The Great Commission of Christ given to his church summed it up in the command to “make disciples of every creature” (Matt. 28:19). The word here indicates that the disciples were to go out into the world and win others who would come to be what they themselves were—disciples of Christ. This mission is emphasized even more when the Greek text of the passage is studied, and it is seen that the words go, baptize, and teach are all participles that derive their force from the one controlling verb “make disciples.” This means that the Great Commission is not merely to go to the ends of the earth preaching the gospel (Mark 16:15), nor to baptize a lot of converts into the name of the triune God, nor to teach them the precepts of Christ, but to “make disciples”—to build people like themselves who were so constrained by the commission of Christ that they not only followed his way but led others to as well. Only as disciples were made could the other activities of the commission fulfill their purpose.
Pray for Harvesters
Leadership was the emphasis. Jesus had already demonstrated by his own ministry that the deluded masses were ripe for the harvest, but without spiritual shepherds to lead them, how could they ever be won? “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest,” Jesus reminded his disciples, “that he will send forth laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37–38; see Luke 10:2). There is almost a note of desperation in these words—a desperation wrung from the sense of the world’s desperate need of workers with them who cared for their souls. There is no use to pray for the world. What good would it do? God already loves them and has given his Son to save them. No, there is no use to pray vaguely for the world. The world is lost and blind in sin. The only hope for the world is for laborers to go to them with the gospel of salvation, and having won them to the Savior, not to leave them, but to work with them faithfully, patiently, painstakingly, until they become fruitful Christians savoring the world about them with the Redeemer’s love.
The Principle Applied to Our Lives
Here finally is where we must all evaluate the contribution that our life and witness is making to the supreme purpose of him who is the Savior of the world. Are those who have followed us to Christ now leading others to him and teaching them to make disciples like ourselves? Note, it is not enough to rescue the perishing, though this is imperative; nor is it sufficient to build up newborn babes in the faith of Christ, although this, too, is necessary if the firstfruit is to endure; in fact, it is not sufficient just to get them out winning souls, as commendable as this work may be. What really counts in the ultimate perpetuation of our work is the faithfulness with which our converts go and make leaders out of their converts, not simply more followers. Surely we want to win our generation for Christ, and to do it now, but this is not enough. Our work is never finished until it has assured its continuation in the lives of those redeemed by the Evangel.
The test of any work of evangelism thus is not what is seen at the moment, or in the conference report, but in the effectiveness with which the work continues in the next generation. Similarly the criteria on which a church should measure its success is not how many new names are added to the role nor how much the budget is increased, but rather how many Christians are actively winning souls and training them to win the multitudes. The ultimate extent of our witness is what matters, and for this reason values can be measured only by eternity.
Is it not time that we all looked again at our lives and ministries from this perspective? As Dawson Trotman would say, “Where are our men?” What are they doing for God? Consider what it would mean to the future of the church if we had only one true disciple now to show for our labors. Would not this immediately double our influence? And suppose that we made another like ourself, even as the first succeeded in the same way. Would not this multiply our life four times over? Theoretically, at least, in this manner of multiplication our ministry alone would soon reach multitudes with the gospel. That is, if that person we had called a disciple truly followed in the steps of the Master.
Proved by the Church
We can be thankful that in those first disciples this was done. They gave the gospel to the multitudes, but all the while they were building up the fellowship of those who believed. As the Lord added daily to the church such as were saved, the apostles, like their Master, were developing men to reproduce their ministry to the ends of the earth. The Acts of the Apostles is really just the unfolding in the life of the growing church the principles of evangelism that have already been outlined here in the life of Christ.
Suffice it to say that the early church proved that the Master’s plan for world conquest worked. So great was the impact of their witness that before the century had passed the pagan society of the day had been shaken to its foundations and growing churches had been established in most centers of population. Had the momentum continued in the evangelistic outreach of the church that characterized its beginning, within a few centuries the multitudes of the world would have known the touch of the Master’s hand.
Shortcuts Have Failed
But times changed, and gradually the simple way of Jesus’ evangelism was forced into a new mold. Of course, adaptations of principle are always necessary in the light of changing circumstances, but somehow or other the principles themselves got confused in the desire to give the Evangel a new look. The costly principles of leadership development and reproduction seem to have been submerged beneath the easier strategy of mass recruitment. The nearsighted objective of popular recognition generally took precedence over the long-range goal of reaching the world, and the methods of evangelism employed by the church collectively and individually have reflected this same momentary outlook. Occasionally, as in times of great spiritual revival, the principles of Jesus’ method have come to the fore, but to this observer of church history such periods have been short-lived and have never captured the imagination of the vast majority of churchmen. Jesus’ plan has not been disavowed; it has just been ignored. It has been something to remember in venerating the past, but not to be taken seriously as a rule for conduct in the present.
The Issue Today
This is our problem of methodology today. Well-intended ceremonies, programs, organizations, commissions, and crusades of human ingenuity are trying valiantly to do a job that can only be done by people in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is not to depreciate these noble efforts, for without them the church could not function as she does. Nevertheless, unless the personal mission of the Master is vitally incorporated into the policy and fabric of all these plans, the church cannot function as she should.
When will we realize that evangelism is not done by something, but by someone? It is an expression of God’s love, and God is a person. His nature, being personal, is only expressed through personality, first revealed fully in Christ, and now expressed through his Spirit in the lives of those yielded to him. Committees may help to organize and direct it, and to that end they certainly are needed, but the work itself is done by people reaching other people for Christ.
That is why we must say with E. M. Bounds that “men are God’s method.” Until we have such people imbued with his Spirit and committed to his plan, none of our methods will work.
This is the new evangelism we need. It is not better methods, but better men and women who know their Redeemer from personal experience—men and women who see his vision and feel his passion for the world—men and women who are willing to be nothing so that he might be everything—men and women who want only for Christ to produce his life in and through them according to his own good pleasure. This finally is the way the Master planned for his objective to be realized on the earth, and where it is carried through by his strategy, the gates of hell cannot prevail against the evangelization of the world.
Coleman, Robert E. 2006. The Master Plan of Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell.