Gospel & Culture blog
Jesus used various motifs to describe what He meant by “disciple.” He told some simply, “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19). The authors of the gospels never spell out criteria for who among the crowd following Jesus was a disciple and who wasn’t. It’s safe to say that there was no specific criteria for membership; disciples were those who came to Jesus for teaching (the core of the word “disciple” is one who adheres to the teachings of another). Davis (2015, pp. 29-32) suggests that perhaps the reason that practical theologians cannot agree on a definition of disciple is that it is, after all, a fuzzy (rather than bounded) set. Discipleship is not a program, or a twelve-step process. It is a lifelong process of transformation, and it is personalized- so it is a bit fuzzier to define.
Another motif for discipleship is based on Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God. Those who are under the rule of God, in whom the Kingdom is growing (Luke 17:21), are disciples.
Two main activities have characterized missiological understandings of making disciples: proclamation and obedience. Below I’ll explore both briefly.
Discipleship as persuasion
Church growth missiologists understood discipleship as primarily about proclamation. Wagner (1973) said the process of discipling involved helping “unbelievers to make a commitment to Christ. Wagner deliberately distinguished this activity from a separate stage, perfection, which involves “teaching them all things” (Rainer, 1993). Yet this narrow definition of discipleship is no longer in wide use. Scholar-practitioners now recognize that discipleship is more than bringing people to conversion.
As a professor of missions, I often hear people say "you can be missionary right in your own neighborhood." As with any academic field, it's important to get the terms clear. While you can be an evangelist in your own neighborhood, "missionary" and "missions" should not be confused with "evangelism" or "discipleship."
Missions is cross-cultural discipleship, so some very important work that we do as the church is NOT missions. Drawing a boundary does mean excluding some work from the definition of missions (thought such work may be missional and strategic for the church). Consider the following true examples from my students:
Sharon, from the USA, teaches English in Thailand. She was not sent by her church, is not under a mission agency, and receives a salary from her university. While she is working cross-cultural, she does not see herself as a missionary because her presence in Thailand is not particularly about making disciples
Miguel, from the Philippines, is studying theology and missions in the USA, but plans to plant churches among his own ethnic group in the Philippines. He considers himself a church planter, but not a missionary.
Carmen, from the USA, is financially supported by members of her own church to do the bookkeeping for a mission organization in West Africa. She does not particularly “teach them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” but her mission organization does have an overall plan to make disciples. Carmen sees herself as a missionary because of her important role in an organization that is doing missions.
If a cross cultural worker digs wells but has no overall plan for “teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded,” then while it is obeying the first commandment to manage the earth for the flourishing of humankind, it is not part of the narrower aspect of the churches mission to make disciples across cultures. And in all fairness, I must add, if an organization plants churches and hands out tracks, but is not actually “teaching them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” then it, too, is not actually doing missions.
Of course, in our day-to-day experience, the set of activities which are involved in making disciples is fuzzy. Healthcare can be done in a way that teaches people to obey Jesus, or it can be done without touching on issues of discipleship. A Christian could work cross-culturally in such a way that she makes disciples in her secular workplace, or she could hide her light under a bushel. By defining missions narrowly as cross-cultural discipleship, I am not as much excluding certain activities as I am focusing on the setting (does it cross cultural boundaries) and strategy (does it make disciples) that drives those activities.
The activities (methods) and purpose seem to fall in three general categories. The most obvious is witness. Some “teach them to obey all Jesus commanded” by planting churches, teaching in international seminaries, exorcising demons, and preaching to crowds at college campuses. But in 2016 we reached the threshold where more than 50% of people who call themselves missionaries say their primary activity is not witness, but service, development, healthcare, or cultural production through the arts. A second category of missionary methods includes engagement in public life. And a third we may label as “cultural production.” The below shows how these categories fit together in the bigger picture of making disciples across cultures.
The apostle Paul said “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ESV). Yet Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs remind us that some are experiencing much greater levels of persecution than others. Open Doors' “World watch list” breaks down persecution of Christians into three “impulses” or pressures on Christians: tribalism (factions, in-fighting), secularism, and exploitation. Some persecution is acute (which Open Doors refers to as “the smash”) and some is more chronic (“the squeeze”). Religious intolerance, factionalism and tribalism are increasingly dangerous to believers. It was Justin Long who reported “During this century, we have documented cases in excess of 26 million martyrs. From AD 33 to 1900, we have documented 14 million martyrs.” The Vatican says that 75% of people who are killed for their faith are Christians.
Historically, theologians have been ambivalent the role of persecution in Christianity. Tertullian noted that “the blood of the martyrs is seed [of the church]" (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). This was more descriptive than prescriptive. That is, Tertullian wasn’t advocating for martyrdom as a church growth strategy; he was observing that rather than stamping out the church, martyrdom rallied the faithful. Why is this? Maybe because stories of persecution are inspiring. They help us think through our own priorities. We think, “If someone ordinary- not a super saint- had the courage to stick to their convictions, then maybe I can too.” Westminster Abbey's statue to ten 20th century martyrs from all six continents received wide attention because of the inspiring stories and adventuresome lives of Bonhoeffer, Dr MLK Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero and others.
Why do governments and factions persecute Christians?
