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Finishing the Task? (Part 4): A Cautionary Analysis of Missionary Language

Christians aren’t called to expedite the Great Commission—we are called to obey it.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, technological advances and transportation opportunities have made it conceivable for the first time in history that a single generation of Christians might be able to both access and evangelize all of the world’s peoples.

To this end, missionary agencies have employed mottos such as “Finish the Task” to rally Christians to complete the work of world evangelization. Often such efforts are connected to Matthew 24:14 where Jesus promises that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all nations before the eschaton. Such mottos imply that the missionary task is coterminous with world evangelization. Yet the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20 will not allow for such a reduced conception of the essential missionary task. While world evangelization is a vital component of the Great Commission, missions strategies must not allow the promise of Jesus to distract from full obedience to his command.

Methods, Tools, and Strategies

At this point one might claim that very few, if any, missiologists would hesitate to endorse discipleship as a centerpiece of missionary strategy. That may be true. In fact, many of those most concerned with rapid reproduction within church planting movements readily use the family of words related to “discipleship.” However, as noted above, occasionally one sees a redefinition of the word “disciple” so as not to impede the speed of a movement.67 This essay has taken the position that such a move is unwarranted and untenable.

The process of discipleship is ongoing and life-long. Believers will only complete their discipleship upon death or the return of Christ.68 Likewise, while locations and people groups may change throughout one’s life, the Great Commission call to be a disciple-maker is also endless. One day, prior to the return of Christ, the gospel of the kingdom will have been proclaimed throughout the whole world and to its peoples. Yet even then, if the Lord tarries, the church must be about the ongoing task of making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in God’s tri-personal name, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded.

It remains, however, to answer the question, “How might one assess various tools, strategies, and methodologies for their Great Commission appropriateness?” While this essay must leave the analysis of particular strategies and tools to individual practitioners, it will seek to offer some guiding questions that will aid in such assessment. At the very least this essay has two remaining questions to answer: What is the role of the cultural outsider? How does one equip a people sufficiently to carry on the discipleship task itself?

The Role of the Cultural Outsider

As the church obeys the Great Commission, at least some will be sent to peoples of the earth who are currently far removed from the opportunity to become disciples of Christ geographically, culturally, and religiously. Though this cultural distance will undoubtedly complicate the relationships between such missionaries and the people to whom they are sent, worship of God by way of obedience to the Great Commission is sufficient warrant for embracing the challenge. Having determined that intercultural missions is theoretically appropriate, one must now begin to work practically toward Great Commission obedience.

One of the first questions to be asked is, “What role should a missionary play in the disciple-making and church forming process?” Some strategies treat missionaries merely as trainers or managers who are tasked with finding pragmatic ways of passing on information and seeing that it is disbursed quickly and efficiently by trainees.69 As the missionary goes out in obedience to the Great Commission, however, it is not only the method and tools, but also the understanding of the missionary’s role, that must align with the Great Commission.

A much more appropriate alternative to the pragmatist or paternalist options mentioned above is Lesslie Newbigin’s perspective on the role of a missionary as the initiator of a trialogue between “the traditional culture, the ‘Christianity’ of the missionary, and the Bible.”70 While various models of initiation exist, the basic idea charts a middle way between the missionary as a manager or trainer and the missionary as an authoritarian.71 This trialogue allows the Bible to have ultimate authority and the missionary to engage life-on-life with the local disciples, and it teaches basic hermeneutical skills through the ongoing three-way conversation between two cultural representatives who are sitting under the Bible and allowing it to shape them as they discuss its meaning and implications together.

