by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 4/15/19.
What is the Goal of a Church?
I often ask my client churches to honestly tell me what they perceive as their church’s primary goal…. Look at their responses:
|Our primary goal is to survive as a church||38 %|
|Our primary goal is to provide a warm and caring fellowship.||22 %|
|Our primary goal is to win souls to Christ.||21 %|
|Our primary goal is to influence community morals for the better.||11 %|
|None of the above||8 %|
…Yet, a cure for the common church is much bigger, for it is a church-wide refocus back to Jesus’ goal for his church
Jesus’ Goal for the Church
The right answer for Figure 5.1 is actually “none of the above” and comes from Jesus’ own words[I] … To understand this, let’s look at Jesus’ last and most poignant instructions to his followers (Figure 5.2 which has been called the “Great Commission”)
Figure 5.2 Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 29:18-20 CEB, commissioning verbs are underlined)
Jesus came near and spoke to them,
“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 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, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
What makes this a Great Commission[ii]?
The Great Commission is the label that has been given to these final and central instructions Jesus gave his followers in Matthew 28:18-20. In this phrase Jesus is literally “commissioning” or “recruiting” all followers down through the ages into his mission. This commissioning is akin to an “official directive,” a “direct order” and a “command,” such as a military conscript might receive upon entering service…
The Four Verbs of Jesus’ Great Commission
Because this Great Commission is so important, it is not surprising that each word, each phrase that Jesus uttered in Matthew 28:19-20 seems to have been chosen carefully to convey his message. Jesus undoubtedly knew that believers down through history would return to this passage as they contemplated the goal of their spiritual community.
…Because the Greek language (in which much of the New Testament was written) is much more precise than today’s English, Jesus was able to use a special wording that stressed one verb as the primary verb over the other three…
Finding the main verb
In the English, the four verbs seem equal. But, when Jesus spoke these words, he pronounced one verb with a special spelling, thereby indicating that this verb was the main verb or “goal” of the passage. Which verb was Jesus pointing to as the goal of his Great Commission? You must wait a few paragraphs to find out.
3 verbs tell “how” – only 1 verb tells us “the goal”
Three … verbs are called participles, which means they are “helping verbs” that tell “how” the main verb will be accomplished.[iv] Jesus chose specific spellings of the participles to show that three verbs are participles telling you “how” to accomplish the main verb.[v]
So, which three verbs are participles (telling us “how”) and which one verb is the main verb (telling us the “goal”)? The spelling of the Greek verbs indicates the following:[vi]
Therefore, the uncommon church’s goal must not the “going,” the “baptizing” or even the “teaching.” These are the “hows.” In the words Jesus chose he made clear that for the uncommon church he was founding, it was “making disciples” that was the goal.
What Do Disciples look like?
Picturing a Disciple
…Begin with the Greek word matheteusate, which means “a learner, a pupil or an apprentice.”[i] It carries the image of a trainee or a student still in school more than it depicts an expert. Christ is commanding his followers not to produce experts, but rather to foster a community of authentic learners. Following Jesus should feel like you are enrolled in his school of learning. Therefore, a church is not a cadre of experts, but a collage of fellow learners.
Theologians have sought to convey the rich and multifaceted meaning of the verb: “make disciples” in several ways.
Donald McGavran[ii] said …… “It means enroll in my (Jesus’) school…”
Eddie Gibbs[iii] stated ………… “It is learning, not simply through being given information, but in learning how to use it. Discipleship is an apprenticeship rather than an academic way of learning. It is learning by doing.”
James Engel[iv] summarized…“In short, discipleship requires continued obedience over time…. Thus becoming a disciple is a process beginning when one received Christ, continuing over a lifetime as one is conformed to His image (Phil 1:6), and culminating in the glory at the end of the age.”
An Up-to-date Image of a Disciple
From a closer look at the words Jesus used, we see that the goal of every church is to help people become “a community of active, ongoing learners.”[v] It is not just to baptize or to teach as we are going out (though all of these are “hows” of the disciple making process). The goal, toward which a church should focus its attention and its resources is to produce people that are actively learning about their heavenly Father.
Still, this goal includes binding up their wounds, meeting their needs before they even know who Christ is, standing up for their justice and righting their wrongs. But all of these worthy actions if they become the goal, will make your mission misdirected. God’s goal, the purpose he has for every church, is to reconnect his wayward offspring to himself (the essence of the missio Dei). And, the church’s goal (Figure 5.6) is to foster this reunification by helping people become learners about a loving, seeking Father.
