Jesus calls us to make Disciples, not Converts2017 Feb 12
Jesus asks Christians to spread the gospel in the world, but he didn't ask us to make converts to Christianity. note He doesn't ask us to do this anywhere in the Bible. Instead what he asks us to do is make disciples (Matt 28:19&20).
This essay was prompted in part by a blog article We’re Called To Make Disciples, Not Converts.
The author’s titular point was excellent. When I dug into the posting however, I was was very frustrated because the piece also drove a point that being a disciple must be a radical commitment - as if we were all trying to be apostles. The article genuinely bothered me because the logical conclusion would be that I wasn't a disciple (because I wasn't a driven radical).
However, I can see that God has been steadily transforming me to live my life with more Christ-like love. Jesus said that the way people will know that we are his disciples is by our love for each other (John 13:35). Therefore I think the article's emphasis toward a driven mindset might be a mistake. (On the other hand, the author did tell me he was mostly trying to motivate spectator Christians into starting at least some action.)
I think that part of the problem I was perceiving was a lack in definition of a disciple. Mostly the article talked about what disciples did. There was one definition-like sentence which had part of the right idea: "A disciple is someone who whole-heartedly follows the life and example of Jesus, who makes ... His values their values, and His heart their heart." Certainly these words weren't wrong, however I was disappointed that Jesus' key metric of discipleship from John 13:35 was missing (the definition of the values).
The author was correct in that a disciple is marked by action. However that is not because action defines a disciple. It is because the action comes as a consequence of transformed values-based motivation (James 2:14-26).
This unfortunately is in conflict with much of conventional Christianity because commonly there is a large emphasis on making converts. This emphasis is wrong and is a deeply embedded problem. Some of us have been encouraged for years to count conversions and assess if people are believers. However, God is not interested in converts. note God is interested in disciples.
God is also not interested in believers as we often think of them. We often equate being a believer with having been converted. Jesus, however, encouraged people that already were trusting in him to believe (people like his disciples - John 14:1, 16:31; or Jairus - Mark 5:36). This kind of believing is confidently trusting a promise given to you, showing through your actions that you are certain the promise will be fulfilled.
It is very important then to know what we have been promised. This is because some promises in the Bible are for us, however, some do not apply to us. To believe in a promise that was never meant for us would be at least foolish and possibly disastrous. Some promises we can easily, confidently see are for us; others are less clear. This is a matter of study and clear thinking toward understanding. So, know the promises of God that you believe in and why you know they are made to you.
Where we have certainty in a promise, we should live in a way that demonstrates that confidence. We see Jesus encouraging people to actively trust in the promises that he had given them. This is how Jesus wants us to believe in him.
A disciple is someone who follows Jesus by adopting His value system of sacrificial love for the benefit of others. This definition is very important because it enables a person to know if this is something they want to participate in, to know if they are making progress and to know what they will look like as an end-goal.
A convert is someone in whom the seed of the gospel has germinated (Mark 4:3-9). Becoming a convert is only a matter of optimistic belief, or of intellect. It might be philosophically similar to becoming a fan of some new music. It only speaks to a point in time (when interest was identified) even though it does include some expectation that this this will have good effects. However someone that is only a convert is in a very fragile state. This is because conversion encapsulates no long-term plan of action, it might not change any behaviors, and it might not last.
A disciple, however, integrates Jesus' value system of beneficial love into their way of living. The disciple has a metric to know if they are being successful in this process (love for each other - John 13:34-35). note Discipleship therefore is the plan of action, is comprehensive toward a life, and has lasting effect.
Practical wisdom teaches that you can only improve that which you can measure. And, you only do improve that which you do measure. What then is the way you should measure how you are doing as a disciple?
Jesus said, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:34-35 NIV
So Jesus says our discipleship is to be measured by our love. And therefore he expects us to improve in our love towards each other, a love which is like the love that he demonstrated to us.
So then since we know the difference between converts and disciples, what is disciple making? Disciple-making is helping others to grow to be like Christ in their value system.
Disciple making is a lifestyle activity and not a program of study. It is teaching integrated into unplanned moments and some planned events. It is both teaching with words and teaching by example. It is being an encouragement to spur others toward Christlikeness.
Disciple making is teaching others the things we have learned about God's value system of sacrificial love for the benefit of others. We show them how this value system is the very best moral system and is always effective for deciding life choices. We can show them how it permeates teaching in the Bible and is the most clear and simple model of theology and of Christian living. We can show them how this love fulfills the law (making law unnecessary). We can show them how this way of life gives them confidence that they are pleasing to God.
Note that a motive to correct sin is the wrong one to hold in discipling (I Cor 7:12). Instead, the right motive is a desire to guide people toward God's value system. As they adopt this value system the reliable consequence is that sin will become displaced.
The definition of discipleship and the metric for discipleship given to us by Jesus also teaches us what discipleship and disciple-making is not. If something you do is unlike the sacrificial love for others like Jesus modeled for us, then that is not a part of being a disciple of Jesus. If something you do hinders another person to grow in Christ-like love, then that is not disciple-making.
Many things you do are neutral, that is, these actions neither help nor hinder being a disciple or making a disciple. These are not failures just because you aren't always actively "turned on". They might be a part of the necessary housekeeping tasks of life. They might be part of the normal (modest) enjoyments of life. God made good things in this life to be enjoyed in moderation at the appropriate times because he loves to be generous. Always remember though that what God very most cares about is that we become like Jesus in our values.
Always making Disciples
So, disciple making is teaching people how to think, and be, and act as a sacrificial lover like Christ.
The amazing thing is that you can disciple people who don’t even believe! They may then desire to connect more closely to the source of this singular moral system. Or, they may discover that they cannot reach this goal by their own power. This can then lead them to conversion so they may then draw on the outside power of the Holy Spirit to transform their life. These people may turn into believers as a side effect of already being a disciple.
The goal that Jesus gave us is to be disciples and to make disciples. The key to understanding and effectiveness about it, is knowing that it all has to do with godly sacrificial love for the benefit of others, adopted and integrated into our living and into our encouragement of others.