“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 New Revised Standard Version
Where do we go from here? It is an appropriate question in light of my focus in recent months on the essential place of “reaching as many people as possible for Christ” within the mission of Little Rock Original Free Will Baptist Church. Since February, I have devoted some of my time to considering the implications of the opening statement of our church’s mission from the aspect of why it is important to our task as Christians, but also some of the practical elements to consider when reaching out to those who may not share a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As vital as this emphasis is within the life of Little Rock, or any congregation for that matter, it is not the fullness of our calling. Let me state this in a slightly different manner: our work is not complete once a person makes his or her profession of faith. The profession of faith is not merely the “destination” of a person’s faith, but rather the “starting line” for a journey which continues as long as life will allow. This is true at an individual level as well as within our responsibility to assist others as much as possible in their growth toward wholeness in Christ.
In some of the best-known words of Jesus, found in Matthew 28:19-20, we hear a tremendous charge extended to those gathered as Jesus was preparing for his ascension into heaven. Although the words which we identify as the “Great Commission” were uttered to the earliest of Jesus’ followers, their validity continues to remain true as we seek to live into our calling to follow Christ. Often audiences of the text will read or hear through proclamation the importance of “going.” “Go into the entire world.” “Go into your mission field.” Go wherever the Lord sends you.” Such words function as a great admonition for the Christian community to branch out beyond one geographical set of surroundings or to leave behind personal comforts in an effort to reach the world for Christ. But in actuality, the imperative (a word issuing a command) is found not in the word “Go” as is often rendered in many English translations, but rather is captured by the word “make.” This being said, the essence of Jesus’ words goes something like “As you are going along, YOU NEED TO MAKE (emphasis added) disciples…” The assumption was made that Jesus’ followers would be unable to stay in one location peering into the heavens. It was understood that as they moved away from such a sacred moment with Jesus they would go forth, encounter others, and as a result “make disciples.”
This task of “disciple making” is captured well within a term used quite often by the Church: discipleship. Discipleship is that part of our calling to aid people of all ages and backgrounds in the transforming journey from “being a convert” to living lives of loyal devotion to the source of one’s salvation. This important “arm” of the Church is by no means limited to the “spiritual elite,” but is to be the reality of all who have come to know Christ in a personal way. When we hear the word “disciple,” we cannot help but consider those whom Jesus called early in his ministry to go forth and make “fishers of people.” We envision individuals such as Peter, James, and John, and by our calculations consider ourselves unworthy to be considered in the same sentence with these men of faith. However, we must embrace the realization that the word “disciple,” while seeming somewhat intimidating, actually means “one who learns.” You might say that it is to function in a teacher/student role with Jesus.
When I consider the work of discipleship within the Body of Christ, I believe that it is one of the neglected aspects of being the Church in our world today. We focus upon conversions, which are vital to the Kingdom of God, while overlooking what we could call “next steps” in the faith. I remember this being a struggle within my own early Christian journey. Although I was raised to be a regular part of the church community and attended a Christian school for thirteen years, I always felt like something was missing in my walk with Christ. It was as though I had my salvation, but had little to no idea as to where I was going or what I was supposed to be doing from that point. I believed because a teacher or preacher told me that was what was most important, but…why? What did my new found faith mean and what would the implications thereof be for my life moving forward? This brings me back to my original question, “Where do we go from here?”
I believe the answer lies in what we believe and subsequently do as related to the second emphasis of our mission statement: “To provide a place of Christian nurture, instruction…” While we believe first in the importance of reaching people, we must intentionally develop the “next steps” which will aid them along in their journey. I remember well a question posed by Dr. Bruce Powers, Retired Professor of Church Leadership and Christian Education at Campbell University Divinity School, during many of his lectures: “What are we trying to do to people?” Bring them into the Kingdom of God? Yes, but for what purpose? What do we hope will happen as people turn toward Christ, make their profession of faith, and seek out ways to join the Body of Christ? Hopefully, with careful nurture and sound instruction, they will “make sense” of their newly found faith in ways that enable them to connect faith with everyday life. Here is where we have our work “cut out” before us through the ministry of Christian discipleship. Discipleship brings practicality to a statement that I read on a local church sign prior to Easter: “Jesus takes believers and transforms them into followers.” This is what God’s Kingdom has great need of in our present time. The only way that we are able to prepare current and future generations of Christ-followers is through our willingness and ability to offer exploration to the challenging questions of faith, beneficial opportunities for people to wrestle with matters of life, as well as the patience necessary to abide with people through their growth. Just as we can all agree that a seed does not become a fruit bearing plant overnight, so must we be willing to “dig in” and invest the resources necessary for others to understand what it means to learn from Christ and for them in turn to carry out this ministry in their own meaningful ways.
Learning and Growing Together,
The Rev. Kelley Smart