Refocusing on discipleship: The heart of the Great Commission and the hub of all local church ministries
Matthew 28:19, 20 captures the Great Commission: “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”1 These verses significantly contain three participles and one main verb. “In the Greek, ‘go’—the same as ‘baptizing,’ and ‘teaching’—is a participle. Only the verb ‘make disciples’ is imperative. . . . The main emphasis, then, is on the command to ‘make disciples,’ which in the Greek is one word matheteusate.”2 Unfortunately, it is widely recognized that non-discipleship is the elephant in the Christian church today. Dallas Willard calls this dismal reality the “Great Omission from the ‘Great Commission.’” 3
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is not immune from this predicament. In fact, despite its exponential growth, it has at the same time suffered disturbing membership losses. Aborting the task at the level of going and baptizing without gearing the whole effort to disciple-making can only lead to a serious spiritual hemorrhage in the church. Thus, it is high time to refocus on discipleship—the heart of the Great Commission. This article has a threefold purpose: (1) to briefly present the biblical portrait of discipleship, (2) to highlight three significant moves the Seventh-day Adventist Church has made in its mission strategy to restore the focus of the church back to discipleship, and (3) to offer suggestions on how to develop an active discipleship plan.
A careful study of Jesus’ teaching about the life of discipleship yields three irreducible core elements that we must cultivate by the power of the Holy Spirit. They are worship, fellowship, and witnessing. Let us briefly consider them.
Worship. Worshiping God is the first irreducible element of discipleship according to Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26, 27: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” The metaphors of hating family members, including ourselves, and of carrying the cross vividly depict an absolute surrender to Jesus. It is foundational in becoming and growing as His disciples. Indeed, biblical worship is all about loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:37).
Ellen White concurs with this thought when she writes about one of those who sought to be a follower of Jesus: “When this young ruler came to Jesus, his sincerity and earnestness won the Saviour’s heart. He ‘beholding him loved him.’ . . .
“But first, he must accept the conditions of discipleship. He must give himself unreservedly to God.”4 Disciples of Jesus must continually grow in their worship experience, offering their lives as a holy and living sacrifice to Him. Without such worship, it is impossible to become His disciples, for disciples are those who love their Master with all their being.
Fellowship. Another element is fellowshiping with other disciples of Jesus Christ. John 13:34, 35 depicts this aspect: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” The love God bestowed upon us through Christ not only initiates a loving response to Him in worship but also inspires us to love each other.
Paul employed the imagery of a human body to portray the solidarity that exists among the followers of Jesus Christ. “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.” “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Cor. 12:12, 27). The unity and interconnectedness of a healthy body should characterize the fellowship of Jesus’ disciples. Ellen White emphasized this point: “The great lesson that Christ taught by his life and example was that of unity and love among brethren. This love is the token of discipleship, the divine credentials which the Christian bears to the world.”5 Thus, a life of discipleship cannot exist without such authentic fellowship.
Witnessing. The third irreducible element of biblical discipleship is that of witnessing to the everlasting gospel. Such witnessing seeks to make more disciples for Jesus through sharing His love in words and deeds. Jesus used the imagery of fruit-bearing to teach this reality. “ ‘By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples’ ” (John 15:8). According to Jesus, true disciples are those who bear fruit by making others into disciples and hence bringing glory to God. Ellen White aptly depicted this truth: “Every true disciple is born into the kingdom of God as a missionary. He who drinks of the living water becomes a fountain of life. The receiver becomes a giver. The grace of Christ in the soul is like a spring in the desert, welling up to refresh all, and making those who are ready to perish eager to drink of the water of life.”6
We should also emphasize that only those who love God (worship) and love one another (fellowship) can effectively depict the love of God to the world. Consequently, the three irreducible elements have a synergistic power that we can experience only when we have embraced all of them. As an illustration of this point, a house simply cannot long survive without a solid foundation, sturdy walls, and a strong roof. The experience of Jesus’ first disciples in the early church portrays how these three irreducible elements were defining characteristics of their lives. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. . . .
“So continuing daily in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42–47).
Certainly, their success in witnessing and bearing the much fruit of many disciples for Christ resulted from their vibrant worship (devoting themselves to the study of the Word and prayer) and authentic fellowship (meeting and eating together every day).
Lastly, discipleship “is not static, but a growing and developing way of life. Always the true disciple is becoming more fully a disciple.”7 True disciples should continually grow in worship, fellowship, and witnessing.
Developing an active discipleship plan
Discipleship does not happen without intentional efforts for growth in worship, fellowship, and witnessing. Consequently, an active discipleship plan is vital. In developing an active and ongoing discipleship plan, first and foremost, each local congregation should affirm discipleship as the heart of the Great Commission and the main purpose for the church’s existence. To make that happen, its pastor and church board should own this vision wholeheartedly and instill it in every member. Besides restoring discipleship as a vibrant vision of our local churches, it is important to address the following issues.
