By Michael C. Mack
We planned this issue to tell the stories of mission works located on six of the seven continents around the world. (We know of no mission to the 4,000 people who live in Antarctica during the summer months!) The idea is to demonstrate the ongoing fulfilling of Jesus’ mission to “go and make disciples of all nations” and to be Christ’s “witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.”
We hope these stories help kindle a passion for preaching the gospel message to the whole world . . . but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Fulfilling our mission begins before we go and make disciples, before we baptize them, before teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us—although each of these is vital in the process. First, I believe, we must restore the New Testament definition of what makes a person a disciple of Jesus and what makes a church a church.
I’ve seen numerous good definitions for the words disciple and church, but I want to focus on three characteristics critical to live as a disciple of Christ and to make disciples of Christ:
1. The Christian church is a missionary church. That is, all of us, by nature, are called to mission. Jesus’ charge, “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21) is for all believers, not a select few, and he has given us his Spirit (v. 22) and the spiritual gifts needed to carry out that mission.
2. The Christian church is an outward-moving church. Jesus envisioned the church in Acts to be his witnesses in ever-widening circles (from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth). The church is by nature a going, equipping, sending, multiplying enterprise.
3. The Christian church is a serving, sacrificing, surrendering church. The first two characteristics cannot be accomplished without this one. Jesus believed people were worth dying for, and he wants that same commitment from us. The word in Acts 1:8 translated as witnesses can also mean martyrs.
I’ve read many stories about the fearless faith of believers in countries where Christians are routinely persecuted, but one recent story stands out to me. A couple weeks after a beloved pastor in Iran was kidnapped, 38 men and women from a Muslim background lined up to be baptized. The church was packed, and a friend of the missing pastor stood in the baptistry.
“Your pastor is dead,” the leader told those waiting to be immersed. “The man who loved you enough to tell you about Jesus . . . has been killed because of his faith. This is the cost of following Jesus.
“Now, I want to know,” he asked, “are you ready to be baptized? Now that you have witnessed the cost of following Jesus, are you ready to be ‘buried with him in baptism’ and raised to your new life in Christ?”
No one walked away.
A recent study in the U.S. found two-thirds of Protestant churchgoers agree with the statement, “A Christian must learn to deny himself or herself to serve Christ,” with 38 percent strongly agreeing. I imagine that many Christians might theoretically concur with that statement, but how many actually live that way? If following Christ meant certain persecution and probable death, how many would walk away?
The costs of following Jesus are much more than just the fine print at the bottom of the contract. They are an essential part of what it means to be a disciple. Let’s stop shortchanging people, and the church, by leaving out this part of the message.
Perhaps it’s time to raise expectations for the stakeholders in our churches, to teach unapologetically that each one is an essential member of a team tasked with making disciples of all nations, that there’s no room for bystanders, that the God who commanded us to play our parts has the unlimited power to work through our weaknesses and to provide us everything we need to do what he calls us to do.
We can stoke a passion for missions among our people by simply restoring the New Testament definitions of church and disciple. Nothing will stop that church from carrying out Christ’s mission to the whole world.