Bishop's Message

The difference between winning converts and making disciples

Aug 2007    

YEARS AGO, I read of a new pastor in a church who was quite disturbed by what he saw in his church. Over the years, the church had become bloated with countless activities and programmes without a clear focus and direction. The church was going in circles, like the desert wanderings of the ancient Israelites. It did not have any impact in the surrounding community. It was sinking under its own weight.

The pastor gathered his leaders to pray about the situation. They realised that the church members were gathering within the walls of the church building too frequently! The members should be out there living their lives as witnesses of Jesus Christ instead of huddling together in meaningless gatherings. The church then decided that all members shall come to church only twice a week, on Sundays to worship, and on Wednesdays for Bible study and accountability groups. The leaders had to come an additional day for the leaders accountability group. All other programmes ceased. Apparently this slimming programme for the church had visible results.

One of the currently popular books in the Christian marketplace is Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger.

Using their research on more than 400 evangelical churches in the United States, the authors claim that the key difference between the growing churches and others was the presence of a clearly articulated and effectively practised simple process of disciple-making.

They call for a simplification of complicated processes and programmes in the church. What is needed is a clear articulation of the church’s ministry – making disciples, and bringing all programmes and structures in the church to be aligned to this simple mission, and doing away with anything that does not fit in with this simple blueprint.

It is quite an appealing suggestion, though as Wesleyan scholar Howard Snyder has noted correctly, there are some serious limitations in the book’s definitions and recommendations. What is immensely helpful, however, is the call to focus on the essentials, and one essential is certainly our calling to make disciples.

This becomes a clarion call in a day and age when the church has become a place for religious consumerism and entertainment. Are we serious about becoming disciples of Christ, and focusing our ministry on disciple-making?

Even in our mission, we may have lowered our goals to something that is far from what the Lord expects of us. We often use the Great Commission in Mt. 28:18-20 as a rallying cry to mobilise the church to do evangelism and mission. However, we must take note that our Lord has commanded us to “go and make disciples of all nations”. It is far from merely winning converts, important as that may be. For what good is giving anaesthesia to a patient but failing to do the surgery?

It is possible that the church may limit its understanding of the Lord’s command to simply numerical growth that counts the numbers of converts we are winning. Our statistical reports may be designed more to measure numerical growth rather than other more important forms of growth. We need to know the difference between winning converts and making disciples.

Dallas Willard has called this tendency the “great omission” in our understanding of the Great Commission (see his book, The Great Omission). Because of our failure to recognise our higher calling and greater mission, there is a “great disparity” between what we profess as biblical teaching and how we live. This, according to Willard, is reflected in three specific areas: our inner life, our actual day-to-day behaviour, and our social presence.

It is useful to consider each of these. To be disciples of Jesus is to have our inner lives deeply impacted by the death and life of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. Superficial Christianity has no place in true Christian discipleship. Without the deep transformation of the inner life, we Christians will live lives in the miserable puddles of nominal or superficially activist Christianity when we should be swimming freely and wondrously in the deep oceans of God’s transforming power and love. IS CHRIST the Lord of our inner lives, Lord of our aspirations, ambitions, desires, and Lord over our struggles with sinfulness, our anxieties, fears, wounds and duplicities?

If indeed Christ is Lord in the deepest parts of our hearts, then it will show in our daily behaviour. We will reflect the Christlikeness that identifies a true disciple of Jesus. We will show it in our reactions, relationships, crises, in our conversations, our daily activities and responsibilities.

If we live as disciples of Jesus, we will clearly have an impact in society. We will move away from self-centred, self-indulgent lifestyles and obey God by loving our neighbours as ourselves. Our basic life goal will not be survival and self-gratification, but redemption and service that comes out from gratitude to God and loving worship of Him. All this will be built on a deep devotion and unstinting obedience to God, the determined pursuit of God and His holiness, and the diligent practice of spiritual disciplines.

This is a high calling. Our Lord mentioned three groups of people who cannot be His disciples: those who do not love Him more than their families or themselves (Lk. 14:26); those who do not carry their cross to follow Him (Lk. 14:27); and those who do not give up everything they have to follow Him (Lk. 14:33).

How many people would be ruled out by these stringent demands? The standards of Christian discipleship are indeed high.

Is that why many people would rather be just converts or church members than be disciples of Christ? But we must resolutely move away from reducing members to being consumers of religious services. We must focus on making disciples. The one word that is consistently used to describe believers in the New Testament is the word “disciple” which appears 269 times.

It was Chuck Swindoll who said, “We are often so caught up in our activities that we tend to worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship.” It is so easy to get things all mixed up, isn’t it? It is important that we put the “great omission” back into the Great Commission, and put our energies into becoming disciples who make disciples.


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