I remember a time when it was rare to find a mission statement posted in a corporate environment, much less in the church. Today, we find them everywhere, from Fortune 500 companies to fast-food restaurants, and most definitely, in churches. A stated mission can be a strategically important tool that helps create culture and provides much-needed clarity, focus, and directional guidance. Or it can be nothing more than a marketing tool that looks great in print but has almost no impact on the company or organization.
The mission of the Free Methodist Church is to “love God, love people and make disciples.” It is a wonderfully simple, yet profound call rooted in the very words of Jesus in His Great Command (Mark 12:30–31) and Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20). It is clear, concise and sound. Our challenge is to devote ourselves to living it and not just talking about it.
My colleagues have taken us through the first two components of our threefold mission. My task is to tackle the final piece: making disciples. Unfortunately, decades of research provide striking evidence that while there has been no shortage of ink spilled or airways filled with talk of discipleship, the church has largely failed to deliver the goods. Church attendance is waning. The behavior and lifestyle of self-identifying Christians is not demonstrably different from those who claim no faith at all. Most troubling, millennials and post-millennials reared in the church increasingly reflect a worldview that is decidedly more secular than biblical.
Convicted by such findings, researcher George Barna spent six years interviewing more than 15,000 Americans in the hopes of identifying both the nature of spiritual transformation and the dynamics that impact that journey positively or negatively. He shares his findings in his book, “Maximum Faith,” in which he identifies 10 “stops” on the journey to transformation (see the accompanying graphic summarized from his book, which can be ordered at fmchr.ch/barnafaith). He also reveals the percentage of Americans who report progress to each stop along the way. The most obvious finding of Barna’s research is that few self-identifying Christians in America have moved beyond initial conversion and even fewer have progressed beyond involvement in church activities.
Of particular concern for those of us in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition is that stops 7-10 reflect a thoroughly Wesleyan understanding of the sanctified life we are ultimately called to live as Christians. A mere 11% of Americans report movement into that realm and a paltry 1% claim to have progressed to the kind of life Barna describes as “profound love of God” and “profound love of people.” Sound familiar? Unless Free Methodists make up a big chunk of that 1%, we’ve got some serious work to do!
While we could surely find this information depressing, I prefer to see it as a wakeup call that provides an opportunity to reclaim a thoroughly biblical view of and commitment to biblical discipleship. The days when it was beneficial or even popular in our society to be identified as a Christian are long gone … and that’s a good thing. History and the voices of our brothers and sisters around the world today tell us that Christianity tends to thrive most when it is unpopular and even opposed. The church has a way of sharpening its focus and strengthening its resolve when the safety net of social acceptance is removed and the only option is to embrace the dangerous, but life-giving path of biblical discipleship.
The Great Commission
Sometimes a scripture becomes so familiar that it loses its punch. I’m afraid that may be true of the Great Commission, so let’s take a moment to review the critical elements of this scripture that is so foundational to our understanding of discipleship.
First, we have to ditch the siloed view of evangelism and discipleship. The only true verb in the Great Commission is mathēteúō, which is Greek for, you guessed it, “make disciples.” This is Jesus’ central command, which by the way, is quite different from the aim of merely making converts or good church members. We are to invest our lives in helping others become fully devoted followers of Jesus, the ultimate fruit of which is profound love of God and people.
The way we are to fulfill that command is articulated by three participles that define the means of discipleship: going, baptizing and teaching. The command to “go” is the call to evangelism. As many have pointed out, the best translation is “in your going.” Evangelism is best carried out by ordinary people in the natural rhythms of everyday life. But the primary insight here is that in Jesus’ view, evangelism and discipleship are inseparable. You can’t make disciples without evangelism, and the whole point of evangelism is to make disciples. Evangelism without discipleship is like giving birth to a baby with no intent of bringing it home, caring for it, and nurturing it to maturity. Barna calls it “spiritual abuse.”
Second, we must understand the central role of community in discipleship. Why would Jesus link baptism and discipleship in the Great Commission? Without question, baptism allows a new follower of Jesus to publicly profess his or her faith and be received as one who now belongs to “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” But biblical scholars also point out that baptism was viewed as an initiation into the community of faith.
It might be surprising to some that Jesus focuses on baptism and initiation into Christian community before commanding us to teach, but it really shouldn’t be. The creation story reveals that God’s very nature is inherently relational — “Let us make humans in our image” (Genesis 1:26 GW). When Jesus launches His public ministry, he didn’t ask His disciples to read a book or attend a class. He invited them to “follow me” and “come and see.” Jesus’ approach to discipleship was to shape the lives of His followers in the whole-life context of personal relationships.
