One of the most memorable moments in our nation’s space program occurred in April of 1970 with the launch of Apollo 13. What makes Apollo 13 famous is not the launch, the American people had found those commonplace by that time, nor the astronauts on board. The reason Apollo 13 is remembered is because of what happened during the mission. Two days into the flight, a catastrophic failure in the oxygen system occurred, scrubbing the mission and placing the astronauts in grave danger. Even those of us not alive during this time are aware of the story of Apollo 13 because of the 1995 movie based upon the mission. What is seared into our minds is a quote from the movie—“Houston, we have a problem.” Though misquoted by the wrong character, that line has found its way into American conversation. “Houston, we have a problem” has become the catchphrase for those wishing to identify a problem or need.
In that spirit, I humbly offer this as a critique of the church—“Houston, we have a problem.” I wish to sound the alarm, as it were, concerning a desperate need of the church. My brothers and sisters, we have a discipleship problem. What I mean is that we are not fulfilling the task given to us by our Lord. As Original Free Will Baptists we speak often and loudly about fulfilling the Great Commission, but I am afraid we have misunderstood what Jesus is asking for us as individuals and as churches to do. All of my life I have heard the call for us to be “soul winners” for Jesus, and that is a worthy and correct call. I have noticed something though; with all of the emphasis on “soul winning” we have forgotten just what Jesus commissioned us to do.
Notice what that commission is according to Matthew 28:18–20, “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘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’” (esv, emphasis added). While we have focused on “soul winning” our Lord has commissioned us to make disciples. We focus on baptism numbers and attendance numbers, but we have forgotten to actually disciple those who have placed their faith and trust in the Savior of the world.
Take an assessment of your church; what is being intentionally done to make sure new believers become spiritually mature believers? What tools, methods, and ministries are incorporated in your church to see people become conformed to the image of the Son? In what ways does your church seek to help people love God and love others well? Does your church or yourself even consider intentionally discipling people? What are you doing to help other believers grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior? If we are honest with ourselves, we will probably have to admit that we are failing to carry out the Savior’s command. I contend that most Original Free Will Baptist churches do not intentionally disciple believers.
The church’s desperate need is for us to fulfill the mission given to us by our Savior. If that mission is to make disciples, the question must be asked—”What is a disciple?” More specifically, “What did Jesus mean by disciple?” It appears from studying Matthew 28:18–20 that, when Jesus speaks of making disciples, His concern is for men and women to accept His teachings, conform their lives to Him, and follow Him as His kingdom is inaugurated. Discipleship is more than learning about Jesus’ teachings. For Jesus, becoming one of His disciples means that the believer will live out what has been taught. With all authority given to Him, Jesus sends out current disciples to go to the nations to bring in more people to the kingdom of God.
As disciples, believers are more than learners, they are unconditionally surrendered to the king, and, subsequently, obey the command to go and teach others to live the same way. Part of that command is to baptize them into the community built in relationship with the Triune God and with fellow believers. This baptism serves as an initiation ritual into the kingdom community, but more is to follow. The believers are to also learn so that they may go out and bring others into the kingdom.
In Matthew’s Gospel, a disciple is a learner and a follower of Jesus. The life of a disciple is different because of an attachment to Jesus. This attachment is based upon the Master who has given His life as a ransom, which leads to followers committed to more than life-changing teachings. Jesus’ disciples are to go and make other like-minded followers.
It appears that a disciple in the New Testament is considered as one who has been called by Jesus to come and learn from Him. That learning is more than intellectual knowledge; rather, it is life transforming. This seems to fit with the Gospels’ portrayal of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples find their attachment in the person and work of Jesus, not solely His teachings. Without using the term “disciple,” the rest of the New Testament canon appears to affirm that a Christian will be a follower of Jesus whose life is transformed by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. By being transformed, Jesus’ disciples are called to carry on His work.
Now that “disciple” has been defined, another question is raised. Does this describe the people who constitute your community of faith? Connected to this question is the idea that our churches ought to consist of believers at different spiritual levels of maturity, but each believer is growing and maturing in his or her faith. Again, is this reflected in the group with whom you are connected? If so, PRAISE GOD! If not, then I humbly propose that we begin to think about fulfilling Christ’s command to make disciples.
The church desperately needs to take this issue seriously for it is a serious command given to us by our Lord. Here is the crux of the matter though, if we are serious about being disciples, if we understand who Christ is and what He has done, then I believe we would not need convincing that we should be making disciples. We would see it as a joy and privilege to go and help others meet Christ and grow in their relationship with Him. Pastors and church leaders would not have to cajole and convict church members to make disciples, they would have to actually rein them in!
Pastor, Sunday School teacher, youth leader, small group leader, and any other person involved with leading and teaching, what are you doing to champion the cause of making disciples? Are you talking about it, leading studies on it, modeling it? What are our churches doing to encourage each member to make disciples? What is great is that there are more resources now than ever before to help individuals and churches make disciples in an effort to fulfill Christ’s command. More is being written on the subject than ever before, more information is available than ever before. Take advantage of what is available and tailor it to your particular needs and context.
I am in no way an expert on the subject but I have focused my research for my doctoral project in this area. My passion is to see our churches filled with believers growing in their faith. I welcome the opportunity to come and share with your church more about the need to make disciples and how to begin doing just that, so please feel free to contact me. I believe that the church has a desperate need in the area of discipleship and I want to do my part as a pastor and as a member of this denomination to see to it that our churches are equipped to address that need.
I mentioned at the beginning the Apollo 13 mission and the problem it faced. While those astronauts did not land on the moon, they did make it home. Their problem kept them from completing the mission, but they did return safely because of the help they received from the NASA engineers. Keep this in mind; our God, who commissioned and sent us, has also empowered us to fulfill that commission. On our own and in our own strength we will never make it, but by His power and His grace we can complete the mission and bring honor to our King. I pray that we all will grasp the desperate need our churches face, and we will seek to fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples from among the nations.