Some postcolonial theorists find the martyrdom narrative within Christianity to be disturbing, so they discount the degree to which the church has been, and still is, persecuted. Most notably, New Testament scholar and contributor to the National Geographic Channel Candida Moss has argued that the persecution complex gives license to Christians to vilify their opponents:
Instead, Moss says, early accounts of martyrdom were few and far between. Such accounts were highly stylized to suit the author’s purpose. Christians, Moss argues, were prosecuted, not persecuted, for a crime that made sense to the ancient world. In order to further distance Christianity from its historical claim of disproportionately high levels of persecution, Moss argues that the act of martyrdom was not original, but followed motifs in the life of Socrates and the Greek romance novel. Or perhaps, Moss fancies, early Christians “couldn’t help themselves” from rehearsing the passion narrative!
While persecution is one of the greatest threats to Christians, Patrick Fung (Director of OMF) tried to keep this perspective: “The greatest challenge to missions isn’t martyrdom, but a diluted gospel” (NA Mission Leaders’ conference, Chicago, Sep 21 2012). Interestingly, Glenn Penner, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs takes a similar radical stance: “I do not believe that persecution is the greatest threat to the continuing spread of the gospel. I am much more concerned about something that, at first glance, seems benign and even helpful but which I contend is far more insidious. I am referring to the dependency creating practices that ministries are increasingly promoting in the name of ‘partnership.’”
The issue of martyrdom raises a number of questions for Christians
These days, "locally sourced" and "organic" are seen as great selling points for a product. Actually, mission leaders have long recognized the value of local resources. Church growth should be locally sourced- in fact, the goal of missions is to strengthen the local church so that discipleship, leadership and education are all locally sourced, rather than dependent on the expatriates.
Church growth is also organic and natural. Programs and pre-determined "formulas" don't work. That's why Rolland Allen referred to the "spontaneous expansion of the church."
What other trends in the market also match with values within missionary work?
Free range? At one point in time, missions was not so free-range; the wisdom of the day was to move converts to a mission station where they learned a trade and how to read. But missiologists and practitioners in recent decades have seen that this artificial environment did not help new Christians learn how to live out their faith in their own villages or communities. Now evangelism, discipleship and education happen in people's natural cultural and geographic environment.
Cross-cultural workers in recent decades have begun to recognize that the communities and people where we work must benefit as much from the missions effort as the sending churches do- in that sense, there's a "fair trade" ring to missions work. If your church in the USA is getting all the kudos and joy from your short term missions projects, whereas the host community is left unheard, something's wrong.
I suppose you could even say church growth is gluten free in many parts of the world- the only bread is the Bread of Life in parts of the world where rice or taro are the food staple, not bread.
As Y2K approached (remember that?) Louis Bush popularized the idea of prioritizing missionary efforts in the 10-40 window: latitudes 10 to 40 North, where the world's majority of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists live. At that time missionary boards began focusing on Unreached People groups (as defined by David Barrett's Encyclopedia of World Christianity and popularized in the Joshua Project). The idea was that if fewer than 2% of a people group were evangelical Christians, there would be no indigenous church strong enough to evangelize its own people, so missionary efforts would be necessary. This push for missions among the least-reached in Asia (that's where the 10-40 window is) not only helped prioritize sending-country efforts, but it ensured that other parts of the world could become self-supporting, as expatriate leadership and resources were pulled out and redirected elsewhere.
However, the effect that this push toward the Unreached People Groups (UPGs) had some negative effects in churches and among missionaries. As pastors and mission leaders became passionate about the UPGs they began de-legitimating the very important missionary efforts of their very-skilled personnel who were working in Africa, South America, the Pacific, Europe, not to mention the USA, or anywhere else that wasn't considered "least reached." The push for "UPG-only" missions alienated the majority of missionaries these churches were sending out! I remember a supporting church called me to verify that our Bible translation project was indeed in an unreached people group, otherwise the church wouldn't support our work. I responded that the language group we worked in was least-reached, but not how the Joshua Project defined it.
It looks like mission boards and churches have moved away from the myopia of "UPG-only" missions. I think it's time to make missions global again. The reality is that in each of our sending churches (no matter what country) the people God raises up and whom we send out have too many varied callings and giftings to limit them to one region, or one particular type of work.
Of course, the real goal isn't to make Missions Global, but to make God's name Great Globally. #makeJesusGreatAgain
Charles Spurgeon wrote in The Soul Winner “Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer”. Is this really the main pursuit? If that’s not YOUR main pursuit, does that mean Spurgeon doesn’t think you’re really a Christian? Note that the Westminster Shorter Catechism, written two hundred years before Spurgeon, framed the “chief end of man” as “glorifying God and enjoying him forever.” That is a MUCH broader task than soul-winning. Can God be glorified in other ways than just soul-winning? Is God glorified when we run businesses, plant gardens and heal the sick? If so, Spurgeon’s comments are really myopic.
Spurgeon was what we would now call a prioritist: He believed proclamation was a priority over social action. The syllogism seems to go
Christian leaders spend a lot of time talking about "how to reach Gen Xers and millennial who grew up with postmodernism." The old apologetics of CS Lewis and Josh McDowell don't work for kids (or adults) that don't expect religion to be rational, and don't think history can be known, and don't think truth can be grasped. So how do we reach these kids? With actions, rather than words? With gripping testimonies? Will it take miracles and dreams to capture them, rather than air tight logic?
I think the Gen Xers and millennials need to learn air tight logic- I think they need to learn to expect rationality; to grasp the value of the old apologetics. In other words, I'm not ready to roll over and admit defeat to postmodernism. If Postmodernism is the obstacle that is keeping them from understanding the Christian faith, we need to remove the obstacle, rather than continuing to leap over it or walk around it. IN other words, rather than ask "how do we reach postmoderns with the gospel" I think we should keep asking "how do we help postmoderns be more rational and
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor