He did. Though the gospels suggest that Jesus spent more time with some of His followers than others, He never restricted His ministry only to an ‘in’ group. Apart from the twelve, it appears that His wider group of disciples included all sorts of people: men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people. Jesus was radically inclusive in both His table fellowship and His mission. When He is warned that others are taking over His group’s mission, He responds “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50).
For me, discipleship begins with caring for people. There can be no doubt that Jesus did plenty of this. He feeds the hungry, heals the sick and embraces social outcasts. His compassionate care towards people is experienced as so radical that it transforms lives. People are not the same after an encounter with Jesus. Many of them want to join Him in this life changing mission, even though such discipleship may come at great cost to themselves.
However, Jesus wasn’t just a ‘do gooder’. He spent much of His time preaching as well. The subject of His preaching was usually the Kingdom of God. Jesus wanted people to think about what the world would be like if God ruled it, instead of Caesar. Jesus’ religious tradition taught Him about a loving, compassionate God who was concerned with distributive justice. Under Caesar, the rich and the powerful were well cared for but under God’s rule, all would share in the abundant resources of creation so that no one missed out.
The poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger from foreign lands were all people of special concern in God’s kingdom. Jesus didn’t just comfort those who were suffering with a promise that things would be better when they died, He demonstrated that things could be better now. Those that followed Him became part of a radically inclusive movement for social change where distinctions between rich and poor, clean and unclean, holy and profane were swept away by generosity, love and compassion. His intention was to reform society, not just to condemn it, withdraw from it or give up on it.
Making disciples is much more than just making people believe the right things. Discipleship requires more than we can ever give on Sunday alone. It’s a life changing orientation that calls us into a world changing vocation.