There’s a shift happening throughout North American Christianity.
Young adults—popularly referred to as millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 1995)—are beginning to find their way into church leadership. As one of the oldest millennials, I’ve noticed a significant difference between myself and previous generations of church members and leaders when it comes to our understanding of the Great Commission.
Just so we’re on the same page, that’s Jesus’ call to his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20a: Therefore, go 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 I have commanded you.
Perhaps a few observations regarding this shift can open doors for conversation and understanding between the young adults entering church leadership and the previous generations that have been leading and participating in the life of the church for so many years.
Discipleship over evangelism
For people who have been inspired by the evangelical success of some of the well-known megachurches, this may be confusing, frustrating, or perhaps even downright infuriating. But for young adults, the trend away from prioritizing evangelism is not so much a rejection of those churches as it is a feeling that their ministries didn’t go far enough. Being used by God to bring about mass conversions and explosive growth is exciting. But that’s just the beginning. When Jesus left his disciples with the Great Commission, he told them to “go” (that is, don’t keep it to yourself; share it with others). He also told them to “make disciples” who are baptized and to “obey everything I have commanded you.” If we continue to see the Great Commission as only concerned with evangelism, we miss half the message. Millennial Christians increasingly see the Great Commission pushing us to “make disciples.” We do need to “go,” but we do so in order to “make disciples.”
Discipleship and evangelism are not the same thing
Evangelism is the act of proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus. Discipleship, on the other hand, is the lifelong process of becoming like Jesus. When we read the Great Commission in Matthew, we see that Jesus never lays out a detailed plan for how to do it. It’s assumed that the disciples know what Jesus is talking about. It’s assumed they know what it means to be a disciple.
Where would they have learned this? From Jesus. From watching him and living with him for three years. How can we learn this? From reading the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Discipleship assumes that evangelism has taken place. But that’s when the hard work of learning how to be like Jesus begins. This is what the Great Commission is ultimately pushing us toward.
The role of baptism
There’s been a lot of debate over the last few years about the role of baptism in our churches, especially in church planting. The influence of the broader evangelical community has caused some of us to wrestle with our Reformed understanding and practice of baptism. The Reformed understanding of baptism is dramatically different from that of most of our evangelical brothers and sisters. Those who talk the most about the Great Commission as evangelism have a theological framework that equates baptism to conversion. The Christian Reformed understanding of baptism is different. It’s not an obedient response brought about by our expressed faith in Jesus. Instead, it’s God placing his mark on a child or adult and claiming that person as a member of his covenant community. Baptism is God’s action, not ours. When the Great Commission is considered in this light, the reference to baptism is a part of the discipleship process, not evangelism.
Quality versus quantity
The popular understanding of the Great Commission pushes toward quantity: conversions, members, baptisms. Increasingly my peers are becoming more interested in quality over quantity. This is not to say that we don’t care about reaching non-believers. I can safely say that every conversation I’ve had with a fellow Millennial about this has reflected an incredible passion and desire to see their non-Christian friends come to faith.
Believing in Jesus as our Savior might secure our place in glory, but it’s only the first step. It says nothing about the sort of life we live while waiting for the great day of Christ’s return. Discipleship is the lifelong process of becoming like Jesus, but how many of us even reflect a faint shadow of Jesus?
The average 1,000-member church is great, but a congregation of 150 people, where all 150 are passionately pursuing discipleship, will have a bigger impact on their community and world. After all, look at what was accomplished through just 11 disciples empowered by the Holy Spirit and committed to continuing Jesus’ ministry after his ascension!
So where do we go from here?
First, commit to being a disciple. Ideally, we all want to be disciples who make disciples. But before any of that happens, we need to take personal responsibility for our own discipleship. Often that’s not something we do well on our own. We need someone to help us and model the path of discipleship, Your pastor is a great resource for this; so is the retiree who’s been faithfully serving the church for the past 75 years. But only people who are disciples themselves can make disciples.
Second, know what Jesus commanded. The Great Commission is about going and making disciples who “obey all that I have commanded.” We cannot do this without knowing what Jesus commanded.
The single most effective strategy for growing as a disciple and learning what Jesus commanded is spending daily time in the Word and in prayer. If this isn’t a habit you’ve developed, or if you’re intimidated by the thought of reading the Bible on your own, start by reading either one psalm every day or one of the gospels over a period of time. You don’t have to read a lot, but make sure you feel like you have a good grasp on what the passage may be calling you to do. Then pray that God will give you opportunity and boldness to do what you just read. If you pray for God to use you, he will certainly answer that prayer!
I sense a longing for something more than warehouse churches, rock band worship, or hip preachers among my peers. Instead, there is a growing desire to lead congregations into disciple-making communities where true transformation is taking place that challenges every facet of life.
- Do you agree that there has been an overemphasis on the evangelism aspect of the Great Commission and an underemphasis on the “make disciples” aspect? Why or why not?
- In what ways have you seen the church’s outreach affected by an emphasis on “quantity over quality”?
- How do the same arguments of the author also apply to the faith formation of children and youth in the church?
- Do you agree that baptism is a part of the discipleship process rather than the evangelism process? What difference might it make?