As the missionary goes out in obedience to the Great Commission, however, it is not only the method and tools, but also the understanding of the missionary’s role, that must align with the Great Commission.
Matt Bennett

Perhaps one helpful guiding question that a missionary might ask of his or her strategy is this: “Does this strategy allow me a role in which I can disciple local believers in a contextually appropriate and biblically faithful way so that they are developed, empowered, and released as disciple-maker makers?” It is imperative that the tools used in discipleship are neither so complex nor so simplistic that the new believers and newly forming churches cannot use them to develop as disciples on their own. Rote learning and training will not suffice. Disciples need to be equipped to study, understand, and broadly apply the Scriptures and the kingdom principles found therein to their lives, their churches, and their communities. This study will conclude by offering some initial questions with which to assess various missions methods and tools.

Minimally Trained or Sufficiently Equipped

One contemporary concern is the use of methodology that utilizes minimalistic content to achieve maximum spread. David Sills cautions against a strategy that prioritizes speed over total obedience: “When speed becomes the driving force and heartbeat of a strategy, and expediency rules decision making, nonessentials are jettisoned as impediments to progress.”72 Sills goes on to give an illustration whereby he compares strategies based on speed to jet-boats and Great Commission strategies as freighters. While a jet-boat can cover a lot of territory, it does so at the expense of an ability to carry needed freight.

As has been the burden of this essay, a primary question to ask of any potential methodology is this: “How faithful is this tool in helping me to obey the Great Commission and to disciple others to do likewise?” Several additional questions will offer more specific help in answering this larger question.

Does This Method Produce Churches of Disciple-Making Disciples?

This study has sought to show that Matthew 24:14 and the completion of world evangelization are not sufficient to exhaust the church’s mission. Strategies geared toward reaching the world’s last UPGs must result in making disciples among them, baptizing them into churches, and teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded. Failing to equip and empower new converts to deepen in discipleship raises the alarming question,

“What if we reach all the people groups that we consider to be un- reached and yet He [Jesus] delays His return for fifty years, or five hundred years, or five thousand years? What will happen to all of the people who have heard the gospel, raised their hand to pray a prayer, and then watched the dust of the missionary’s vehicle as he sped away to the next people group?”73

One must assess a potential strategy or tool by its capacity to generate healthy and holistic disciples that make disciples.

As these disciples grow in number, a Great Commission-based method will also form churches, baptizing new believers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a church of true disciples that will bring about well-rounded disciple-making communities who bring kingdom influence to bear on their society. Bill Hull and Renault van der Riet see the whole church as necessary in the process of discipleship, saying,

No individual can fully disciple another, because no one has the full arsenal of spiritual gifts and wisdom to adequately bring an- other to maturity in Christ. . . . Only the body of Christ can provide an environment that gives the full range of experiences and challenges I need.74

To this point, Great Commission-based church planting models should encourage a whole range of gift-development within the churches planted. This diverse, corporate development may not occur if the tools employed only equip the evangelists and those with apostolic tendencies.

Does This Method Teach and Equip for Total Obedience?

This Great Commission calls the church to teach obedience to everything Jesus commanded. This requires a minimum of two things: (1) he or she must teach an attitude of obedience to Jesus grounded in gratitude for grace; and (2) the methods he or she uses must equip local disciples with the necessary tools for engaging, understanding, and applying the Word of God so that they might have access to all that Jesus commanded.

Additionally, obedience to Christ involves participation in the kingdom of God. As Howard Snyder points out, “Jesus defines making disciples as ‘teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20). What Jesus taught, above all, was the kingdom of God.”75 To this point, some have adopted the language of “kingdom outposts” as a component of the very definition of church.76 While the church must never neglect its role as a worshipping community, it is also a social community tasked with bringing the kingdom to bear on the communities in which its people live. A missionary must consider whether or not a method contains encouragement to local churches to invest in kingdom projects and to apply the gospel within their communities.

Therefore, prior to employing a method, strategy, or tool, a missionary should ask, “Will this approach eventually result in disciples that can deepen in their understanding, teaching, and application of Scripture without my further input?” While this question deals with the end of one’s ministry, it should be asked from the beginning in order to ensure that the outcome of the missionary’s labor, as far as it depends on human effort and strategy, is disciples who are no longer dependent on the missionary for spiritual growth and ongoing disciple-making.

