“We purpose to make disciples.” That’s the first clause in South Woods’ purpose statement and the consideration of this series of posts. Purpose has to do with our aim, our passion—so much more than simply our duty. There’s nothing inherently wrong with duty. We’re thankful for those who perform difficult duties such as those in the military. But when we look at disciple making as merely a duty it becomes routine rather than a driving passion of what we’re about as a congregation. As difficulty and opposition mounts, mere duty cannot sustain us in continuing the work of disciple making. Our purpose needs passion.
“Purpose” used as a noun expresses the reason for your existence. As a verb, “purpose” shows intentionality, focus, and perseverance. The Great Commission (Matt 28:19–20) defines our purpose as a noun: disciple making, baptizing, and teaching. But it also lays the tracks for our purpose as a verb: we purpose to do what Jesus said his church is to do, i.e. “Go and make disciples.”
The book of Acts chronicles how the church purposed to do what Christ commanded his church (Acts 1:8). Peter’s call for repentance when he preached at Pentecost demonstrated that he had no interest in merely getting some decisions from a big crowd. He preached the gospel and called his hearers to respond to the gospel with repentance and baptism, following after Jesus as Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36–42). The unnamed disciples who preached Christ in Antioch demonstrated that they took seriously Christ’s purpose for the church as this new community of disciples embraced their purpose (Acts 11:19–26), so evident in the emerging missionary movement (Acts 13:1–3). The new disciples became disciple makers.
Disciples or Decisions?
“Make disciples,” not decisions, not religious practitioners, not man-pleasers, not nice, respectable moral people—but disciples of Jesus Christ. The term “disciple” means learner or follower. Jesus and his followers did not originate the term but adopted it from the Jewish rabbinic and Greek philosophical world, while infusing it with fresh meaning. Ancient disciples sought out rabbis and philosophers as their masters from whom they would learn the repetitive teaching of their respective traditions. These disciples broke away from their worlds to follow after the teaching and life of wisdom found in their masters. By contrast, Jesus called disciples to himself (Matt 4:19), demanding the radical following after him in which all other relationships became secondary. He called for repentance and the complete reordering of their lives so that he became the center of their existence. The disciples received new life in union with Christ (John 10:7–10), began lifelong following after him (Mark 1:16–20), listened to and obeyed his teachings and adopted his ethics (Matt 5:1–2), and shared in his mission by going into the world to proclaim the gospel and make disciples (Luke 24:47; Matt 28:19–20). Contemporary disciple making is no different.
So the call to “make disciples” involves faithfulness to the life of a Christ-follower, mission to the unbelieving world with the gospel, clarity in the message of the good news of his kingdom, acceptance of all those following Christ regardless of previous prejudices, commitment to continue teaching, training, encouraging, admonishing, and living in community as fellow disciples.
When we express that our purpose is to make disciples then we enter into the centuries old fellowship of the New Testament church. Our interest must never be to get decisions so that we appear successful in the ecclesiastical world’s eyes. Such deceitfulness has controlled and manipulated the thinking and practice of many evangelicals—especially Baptists—for the past sixty years or more. We reject that practice as contrary to Christ’s intention in the gospel and purpose for his church.
A Turning Point
This issue viscerally struck me in the early months after planting our church in 1987. I attended a special service at a neighboring church where a noted megachurch pastor spoke. His sermon spent more time lauding his success than expounding the gospel. Afterward I introduced myself to him as a new church planter in the area. The first words out of his mouth stunned me! “How many baptisms have you had, brother?” I suddenly realized that the only worth that I had in front of this well traveled pastor centered on my ability to produce (shall I say, manipulate) “nickels and noses.” His church demonstrated its lack of seriousness about disciple making by its disparity in membership rolls to actual participants as disciples of Jesus. Baptismal bragging rights, not the serious call of making radical followers of Jesus through the power of the gospel controlled his thinking and that of many others in our denominational leadership.
But the pain came closer. I realized that I had adopted far too much of that live-or-die-by-baptismal-count way of thinking as well. My heart was broken over my own neglect in taking seriously the command of our Lord—“make disciples.” I recognized in a fresh way how plastic much of the evangelical life I had been part of had become. Cheap decisions by an anemic gospel run through baptismal waters would not a disciple make!
Something began to turn in my thinking and that of our congregation over the next few years. The purpose to make disciples demanded that we understand the nature of true conversion. It called for clarity in the gospel. It expected a course correction in our methodology in ministry. It meant, ultimately, that our purpose as a church was not about us but about the glory of the Lamb of God who died on the cross to secure, sanctify, and send forth his disciples into the world to make disciples.
This course correction affects everything that we are about as a church. It shapes the applications of our sermons, the content of our music, the focus with our students, the catechizing of our children, the impetus in our mission work, the dynamic in our relationships, the interaction in our small groups, the outreach into our community, and the personal disciplines in our Christian walks.
So when we dare to explain our raison d’être as “we purpose to make disciples,” we are abandoning the religious idolatry attached to so much of our past and gladly embracing Christ’s call to wrap the whole of our labors around making disciples to his glory.