One of the most challenging implications of this insight is that we are to invite people into a relationship with Jesus and the community of faith at the beginning of their spiritual journey, not after they’ve demonstrated sufficient knowledge or right behavior to warrant it. While we have to hold this insight in tension with other scriptures that highlight the importance of repentance, obedience and accountability, we must embrace the truth that transformation is best viewed as the fruit, rather than a required condition, of authentic Christian community.
It is important to point out, however, that “going to church” and engaging in community are not the same things. Of the many qualities of biblical community, I’d like to highlight three that are critical to the journey of discipleship. The first is authenticity. The most fertile ground for growth in discipleship is a grace-filled environment in which honesty, openness and transparency are both modeled and encouraged. The second is mutual ministry. Life in community provides the opportunity to actually do the stuff we talk about on Sundays. As believers “do life together,” concepts like love, forgiveness and mercy are made concrete, providing the necessary means for shaping character. The third is diversity. While homogeneity may be a good church growth principle, it’s not a good discipleship principle. If we spend all of our time with people who are like ourselves, we have no one to show us our blind spots. However, when we engage in diverse community, we discover the gift of different perspectives, background and life experiences that stretch us and challenge us to move beyond what we already know. Together, these three qualities can significantly accelerate growth in discipleship.
Third, we must recover a commitment to transformational teaching. I once heard a popular author and proponent of the missional church movement make the statement, “Jesus wasn’t a teacher.” Really? Wasn’t that one of the names given Him by His disciples? Didn’t people marvel and say, “We’ve never heard anyone teach with such authority?” Aren’t the gospels filled with His teachings?
On the one hand, I get it. We have rightly witnessed a significant pushback to traditional, classroom-style teaching that often accomplishes little more than the transfer of information. Jesus made it clear that our aim in teaching is transformation, not information, when He commanded us to “teach them to obey” (Matthew 28:20 GNT). But in light of studies that call this generation of believers “the most biblically illiterate in history,” shouldn’t we consider the possibility that the pendulum has swung too far? In our attempts to emphasize community and mission, have we neglected the vital role of teaching God’s Word in a transformational way? Could it be that one of the reasons so many self-identified Christians are conforming to the world is because we have failed to give them the necessary means by which to renew their minds?
Our drift away from teaching the Bible has left our children and youth, in particular, highly vulnerable to the secular catechism of Hollywood, the music industry and social media. There is an all-out blitz to make secular values mainstream in our nation, and one of the ways that’s being accomplished is by casting Christian values as backward at best and bigoted at worst. Quite frankly, the world is doing a much better job of discipling our youth with its secular ideology than the church is at providing a strong, biblical foundation. It’s time for the church to answer the wake-up call and get serious about biblical discipleship.
The Cost of Non-Discipleship
Back in the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the plague of “cheap grace” that had crept into the church of his day. The book was titled “The Cost of Discipleship,” something Bonhoeffer not only advocated in print, but embraced in life. He was one of the few German theologians who dared to take a stand against Hitler, and it ultimately cost him his life. This is how he described cheap grace:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (fmchr.ch/cheapgrace).
Interestingly, Barna’s research supports the idea that we do believers no favors when we emphasize the benefits but minimize the cost of discipleship. He found that only those believers who are willing to persevere through “spiritual brokenness” to the crisis point of “surrender and submission” ever progress to the ultimate aim of profound love of God and profound love of people. Unfortunately, most Christians in America choose to retreat to the safety and comfort of nominal Christianity, tragically unaware that avoiding the cost means they are also forfeiting the treasure of a wholly transformed life.
In “the Spirit of the Disciplines” (fmchr.ch/dwillard), Dallas Willard argues that the cost of non-discipleship is at least as great as the cost of discipleship: “Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life that Jesus said He came to bring (John 10:10).”
At the risk of being overly simplistic, it seems to me that the American obsession with membership and attendance growth has enticed us to “lower the bar” on discipleship, resulting in mostly nominal Christians who end up finding lukewarm spirituality to be wholly unsatisfying and unconvincing. Those who hold on for dear life remain in the fold but offer no compelling reason for their children, neighbors or colleagues to join them.
But what if we were to return wholeheartedly to our mission of making disciples who love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and demonstrate their love for others in tangible, meaningful ways? What if our very lives, transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, became our greatest witness to a watching world? What if you believed these questions were not for someone else, but you?
Bishop Keith Cowart oversees Free Methodist ministries along the Eastern Seaboard, in the South Central United States and also in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He was elected a bishop of the Free Methodist Church – USA at General Conference 2019. He previously served as the superintendent of the Southeast Region after 21 years as the founding lead pastor of Christ Community Church in Columbus, Georgia.