Finally, as with all theology, a particular method or tool for missions work must be assessed based on its ability to bring out the beauty of the gospel.77 The Great Commission involves bringing the greatest news to those who need it in order that they might become the disciples of Jesus the Savior. Dean Flemming, in his book Why Mission, explains the beauty of the Great Commission task saying,

“Mission leans into God’s future. Jesus’ charge to make disciples ‘until the end of the age’ (Matt 28:20) means that we, the church in mission, are drawn into Matthew’s story. We are the disciples who are sent, with the abiding presence of the authoritative Lord, to form communities of disciples who embody the life of Jesus, even as we await the day when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, on earth as it is in heaven!”78

Stated this way, the church is not left with a task that she can complete, but a story in which she might participate until Jesus’ return. Let it be that her missions methods might fully embody and display that story and, in so doing, invite others into complete participation therein.

Conclusion

Matthew 24:14 expectantly records the Lord Jesus’ promise that “the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” before the end will come. It is his sure word, and in it his people have confidence. However, as has been demonstrated in this paper, his people also have a commission that is grander than this promise. Matthew 24:14 will be fulfilled in the Lord’s timing as he uses his people to obey the command with which he has left them in Matt 28:18–20. Only upon Jesus’ return might it be said that the work of the Great Commission is finished.79 This will not be completed because of something the church has done to hurry him along, but because Christ has ceased to tarry. In the interim, as has been demonstrated, the church is called to make disciples, not to make Jesus come back.

Let it not be that, in right compassion for the lost and unreached among the nations, missiologists develop strategies and tools that fall short of full obedience to the command by which the Lord has commissioned his people to expand his kingdom. To that end, this essay humbly suggests that missionary tools, methods, and strategies be assessed not by their potential to “Finish the Great Commission,” but by their potential to “Obey the Great Commission.”


Editor’s Note: This article is part 4 of the Finishing the Task series.


67. Steve Smith and Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution (Monument, CO: WIGTake, 2011), 35–36. Smith and Kai advocate for changing the word “disciple” to the word “trainer” as it more accurately fits their understanding of what a disciple should do. Likewise, as noted above, McGavran had long ago bifurcated discipleship and what he called perfecting, allowing a much faster, though unfortunately shallower, understanding of discipleship to pervade his suggestions in The Bridges of God, 15.

68. Chan and Beuving, Multiply, 32.

69. Paul Borthwick, Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the North American Church? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 126. Borthwick highlights Western pragmatism saying, “Westerners are more likely to be eager to do things speedily. . . . I think we are too readily seduced by the worldly and in fact humanist assumption that we can fix everything through our own efforts.” Likewise, David Bosch maligns this kind of thinking pointing out that much of the contemporary evangelical missionary atmosphere is the result of the Enlightenment-born optimism which saw unreached peoples as “solvable” projects and problems (Transforming Mission, 343). See also Andy Johnson, “Pragmatism, Pragmatism Everywhere!,” 9Marks, http://9marks.org/article/pragmatism-pragmatism-everywhere/.

70. Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 97.

71. A. Scott Moreau, Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2012). For the missionary interested in a full treatment of this topic, Moreau’s book is to be commended.

72. Sills, Reaching and Teaching, 32.

73. Ibid., 19.

74. Bill Hull and Renaut van der Riet, The Disciple-Making Church: Leading a Body of Believers on the Journey of Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 35.

75. Howard Snyder, “A Renewal Response,” in Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views, ed. Elmer L. Towns and Gary McIntosh, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 63.

76. Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 8.

77. David Bently Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 21.

78. Dean E. Flemming, Why Mission? (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 22.

79. Hull and van der Riet, The Disciple-Making Church, 21.

About the Author

Matt Bennett is an Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. Previously, Matt served as a missionary in North Africa and the Middle East. Matt holds a Ph.D. in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow Matt on Twitter.

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