First, the leadership of each church should present a correct understanding of biblical discipleship with its three core minimums, or elements. Evangelism/witnessing must be viewed as a subset of discipleship together with worship and fellowship. In fact, witnessing/evangelism occurs as an outgrowth of the other two. Hence, each congregation should direct the same amount of effort it exerts in mobilizing members to engage in witnessing to helping them grow in worship and fellowship.
Second, we should not consider discipleship as relevant only for newly baptized members. In fact, if the rest of the membership is not growing in discipleship, they can be a stumbling block to the new converts who are being discipled.
Third, discipleship should not be incorporated into the structure of the church as only an additional ministry or be relegated just to certain specific ministries. Rather, it should be the main focus of every ministry.
In sum, the first step in developing an active discipleship plan for a local church is to affirm the centrality of discipleship to its existence. That should be reflected in the communal as well as the personal lives of believers.
The work of the church board
Arguably, one of the most significant revisions made in the 19th edition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual was its articulation of the task of a church board, the executive committee of a local church. The 18th edition had expressed the definition and function of the church board as “the spiritual nurture of the church and the work of planning and fostering evangelism in all of its phases.”8 However, the 19th edition stressed “having an active discipleship plan in place, which includes both the spiritual nurture of the church and the work of planning and fostering evangelism”9 as the chief concern of the church board.
Similarly, the 19th edition presents a more comprehensive emphasis on the church board’s primary task: “The board is responsible to: 1. Ensure that there is an active, ongoing discipleship plan in place, which includes both spiritual nurture and outreach ministries. This is the most important item for the board’s attention.”10
In sum, the Church Manual now presents discipleship, comprising worship, fellowship, and witnessing, as the purpose for the existence of the local church and stipulates that the most important task of the church board is to have an active discipleship plan. But no matter how important the above actions might seem, if they do not lead the local church to refocus on discipleship, the desired goals will not materialize.
Discipleship: The focus of the local church master plan
Arguably, the usual model in preparing a local church plan is to assign different ministry leaders, who are members of the church board, to come up with plans for their respective ministries and compile it as the local church’s program. This model runs all the ministries in parallel. It is as if pastors are coaches of football teams who have assigned their players to design their own game plan and then attempt to coordinate them. Obviously, that is doomed to failure. There must be a game plan that enables all team members to play their roles effectively, one that places discipleship at its heart and then mobilizes all the other ministries to flesh it out by their specialized activities.
The Reach the World strategic plan document of the General Conference can serve as a template in preparing such a master plan.11 Consider discipleship as the hub and all the other local church ministries as its spokes to help illustrate this second model of planning (figure above).
Once this has become a shared conviction among the church board members, who are also the leaders of different ministries of the local congregation, they should have answers to the following question: In what ways can the ministry or church office that I am leading contribute to fulfilling the heart of the Great Commission by helping members to grow in the three core elements of discipleship—worship, fellowship, and witnessing? The model prepared by the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department is a good example of such plans that local church ministries can then develop.12 If the master plan of the local church is prepared this way, it could rightly be called an active and ongoing discipleship plan that engages all the ministries in fulfilling the Great Commission.
In conclusion, discipleship, the heart of the Great Commission, needs to be the great obsession of the church, not the great omission. The three irreducible elements of discipleship—worship, fellowship, and witnessing—should be the focus of every believer and all local church ministries. Discipleship should be the single focus of local church vision, the church should center all the plans of its ministries on this focal point, and churches should encourage members to develop personal, active discipleship plans to ensure their growth in the three core elements of a life of discipleship. Our dedication to placing discipleship at the heart of the mission of our individual churches will determine our effectiveness in retaining new members.
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1 All Bible references are taken from the New King James Version.
2 D. A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 595.
3 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (New York:HarperOne, 2014), xii.
4 Ellen White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 393.
5 Ellen White, “Unity and Love,” Review and Herald, August 12, 1884.
6 Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 195.
7 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 597.
8 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 18th ed.(Silver Spring, MD: Secretariat, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2010), 124, adventist.org /fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/information /ChurchManual_2010.pdf.
9 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 19th ed.(Silver Spring, MD: Secretariat, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2016), 129.
10 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 19th ed., 131.
11 Reach the World: Strategic Plan 2015–2020,adventistarchives.org/reach-the-world-doc.pdf.
12 GC Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department, Total Sabbath School Involvement: Sabbath School Revitalization Strategic Plans 2017–2020, sabbathschoolpersonalministries.org/sabbath-school-strategic-plan-(2017-2020).pdf.