The Goal of the Church Defined
While the common church has mistaken many “hows” for the “goal,” Figure 5.6 is the goal against which the uncommon church will be measured. In our commissioning, Jesus has handed us a different measuring stick.
Figure 5.6 The Goal of a Church
The goal of a church is …
To make active, ongoing learners.
(i.e. learning about a heavenly Father who loves them, sacrificed his Son for them and who wants to reunite and empower them.)
Jesus wants the uncommon church to focus upon reuniting his wayward offspring with him by making active, ongoing learners about his great love, sacrifice and future for them. And so, be careful not to make some of the following common missteps.
- Teaching without learning: If a church is teaching many people, but few are actively learning over a long period of time, the church is not “making active, ongoing learners.”
- Having learned once, but not learning now: If a person has learned once, perhaps in the past at school or as a child but is not learning now, then the church is not “making active, ongoing learners.”
- Baptizing without ongoing learning: And, if the church is baptizing many souls, but there is little ongoing education about what it means to follow Christ, then that church is not “making active, ongoing learners.”
Excerpted from Cure for the Common Church: God’s Plan for Church Health, chapter “How to Grow Learners.” Download the chapter here: BOOK ©Whitesel EXCERPT – CURE Chpt 5 WHY LEARNers
[i] Walter Bauer, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 486-487.
[ii] Donald McGavran, Effective Evangelism: A Theological Mandate (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 1988), p. 17.
[iii] Eddie Gibbs, Body Building Exercises for the Local Church (London: Falcon Press, 1979), p. 74.
[iv] James F. Engel, Contemporary Christian Communications: Its Theory and Practice (New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979), 66.
[v] The “ongoing” emphasis in making disciples is created by both the preface of Matthew 28:18-20 (whereby Jesus declares his command is a result of non-temporal authority, v. 18) and by the aorist tense of make disciples, which can convey the sense of an action that should commence at once.
[i]I am not saying that winning souls to Christ is not important and central to God’s mission, for it is. As I have stated in the first chapters of this book (and in every one of my previous nine books) reuniting wayward offspring to their heavenly Father so they can receive salvation from their sin, gain new purpose and enter eternal life is the mission of God (i.e. missio Dei) in which we are called to participate (Matt. 28:19-20). However, the point I am making here is that “winning souls” is a supernatural connection that though we can help facilitate, is something only God can accomplish (see for instance Acts 2:47 where Luke writes, “The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved”). Jesus, in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, gives his church not the task of soul-saving (he reserves that right for himself), but rather gives the church the task of “making learners about him.” If a church is making learners about God, then he can supernaturally connect with them through their growing knowledge of his love and bring them into a reconciled relationship with himself. Thus, in this chapter I will show that “making learners of Christ” is the task for which the church should aim, and when we connect people with their loving Father this way, he can add “daily to the community those who were being saved.”
[ii] David Bosch has rightly pointed out that you cannot fully understand the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 without an understanding of Matthew’s gospel as a whole. The reader who wants a fuller appreciation for the power and influence of the Great Commission in context should see David J. Bosch’s chapter “Matthew: Mission as Disciples-Making” in Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 20th ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), pp. 56-83.
[iii] Hudson Taylor quoted by Stan Toler, Practical Guide to Solo Ministry: How Your Church Can Thrive When You Lead Alone (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2008), p. 136; C. T. Studd quoted by David l. Marshall, To Timbuktu and Beyond: A Missionary Memoir (New York: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p. 87; William Carey quoted by A. Scott Moreau, Gary B. McGee and Gary R. Corwin in Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 201; and C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperOne, 2002), p. 96.
[iv] Daniel B. Wallace, The Basis of New Testament Syntax (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 274-275. A good way to think of this is that the participles (go, baptizing, teaching) tell “how” making disciples is done. Thus, to the question, “How do you make disciples?” one could answer “by going (means) and baptizing (manner) and teaching” (manner).
[v] The relationship between the three participles and the imperative “make disciples” has been described by Robert Culver as “the words translated ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ are participles. While these participles are immensely important the imperative ‘make disciples’ is of superlative importance.” “What is the Church’s Commission,” Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary, July 1968), p. 244.
[vi] Daniel B. Wallace, The Basis of New Testament Syntax (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 280 states “a greater emphasis is placed on the action of the main verb than on the participle. That is, the participle is something of a prerequisite before the action of the main verb can occur” (italics Wallace). In other words, the “going,” “baptizing” and “teaching” are prerequisites that must occur before the action of the main verb (“making disciples”) can take place.
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